07 Focusing on Sensations of Breath at the Nostrils

04 Aug 2015

A classic approach to mindfulness of breathing.

Alan expands on the frequency of breathing when the body settles into the second phase... Attending to the breath I breathe in and out short. He discusses the frequency of the cycles of breathing and the volume in this phase and the scientifically demonstrated benefits to health and longevity.

He also explains the visualisation for the devotional practice at the beginning.

The meditation practice is mindfulness of the sensation of the breath at the nostrils.

Meditation starts at 20:15

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Olaso. So this morning we move on in the practice of mindfulness of breathing to a very classic technique, the Theravada approach, just so really wonderfully subtle and effective and that of course is focusing on the sensations at the nostrils. So I’ll just give the guided meditation on that I think, you’re probably pretty familiar with it anyway, but just as a bit of review. But coming back just to these very short pithy instructions that the Buddha gives, these four phases of his teachings, quintessential teachings on mindfulness of breathing of the shamatha technique, 4 out of 16, the final 12 being mindfulness of breathing as a vipashyana method but the second one as you’ll recall is breathing in short one notes the breath is short, breathing out short one notes the breath is short. It’s very simple, I mean really kind of cryptic. But as I mentioned a number of times before as the whole body mind system settles down you need less air, the sensations of the breath become subtler and the breath becomes shorter.

And so a year ago when I was having really a very nice, just short but quite intensive retreat on the holy isle on the west coast of Scotland, something came up, it might just be, I don’t know, an idea, and that is in the kind of quite universally through the vajrayana, Vajrayana buddhism it’s said that we have 21,600 breaths in a 24 hour period. That sum keeps on coming up, 21,600. And so I did the arithmetic and said - so well what is that? And it turns out to be 15 cycles of breathing, in and out breathing, 15 per minute, which is rather short. It’s only then of course 4 seconds for inhalation exhalation, so it suggests a shallow breath, shallow breath. And I looked at that and I kind of just started putting little pieces together and I thought well I wonder if that’s, I wonder if that’s a really healthy breath? I wonder if that’s really a good kind of sustaining level? I wonder if that’s what the buddha’s referring to when he said “breathing in short, breathing out short” that you just get to a point where you plateau and that’s your amplitude, that’s your frequency, that’s your frequency, 15 cycles per minute? And then we know, it’s very very clear, some of you may have already discovered this, that as you establish this kind of steady frequency, it’s not getting shorter, not getting faster just 15 cycles per second you know give or take a little bit, that there’s, so there’s a frequency, the amplitude, the volume, this is clearly true, the volume of breath decreases so it’s a nice sign wave frequency but then it’s getting flatter and flatter and flatter, get all the way to the 4th jhana and it’s universal, agreement of this in all schools of buddhism, when you get to the fourth jhana, the actual one and not the false facsimiles that are very very commonly spoken of nowadays, but the actual one, then they actually go flatlined, which is quite remarkable. I’d just love to see this scientifically studied. That you infact just don’t breath at all, and you can remain in that state for days or weeks, in samadhi with no brain damage, that really shouldn’t be possible. But there it is, you know it’s common knowledge and the hindus know about this as well, this was old knowledge before the buddha came along. So but before, so letting that aside, you know that would be an interesting topic for somebody to study, somebody who’d achieved the 4th jhana and study - what on earth is happening to your brain when it’s not getting any oxygen? And why you’re not brain dead when you come out? You know, so there it is but we come back to our practice.

[3:38] So there it is, here’s a hypothesis and this is I think the really the proper spirit there’s not if you believe this what’s the point - if you don’t believe it what’s the point? But to put it to the test - maybe this is true, that the steady state frequency that you settled into is 15 cycles per second [should be said “minute”] and then the amplitude gradually decreases as you’re approaching shamatha and then beyond shamatha into the jhanas and so forth. Well I did a little bit of further kind of research and I was just kind of wondering. Here’s a couple of data points and that is Sara Lazar’s very well known paper, she’s a neuroscientist did research, published the data I think in Massachusetts General, she’s associated with Harvard as I recall. But it’s a very well known paper and it was studying people who meditated regularly for a number of years, almost certainly mindfulness of breathing, mindfulness meditation, mindfulness of breathing, and they found that as a result of meditating she found in those subjects there was clearly less cortical thinning, cortical thinning in the brain and cortical thinning is not good for you because that’s what leads to senile dementia and so forth, that’s deterioration of your cognitive functions. So meditate a lot and you’re less prone it would seem to having cognitive deterioration as you get older, that sounds good.

