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Anāpānasati (Pali), meaning 'mindfulness of breathing' ("sati" means mindfulness; "ānāpāna" refers to inhalation and exhalation), is a basic form of meditation taught by the Buddha. According to this teaching as presented in the Anāpānasati Sutta, practicing this form of meditation as a part of the Noble Eightfold Path leads to the removal of all defilements (kilesa) and finally to the attainment of nibbāna (nirvana). The Buddha's teaching in this matter was based on his own experience in using anapanasati as part of his means of achieving his own enlightenment. Anapanasati is often practiced with mettā bhāvanā to prevent withdrawal from the world and loss of compassion (Kamalashila, 1996).
The Anāpānasati Sutta is specifically about mindfulness in relation to inhalation and exhalation. It recommends the practice of ānāpānasati meditation as a means of cultivating the seven factors of awakening: sati (mindfulness), dhamma vicaya (analysis), viriya (persistence), which leads to piti (rapture), then to passaddhi (serenity), which in turn leads to samadhi (concentration) and then to upekkhā (equanimity). Finally, the Buddha taught that, with these factors developed in this progression, the practice of ānāpānasati would lead to release (Pali: nibbāna; Sanskrit: nirvana).
Anāpānasati is normally practiced in conjunction with vipassanā, zazen, or shikantaza (Zen meditation in the Soto tradition). However, sufficient concentration, attained through apanasati, is a prerequisite to vipassana.
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The practice of anāpānasati varies. Typically, one begins by sitting in a comfortable position, with the back and neck straight, in a comfortable and peaceful environment.
The meditator should breathe naturally, without attempting to change the length or depth of the breath. If the breath is short, the meditator should simply observe that the breath is short. If the breath is long, the meditator should simply observe that the breath is long.
While inhaling and exhaling, the meditator practises:
- training the mind to be sensitive to one or more of: the entire body, rapture, pleasure, the mind itself, and mental processes
- training the mind to be focused on one or more of: inconstancy, dispassion, cessation, and relinquishment
- steadying, satisfying, or releasing the mind.
Tutors will explain that, in an untrained mind, thoughts constantly arise, disturbing the focus. They arise and fall away, like waves in an ocean. If one disregards them, they slowly wither and disappear. On the other hand, if one pays them attention, one is soon lost in a web of thoughts.
In this tradition there are two types of thoughts: thoughts from the past and thoughts about the future. These may bring happiness or sadness. It is said that, when left unattended, the mind will flit from one thought to another, wandering aimlessly.
Practitioners are tutored to avoid their practice being disrupted by passing thoughts and to nudge themselves into concentrating on their breathing once again.
Practitioners may follow four stages:
- counting each breath at the end of exhalation
- counting each breath at the beginning of inhalation
- focussing on the breath without counting
- focussing only on the spot where the breath enters and leaves the nostrils (i.e., the nostril and upper lip area).
Stages of Anāpānasati
Formally, there are sixteen stages — or lessons — of ānāpānasati. These are divided into four tetrads (i.e., sets or groups of four). The first four steps involve focusing the mind on breathing, which is the 'body-conditioner' (Pali: kāya-sankhāra). The second tetrad involves focusing on the feelings (vedanā), which are the 'mind-conditioner' (Pali: citta-sankhāra). The third tetrad involves focusing on the mind itself (Pali: citta), and the fourth on 'the truth' (Pali: dhamma). (Compare right mindfulness.)
Any anāpānasati meditation session should progress through the stages in order, beginning at the first, whether the practitioner has performed all stages in a previous session or not.
- Kamalashila (2004). Meditation: The Buddhist Way of Tranquillity and Insight, Birmingham: Windhorse Publications; 2r.e. edition. ISBN 1-899579-05-2.
- Mindfulness with Breathing by Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu. Wisdom Publications, Boston, 1996. ISBN 0-86171-111-4.
- Breath by Breath by Larry Rosenberg. Shambhala Classics, Boston, 1998. ISBN 1-59030-136-6.
- Tranquility and Insight by Amadeo Sole-Leris. Shambhala, 1986. ISBN 0-87773-385-6.
- Anapanasati Sutta
- Analysis of the Anapanasati Sutta
- A free e-book by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu on Anapanasati
- Anāpānasati instructions from Ajahn Pasanno of Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery
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