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Mindfulness of Breathing,

the Meditation Absorptions (Jhanas)

and Liberation

The Buddha’s Discourse and the Practice

Part One 



The Buddha’s discourse on Mindfulness of Breathing reveals the excellence of his approach to meditation. His discourses divide into four tetrads. The four stages in each tetrad indicate inner development within the process of meditation. The 16 stages begin with mindfulness of breathing and conclude with an enlightened way of being.

Sixteen Stages


Speaking in Savatthi, north India, to noble ones, senior figures in the Dharma and new practitioners, the Buddha said that “mindfulness of breathing developed and cultivated is of great fruit and great benefit.”


He added that this discourse fulfils the Four Applications of Mindfulness, namely application of mindfulness to body, feelings, the mind and the Dharma.


The explorations of such mindfulness fulfils the Seven Limbs of Awakening, namely mindfulness, inquiry, energy, happiness, calmness, concentration and equanimity


Each tetrad corresponds to each of the four applications of mindfulness.



S/he trains:

Breathing in long he knows ‘I am breathing in long‘.

Breathing in short he knows ‘I am breathing in short‘.

Breathing out long he knows ‘I am breathing out long.

Breathing out short he knows ‘I am breathing out  short’. .

Breathing in, 'I experience the whole body‘.

Breathing out, ‘I experience the whole body‘.

Breathing in, ‘I calm the bodily formation.’

Breathing out, ‘I calm the bodily formation.’



S/he trains:

I breathe in experiencing happiness.

I breathe out experiencing happiness.

I breathe in experiencing joy.

 I breathe out experiencing joy.

I breathe in experiencing mental formation.

I breathe out experiencing mental formation.

I breathe in calming the mental formation.



S/he trains:

 I breathe in experiencing the mind.

I breathe out experiencing the mind.

I will breathe in gladdening the mind.

I breathe out gladdening the mind.

I breathe in concentrating the mind.

I breathe out concentrating the mind.

I breathe in freeing the mind.

 I breathe out freeing the mind.



S/he trains:

I breathe in seeing impermanence.

 I breathe out seeing impermanence.

I breathe in seeing fading away.

I breathe out seeing fading away.

 I breathe in seeing cessation.

I breathe out seeing cessation.

I breathe in seeing letting go.

I breathe out seeing letting go.


This essay provides a commentary on all four tetrads to support the practice of calm and insight (samatha and vipassana meditation). The text here gives support to beginners to meditation as well as those with years of experience, especially in the Buddhist tradition of meditation.


It is important to remember the value of connection with a meditation teacher with years of training in calm and insight meditation, as well as the eightfold path and contact with liberating realisations.

The practitioner takes notice of the preliminary requisites that give significant support to the process of meditation before sitting on the meditation cushion.


As a preliminary practice, the practitioner upholds and develops four areas:


  • An undertaking to not engage nor give support to killing, taking what is not given, sexual abuse, lying and abuse of alcohol and drugs.

  • An application of a sensitive discipline with regard to restraint towards what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch and think about.

  • A healthy livelihood or field of study, free from causing harm to oneself or others.

  • A commitment to moderation with regard to the four essential requisites for daily life, namely clothing, food, dwelling and medicine.


With wise discernment, mindfulness and clear comprehension, the practitioner has the foundation for a meditation practice supported with a clear, ethical way of being. The application of the preliminary requisites expresses itself as a shift in priority towards a noble way of being.


The purposeful inclusion of these four areas contribute significantly to a mind at peace with itself, free from guilt, not troubled with unhealthy desires, nor dwelling in an array of likes and dislikes towards sense objects or what one remembers or plans.


This preparation contributes to a depth of meditation through a preliminary sense of satisfaction and peace with the material world, along with a certain freedom of not making demands on others or oneself. Well-established in such an attitude and outlook, the meditator finds himself or herself well prepared for the exploration of meditation on a sustained basis throughout the totality of the day and from one day to the next.


If there is something troubling the mind, prior to the meditation, it is worthwhile to share the matter with a Dharma teacher, a mentor, a skilful friend or anyone who can offer wise counsel. Otherwise there is the potential for the troubled mind to find itself stressed during the course of the meditation. Buddhist monks have traditionally engaged in a short confessional process as a way to relieve the mind of any tensions that get in the way of meditation.


To develop the depth of meditation in a suitable environment, it is helpful to avoid the impediments, such as a noisy and polluted place, various distractions and an excess of tasks. Impediments can also include social commitments, family responsibilities, travel, sickness and studies.


There is a value to start a long term retreat in a new place, rather isolated, a hut or small room. The meditator is away from family and worldly distractions with access to a meditation teacher. It is also beneficial to be mindful of the kind of character or personality that we bring to the meditation.


Different Types of Challenging Character


  • dreamy character

  • dull character

  • emotional character

  • fearful character

  • negative character

  • thinking character

  • wanting character


Suitable Environment for Meditation


  • suitable climate

  • suitable food

  • suitable location

  • suitable people

  • suitable posture

  • suitable speech

  • suitable teacher


It is wise to consider the seven suitable points listed above without getting caught up in the desire for perfectionism in these areas.  New and experienced meditators find it much easier to develop depth of meditation when they experience a general sense of contentment with a suitable environment.