And then on top of that from the shamatha project there was a study done, by a woman just now, a Nobel Laureate, she was a crucial member of the team and the impact in the shamatha project, of people meditating for three months and they found it had a very clear impact on the telomerase, on the enzymes that have to do with the, how do you say, restoring chromosome, chromosome damage through age and so the implication and Cliff Saron is a very very careful, very very rigorous scientist, he said let’s not jump to conclusions here but I think I can say it is a suggestive that possibly sustained meditation may in fact be good for longevity and the aging process. And that’s a very cautious statement but the evidence is quite clear they published a paper in the scientific journal, peer reviewed journal. So those two points, they’re just overall, this may be very good for slowing aging, aging more gracefully and so forth and maintaining your cognitive abilities. Then it kind of came to a point that I’ve had in mind for a long time and that is that having done mindfulness of breathing for quite a few thousands of hours, finding that it’s just really good health wise, I mean let alone that it’s for shamatha that’s really, really good, but just mindfulness of breathing seems to be exceptionally good among the various shamatha methods for one’s physical health, you know I have found that to be the case that’s just one subject.

[6.11] And so, and finding also that you know, that when, I’m, just that it’s not the same as sleep but it has a very restorative quality to it. So I’ve often commented when giving the instructions on this practice - breath as effortlessly as if you were deep asleep, right. And so then I did a bit of very superficial research, you know just on the internet, so it is superficial but I was curious, that is when one is in deep sleep, in deep sleep, deep stage 3 stage 4 dreamless sleep, non rem sleep, I just did a bit of casual research on the internet to see what’s the breathing pattern, when you’re in that you know, what’s the breathing cycle, what’s the rhythm of breathing? And low and behold what I came up with was 14 to 16 cycles per second [should be said “minute”]. Shallow breathing, quite rapid. So hmm. Maybe this all ties in, maybe it’s all of a piece, and so what I will suggest you don’t do is then start to try to go into manual override on your breathing and push yourself into 14/15 cycles per second[minute], ‘cause that’s not what you do when you’re deep asleep. And so just have this in the background but you might check, you know. And people listening by podcast I invite you, you know you might check if and when you find that the whole system is really calming down and you kind of slip into a mode where the breathing is relatively shallow but again nothing frenetic, nothing uneasy or agitating about it, it’s just release smooth, shallow but rather, you know relatively rapid. One cycle for every four seconds is kind of fast. And just see if you’re curious, just check, if you slip into such a mode this might check the frequency, you know, how many cycles per minute, it might be interesting. There may be something to this. So there it is, short breath and then you know after that attending to the whole breath one breathes in attending to the whole breath one breathes out, you understand that one. So I think that’s it. We’ll begin with the devotions as usual, and then I will give you, then you can shift to a supine position if you wish, thereafter.

[8:30] The visualisation at the end of the practice that I taught yesterday with the four syllables, OM, AH, HUM and then HRI. This is a visualisation where it’s a self initiation, self initiation of the four modes, the four types of empowerments. So I don’t really anticipate giving empowerment during this retreat, I don’t think it’s really necessary but then every day you can give yourself self empowerment and this was encouraged by Padmasambhava and the teachings come from Padmasambhava’s “Earth Dharma” which I’ve translated under the title “Natural Liberation” which I have there and elsewhere I think it’s in the Vajra Essence you can check in Stilling The Mind, I think it’s there, but then Padmasambhava again says when you’re really ready to you know, to launch then go into solitude, engage in your devotional practices, do the guru yoga, give yourself, engage in self initiation and then go into the practice. So there’s some kind of stuff, some muscle behind this. Alrighty so let’s begin.

[9:50] [bell rings]


NAMO In the lama who is the embodiment of

the Sugatas, of the nature of the Three Jewels,

I, together with the beings of the six realms,

take refuge until our enlightenment. (Repeat three times)


For the sake of all beings, I generate the spirit of awakening and

Cultivate the realization of the lama as Buddha.

By means of enlightened activity I shall train each being according to their needs.

And I vow to liberate the world. (Repeat three times)


The Seven Line Prayer and Mantras

HUNG In the northwest frontier of Oddiyana,

In the heart of a lotus

Sits the one renowned as Padmasambhava,

Who achieved the wondrous supreme siddhi,

And is surrounded by a host of many dakinis.

Following in your footsteps, I devote myself to practice.

Please come forth and bestow your blessings.


[13:11] Guru Padma Siddhi Hung.

And as we recite the Guru Rinpoche Mantra again just a brief repetition just one more time.

