There are many ways of using the breath.
The most traditional is also the most diﬃcult, but it is the most productive of calm. We simply notice the breath at the nostrils as it moves in and out. In our tradition we watch both in- and out-breaths; we do not wish to give the mind a chance to wander off into its usual discursiveness, but want it to stay with the breath at all times. The wind of the breath creates a sensation when it touches the nostrils, which helps one to focus at that point. This is the most “one-pointed” way of concentrating on the breath, and is particularly useful for experienced meditators. “One-pointed” means being in one spot only, which is a very important aspect of meditation. Because the attention is focused on one point only, it helps the mind to become sharp and unwavering.
We can use various support systems to help is remain mindful of the breath.
One of these is counting the breaths. We count “one” on the in-breath, “one” on the out-breath, “two” on the in-breath, “two” on the out-breath, all the way up to ten. Every time the mind wanders off we return to “one,” no matter whether we were at four, five, or eight. This is a good method for people who like numbers and who have orderly, organized minds.
Some people are not very fond of numbers, but prefer words. Try using the word “peace” on the in-breath, “peace” on the out-breath. Actually, any word will do. We could use “peace” on the in-breath and “love” on the outbreath, filling ourselves with peace and extending love outward. However, it is preferable to use just one word, because the more input there is into the mind, the less calm it becomes. It is sufficient to keep the attention focused on “peace” on the in-breath, filling ourselves with it, and “peace” on the out-breath, letting it flow outward. This is very useful to those to whom words are important.
If we don’t like either numbers or words, then we can use a picture—for example, we can experience the breath as if it were a cloud that fills us when we breathe in. The out-breath can be visualized as a cloud coming out to envelop us. Some people see the cloud as taking on different shapes: larger on the out-breath, and smaller when it is taken in through the nostrils. Any support for concentration is better than discursive thinking; using visualization is not as one-pointed as just watching the breath, but it’s much better than thinking about what happened last week, or what might happen next week.
There is another method that is helpful to those who are still new to meditation. We follow the in-breath into the body and notice it wherever it becomes apparent. It goes in through the nostrils and up the nose; we can feel it in the throat and in the lungs, as far down as the stomach; then we can follow it leaving the body again. We do not search for the sensations created by the breath, but put our attention on all the spots, where they become apparent to us, both when breathing in and when breathing out. This is a particularly useful method for meditators who are primarily concerned with feelings. The inner feelings connected with the inhaling and exhaling of the breath become apparent and can keep the mind attentive and centered on one’s inner being. This greatly helps to reduce the mind’s tendency to connect to outer happenings through thinking and reacting.
The last method of attending to sensations connected with the breath is to be aware of filling oneself with breath and emptying oneself out again. That, too, is useful as a means for concentration.
We have considered different methods of using in-breaths and out-breaths. Use only one method at a time. Pick the one that feels comfortable and use it during one meditation session. If it seems impossible to concentrate even slightly, try another method at the next meditation session. Do not change methods during one sitting.
If the mind wants to run off, it is useful to direct the attention toward the impermanence of the breath. The untrained mind always wants to think, but at least we can give it something useful to think about. It doesn’t have to be allowed to think about whatever it pleases, but rather how each in-breath finishes, then each out-breath likewise—constant change, on which our life depends. We could not stay alive without our breath coming and going all the time. If we were to keep the in-breath, we would be dead within a few minutes; the same would occur if we were to hang on to the out-breath. This is an important insight that can link the mind to the impermanent aspect of each person, particularly ourselves.
If the mind already has a certain ability to stay with the breath, let it remain there, but if there is a constant thought process, one thought after another, direct the mind toward impermanence. Attention to that aspect of the breath gives rise to a question: if life depends on such an in- and outflow, what can we find within us that doesn’t come and go? Then the mind may turn within and may be able to stay on the breath a little more easily.
-extracted from the works of Ayya Khema.