Two kids of meditation


The first kind of meditation is ongoing. The second kind of meditation is specific for particular characters or conditioning of the mind.


  1. The meditation is single and focused with the meditator remaining steadfast on a particular object such as mindfulness of breathing.

  2. The meditator applies according to the temperament of the meditator. For example, redundant with the next paragraph a greedy temperament may require meditating on the unsatisfactory nests of desirable objects


For example:


  • The desire filled temperament meditates on the unsatisfactoriness of the desire (s)

  • The dreamy temperament meditates on urgency, the shortness of life and the precious opportunity to meditate

  • The dull character meditates on light, colour, beauty and cultivates vitality and energy

  • The emotional character meditates on the benefits of calm feelings, clear moments and addresses any identification with stories and inflation of situations, pleasurable or painful.

  • The negative temperament meditates on friendship and loving kindness

  • The thinking character meditates on the space between thoughts, employment of the bare senses


The Meditation Practice


Samadhi is the Pali word for meditative concentration. The texts of the Buddha define samadhi as the wholesome mind steadily fixed on an object and as the unification of the mind.


To be firmly fixed on a single object means that the mind is not disturbed by mental hindrances, stress or excessive thought. Samadhi offers the experience of non-distraction and thus contributes to the attainment of calm.


Happiness functions as an approximate condition for samadhi and happiness emerges as an outcome of samadhi. Samadhi develops through the application of:


  • interest from wake up to sleep

  • patience with the process

  • dissolving of stress in mind and body

  • the motivation to develop samadhi,

  • wise instructions of the meditation teacher


Twelve Significant Benefits to Samadhi 


These include:


  • A capacity to act decisively

  • A capacity to experience altered states of consciousness

  • A contribution towards a higher knowledge and understanding about the way things unfold

  • A contribution towards a wholesome power of mind

  • A step towards liberation

  • An ability to stay steady in challenging situations

  • An authentic sense of well-being

  • An experience of the absence of the hindrances

  • Happiness in the experience of samadhi

  • Realization of samadhi to know formless realms

  • Serves as a basis for insight and liberating realisations

  • To experience inner absorption for  deep, inner peace


Mindfulness of Breathing as a Fourfold Training


Here is another way of look at the benefits of the practice.


  1. The practice of samadhi leads to happiness, calmness and skilful reflection.

  2. The practice leads to seeing clearly from moment to moment

  3. The practice leads to a greater awareness and clear comprehension of the process of the inner life.

  4. The practice leads to the extinction of the inflows and the outflows that are unhealthy.


Mindfulness of breathing takes one to calm and subtle levels with regard to the quality of attention and the quality of the experience of contact with the object, namely the breathing process. It is important that the meditator gets to know thoroughly each stage before moving onto the next stage. The meditator may feel aspects of a later stage in the first stage. It is still necessary to keep to the first tetrad for the development of depth on, and so on from one stage to the next. 


The Buddha spoke highly of the immense benefits of mindfulness of breathing for himself, the ones with deep realization and dedicated practitioners. The practice can be employed throughout the entire course of training. It is regarded as the single meditation practice that is often suitable for every temperament and every situation. The application of mindfulness of breathing can apply to the very last out-breath of our existence.


The discourse on Mindfulness of Breathing (Middle Length Discourses 118) details the practice. Regular references to mindfulness of breathing appear elsewhere in the discourses of the Buddha.


The Buddha explained that mindfulness of breathing gives support to insight into the body feelings, states of mind and the Dharma, gives direct experience to each of the factors of awakening, collectively and individually, and to direct knowledge of liberation, namely the cessation of suffering.




  1. Breathing in long he knows ‘I am breathing in long‘.

Breathing in short he knows ‘I am breathing in short‘.

  1. Breathing out long he knows ‘I am breathing out long‘.

Breathing out short he knows ‘I am breathing out short‘.

  1. Breathing in, ‘I experience the whole body‘.

Breathing out, ‘I experience the whole body‘.

  1. Breathing in, ‘I calm the bodily formation.’

Breathing out, ‘I calm the bodily formation.’


The Buddha made reference to sitting in the cross-legged posture with body erect. A person may use the kneeling posture or the chair, if necessary. The meditator needs to remember that the spine is kept as straight as possible, as if it were a straight iron rod, to use the words of Ajahn Buddhadasa, a Thai teacher on mindfulness of breathing.


This tetrad gives priority to the breath and body as in the first section of the Four Applications of Mindfulness discourse. (See full summary of Mindfulness of Breathing discourse and Four Applications of Mindfulness at end of this essay).


The Buddha then said to establish mindfulness in front of him or her. The meditator directs his or her whole attention towards the breathing process. The eyes can be closed if there is energy or half open or fully open if there is less energy.


Stage 1 and 2


The meditator observes the long in breath and long out breath and the short in breath and short out breath in order to notice the impact on the physical cells of the body.


The meditator might intentionally make the breath as long and deep as possible through a slow long in and out breath – lasting perhaps 20 or 30 seconds or more. The meditator notices the expansion of the chest.  He or she also becomes mindful of the slow, subsiding of the body on the outgoing breath.