Guru Rinpoche Mantra


Oṃ āḥ hūṃ Vajra Guru Padma Tötreng Tsäl vajra

SAmayajaḥ siddhi phala hūṃ

Visualise and attend to the actual Padmasambhava the living presence here and now by the way of the image you bring to mind, but attend to Guru Rinpoche not just the image, and imagine Guru Rinpoche gazing back upon you with immeasurable compassion. As if you’re his only child. And then call for his blessings, with radiant white light emanating from the OM at the crown of his head entering the crown of your head permeating your body and mind with purifying white light, purifying all negative karma and obscurations of the body and sowing the seeds for the realisation of the Nirmanakaya. Ruby red light emanates from the AH at the Guru’s throat flowing into your own throat chakra filling your body and mind with this radiant red light purifying all negative karma and obscurations of the speech and sowing the seeds for the realisation of the Sambhogakaya. Indigo blue light emanates from the HUM at the Gurus heart striking your own heart permeating your body and mind with indigo blue light purifying all negative karma and obscurations of the mind and sowing the seeds for the realisation of the Dharmakaya. Again red light emanates from the HRI at the navel chakra of the Guru, entering your own navel chakra, permeating your own body and mind purifying all negative karma and obscurations of body, speech and mind simultaneously. And sowing the seeds for the realisation of the Svabhavikakaya. The emptiness and the indivisibility of the Nirmanakaya, Sambhogakaya and Dharmakaya, in this way we see the four empowerments by way of self initiation.



Then invite Padmasambhava to the crown of your head, imagine him blissfully coming there and above your head diminishing in size, facing instantaneously in the same direction as yourself, blissfully dissolving into light, imagine this light coming down your central channel to your heart chakra and there upon the lotus, moon and sun disc, imagine Padmasambhava reforming and imagine the Gurus body, speech and mind being into this all from your own and rest in meditative equipoise in this awareness.

[19:26] If you’d like to shift to a more comfortable posture please do so now.

And now with just a short time remaining in this session, settle your body, speech and mind in the natural state.

[21:09] Let your awareness come to rest in its own place, in stillness, but now direct the light of your awareness and a type of narrow beam that’s focus of your mental awareness on the sensations of the passage of the breath at the apertures of the nostrils or just above the upper lip, whatever you most distinctly detect the sensations of the breath on your skin. It’s imperative now to keep your eyes soft and unfocused, relax, and all of the muscles around the eyes relaxed with a sense of spaciousness, openness between the eyebrows and the spaciousness of the forehead altogether, very important, you are not focusing visual awareness at all on this object of mindfulness but only mental awareness. Whether your eyes are open or closed, the eyes should be just gently cast downwards with no focus.

Now is the time for cultivating the third level of balance and that is accentuating the vividness or clarity of attention without sacrificing stability. In the spirit of enhancing clarity, see if you can detect the subtle flow of tactile sensations in the targeted area that is there even during intervals between breaths, in other words a constant flow of subtle sensation. Right in the focus area, rest your attention there and from that baseline then you’ll detect fluctuations in this field of tactile sensation, this very small field, as the breath flows in and flows out, but you’ll always have something to attend to. So in other words attend to the whole body of the breath, the whole course of inhalation, exhalation and even if there is a pause after the in or out breath you still have something to attend to, so maintain an ongoing to the best of your ability, unbroken flow of cognisance.

[25:33] Experiment with counting, you may experiment further with Vasubandhu’s method,1 through 10, no more no less, and keeping the mind as quiet as possible between counts.

[27:34] We have two tasks here, one is to maintain as continuously if possible the flow of mindfulness of the sensations of the breath at the aperture of the nostrils, and the other is to utilise and refine our faculty of introspection, monitoring the flow of attention, recognising as quickly as possible when excitation has set in, we wandered off or when laxity has set in, we’ve lost the clarity. As soon as you retrospectively note that your mind has wandered, relax, release and return. And when you see retrospectively that your mind has become vague, nebulous, spaced out, refresh your interest in the practice, restore your attention and retain the flow of mindfulness. And let’s continue practicing now in silence.

[33.50] Bell rings

[34:33] So just a quick note to the earlier and then we can break, and that is when I did my very and again - very superficial research on the internet about deep sleep, I read something that confirmed what I kind of thought was true and that is it is especially in deep sleep more so than dreaming, dreaming state, that this very deep restorative quality of sleep comes in. Apparently, I read it was a growth hormones are secreted during that time so kind of the damage we do to the body from all the wear and tear the stress the activity and so forth that happens during the daytime but also can also happen during dreams because of course dreams can be filled with anxiety, fear and so forth. The deep sleep time is a really a time to restore, to rejuvenate, to refresh, to revitalise as I think we all kind of intuitively know from our own experience. So the growth hormone, so I’ve been meditating, practicing mindfulness breathing among other practices for 45 years now and I can attest that even though I have not gotten any taller over those 45 years [laughter] I have put on 20 pounds.. [laughter] So I think for me I can bear witness, it’s definitely some real growth, here [maybe Alan is showing his belly]. I’m a more substantial person than I was before. Maybe done too I think of me a little bit, yeah, [inaudible] proof of the pudding. You know us old meditators, we have some gravitasi here. All good, so enjoy your day, see you later.

Transcribed by Sonja Webb

Revised by Rafael Carlos Giusti

Final edition by Cheri Langston


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