The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

Questions and Answers: Breath and Walking Meditations

by Ajahn Brahm
November 1, 2017
Wed, 11/01/2017 - 11:00 -- Ajahn Brahm

Beauty and the Breath

Q: Can you please explain how to make the breath beautiful, how to get to that sustained attention on the breath that is natural and imbued with peace?

A: To achieve a beautiful, sustained attention on the breath, try to incline toward the beautiful. When you go outside, look at the beautiful flowers, not at the spiders. Look at the beautiful sky, but don’t feel the cold. Whatever it is, just incline toward the beauty in life. There are problems and difficulties in life, but instead of looking at that, look at the opposite.

For instance, even if you’re sick with cancer, the cancer is only one part of the body; the rest is all right. Or you may have a motorcycle accident and lose a leg, but you’ve got another leg. That’s called a spare! Whatever happens in life, there are always good things to focus on. Beauty is always there if you look for it.

However, some people are so negative that they can find faults in anything. For them even a beautiful retreat center sucks. The afternoons are too hot; the cushions are too hard. If there’s no schedule, they want more structure. If there’s a schedule, oh, it’s too strict! Regardless of what happens, they can always find something to complain about. If you look at things that way, you’ll never get to the beautiful breath.

Instead, say you are in retreat: think how wonderful it is just to be there, to watch the breath and have nothing else to do in the whole world. If you’ve got nothing to do except be with this body and mind, isn’t that bliss? When you think like that, the perception of the beautiful arises naturally throughout the day, and then it’s easy to get to the beautiful breath.

Q: After a short time of meditation my breath became very quiet and effortless. It remained like this for two or three hours. Please enlighten me on this. 

A: Stay like that for another couple of hours, and you’ll enlighten yourself! Watching the breath effortlessly and peacefully for two to three hours is exactly what’s supposed to happen.

Q: How many things should we watch in an in-breath and out-breath? Should we watch the beginning, the middle, and the end of the breath—and the space in between the in-breath and the out-breath, as well as the space in between the out-breath and the in-breath?

A: The breath is continuous and so is watching it. You don’t just watch the beginning, the middle, and the end of the breath—that’s only three spots. There are probably thousands of spots to watch for each breath. Close your eyes and just watch one breath. See how many sensations you can notice. There are heaps of them! Little by little, you learn to see more and more of each breath. Eventually you see the whole lot without any interruption, right from the beginning all the way to the end. That’s what we’re supposed to watch.

All things follow from the stillness of the mind, and the way to keep the mind still is by observing the breath. Most of the time we think, because we’re not really happy. Thinking usually comes from discontent. If you’re really happy and at peace and everything is OK, you don’t want to be distracted by thinking. Why would you want to spoil your happiness by thinking? When you’re really happy, thinking just disappears. And that’s how the mind gets still.

Sound is the last thing to disappear as your meditation deepens, so don’t be discouraged if, say, you’re doing a group meditation and you hear coughs and sneezes even though you feel calm and your attention on your breath is beautiful. As your meditation progresses, you will experience the coughs and sneezes as being a long way away. You will hear the sounds but as if they’re a hundred miles away. Eventually they will disappear, and you don’t want to get out of that state.

Walk This Way

Q: If I am uncomfortable doing breath meditation, should I learn walking meditation? Can you explain how walking meditation is done?

A: Walking meditation can be an alternative to breath meditation. There are so many places where you can do walking meditation. At the retreat center we’ve got walking paths, or you can go out into the forest. Choose a path that is neither too long nor too short. Use a straight path, not a circular one.

Walk naturally. Start at the beginning of the path and put your gaze six feet in front of you (roughly—you don’t need to get a tape measure). In this way you can see what’s ahead of you and feel quite safe that you’re not going to walk over a cliff or tread on anything. Then you just walk.

As you’re walking, don’t think about the future or the past—stop all this thinking business. Don’t be concerned about the stock market or the football or about what’s happening at home. Instead, put your full awareness on the feelings in your feet and legs as they move. Know the left foot as it moves. Know the right foot.

First of all, get into the present moment. Secondly, be silent. Thirdly, put your attention on whichever foot is moving. Fourthly, bring full awareness to all of the walking, which means from the very beginning of the left foot moving to the very end of the left foot moving, and then from the very beginning of the right foot moving to the very end of the right foot moving.

What part of the foot leaves the ground first? What part leaves the ground last? Once the foot leaves the ground, does it go straight up? Does it go forward a bit? How does it move through the air? Feel all the sensations that tell you what your foot is doing. What part meets the ground first? What’s that sensation like? Feel it as fully as possible. What’s the last part of your foot that meets the ground? Then feel the weight of your body as it transfers onto that foot. Just walking, you experience all these wonderful sensations.

Don’t try to force your gait—just walk naturally. Be like a passenger observing all the amazing feelings in your legs as they carry you along. When you get to the end of the path, stop and feel all the sensations of turning around.

The benefit of focusing on the feelings in the body is that you can’t think too much about them. You can’t have much of a conversation about the feeling in the foot when it meets the ground. It keeps you in the present moment. After a while you get very still and peaceful because the feelings become delightful and absorb your attention.

Another advantage of walking meditation is that you don’t have to worry about an aching knee or back, which often happens while sitting. You’re moving, and it’s very comfortable for your body. Do it as long as you feel happy. Get as peaceful and go as deep as you possibly can. You can get very peaceful in walking meditation.

These are very simple instructions. Nothing in meditation is complicated.

Some people prefer walking to sitting meditation. That’s one reason we have three big walking meditation halls at the retreat center—to encourage it. So experiment with walking meditation. Sometimes when you get peaceful in walking meditation, it enhances your sitting meditation—it gets much deeper. So make use of it.

Q: When I reach the wall in my walking meditation, I feel disrupted and experience a break in the smooth walking. How can I overcome this? Surely I can’t walk through the wall yet!

A: How do you know you can’t walk through a wall? Don’t just follow beliefs—give it a try! If you really want to, you can walk a marathon’s distance. You don’t have to stop. That way you won’t be disturbed!

The reason it’s good to turn around in walking meditation is that sometimes you lose your mindfulness—you start to fantasize, to dream, to plan, or whatever. Walking on a short path makes you stop and turn around quite frequently, which brings you back to the present moment.

I also like the idea of turning around and coming back: You end up where you started, and that’s a good metaphor for life. We always think we’re getting somewhere. But where do we really get? Most of the time we just get back to where we started. How many times have you gone on retreat, said goodbye to your new friends, and then gone home? This is what happens. Things just go round and round in the circles of life.

You can also do walking meditation with a mantra. It’s fun and it can give you great insight. I learned this mantra in Thailand many years ago. When you’re walking on the path, as the left foot moves forward, you silently say, “I will die,” and as the other foot moves forward, “That’s for sure.” “I will die . . . that’s for sure.”

When people start that, they sometimes think it’s a joke. After a while, they realize it’s not a joke. This is one thing that is so true you can’t deny it. You may get frightened: “My God, it’s true!” Keep on walking, and keep on saying “I will die, that’s for sure.” Eventually you get through the fear, and because you know it’s true, all your attachments and all your worries—about emails, your business, your spouse, your kids, even your health—all of them just vanish.

Since it is true that “I will die, that’s for sure,” what am I worrying about all this other stuff for? You get really peaceful. And you get some very deep insights in how to be free. “I will die, that’s for sure.” What a relief! Walking meditation creates a deep sense of stillness, happiness, and insight.

When I was in Malaysia once, people were getting a bit bored with just sitting down and watching their breath or doing walking meditation. I said that in Buddhism we sometimes have to adapt to the country we’re in, and so I encouraged people to do the Australian walking meditation method, which is inspired by the kangaroos. I explained that you start at one end of the path, curl your hands like the paws of a kangaroo . . . and hop, which I also demonstrated, much to their amusement. When you get to the other end, you turn around and hop back. It’s Australian walking meditation! Try it. At the very least it will make anyone watching you burst out laughing, and it will make you happy too! That will make meditation less serious—we can have some fun.

This is an excerpt from Bear Awareness by Ajahn Brahm

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