Similarly, the meditator notices the short in breath which has little impact upon the nostrils with the faint release of a small amount of air out or any subtle expansion/contraction of the chest. The meditator remains mindful between the end of the outbreath and the start of the next in breath. It is easy for the mind to wander in this period.


One is mindful of the breath whether it feels heavy or light, gross or subtle, course or fine. The application of mindfulness, interest and intention towards the breathing process influences the breath. This shows the inter-dependency between mind and the elements. The meditator does not have to perceive this as a problem.


Samadhi develops through sustaining the moment to moment attention to the in-breath and out-breath. It is important to notice whether the breath is long, short or between the two with every mindful breath.

The breath makes contact with the surface of the skin, such as inside the nostrils or lungs. With the practice, the meditator experiences a reduction of the mind wandering onto personal issues, tiredness, agitation and conceptual distractions. The primary interests remains on a clear comprehension of the current condition of the breathing.


The state of mind affects the breath. For example, fear can contract the breath or restrict the natural flow of the breath. Tiredness, pain, a memory of confusion, imagination or a story can also affect the breathing. Peace of mind, empathy and happiness also influence the breathing process.

It might be useful to acknowledge the analogy of the swinging cradle. The mother pushes the cradle with the baby inside the cradle while following the movement of the cradle, whether it is long or short, fast or slow. Through stillness of the body and presence of mind, the breath settles into a quiet, steady rhythm.


Stage III of the First Tetrad


With clear comprehension, the meditator develops the ability to experience the whole body of the breath throughout his or her being. It might be useful initially to breathe slowly in and out, long and deep, with the intention of experiencing the impact of the breath from head to toes.


The experience of the whole body refers to a clear comprehension of the way the breath impacts on cellular life throughout the body. There is a direct knowing of the body as elements, as changing sensations, and witnessing any changes from the comfortable to the uncomfortable and from the uncomfortable to the comfortable. The practice may include breathing in and out through painful bodily sensations. The meditator mindfully changes their posture if it feels like a struggle or a battle to stay still and then returns to the original posture.


The respiration has a direct connection with the functions of the body and the kind of sensations that the meditator experiences. Mindfulness of breathing experience in the whole body confirms the body as the earth, air, fire and water elements. The sense of the whole mind-body as a unity becomes clear. The meditator experiences the four elements as firmness/hardness (earth), expansion and contraction (air), hot or cold of the body (fire) and fluidity (blood, sweat). The breath serves as a bridge between body and mind.


Stage IV of the First Tetrad


The meditator calms the whole bodily formation. The meditator connects their attention to the beginning, middle and end of each inhalation, in and out, to experience an authentic sense of the whole body calming through natural breathing, both subtle and deep.


In the calming of the bodily formations, via mindfulness of breathing, there is a corresponding harmony of mindfulness, samadhi and a deepening sense of inner peace. The calming of the body occurs through a relaxed and upright sense of presence. Calmness of the body also arises through moments of clarity. Insights also dissolve stress, tensions and agitation in body and mind or through pressure impacting the mindfulness.


In Pali, samatha (calmness, serenity) refers to inner development through the application of calmness to the whole being as an ongoing practice. Samatha develops through letting go of clinging, insight into conditions and seeing things clearly as they unfold.


The calming of the bodily formations happens naturally through the reduction or dissolution of the ego, of the problematic ‘I,’ ‘me’ and ‘mine.’ This includes attachment to the body and its appearance. The meditator sees the body as elements, while mindfully breathing in and out. S/he knows mindfulness of the elements just as elements: this approach contributes to calming the bodily formations. Outside of hereditary and genetic factors, the biggest disturbance to calmness of body arises through the influences of 'I, 'me' and 'mine' upon the body.


Expectations, distractions, forgetfulness and excessive thinking, such as “Am I doing it right or wrong?’ obscure the simple practice of mindfulness of breathing, while experiencing the whole body and allowing the whole body to relax while remaining in an upright posture.


Definitive interruptions impact on the meditator, such as a problematic state of mind, a compelling story in the mind, a gripping memory or a spasm of judgemental views and opinions. The problematic state of mind may require some insight and understanding of the emergence of that mind state before returning back to mindfulness of breathing and the calming of bodily formations.




S/he trains:

‘I breathe in experiencing happiness.'

‘I breathe out experiencing happiness.’

‘I breathe in experiencing joy.'

‘I breathe out experiencing joy.'

‘I breathe in experiencing mental formation.'

 ‘I breathe out experiencing mental formation.'

‘I breathe in calming the mental formation.’

‘I breathe out calming the mental formation.’


This tetrad includes feelings as in the second section of the Four Applications of Mindfulness discourse.


The first four stages in the tetrad can also contribute to the initial preparation for deep meditative absorptions (Jhanas). The second tetrad takes the meditator to deeper levels of samadhi with close connection to feelings. This depth may lead to the four absorptions that the Buddha regarded as of great benefit to the meditator. Not all meditators have access to the jhanas. Environmental, hereditary factors and unresolved inner issues can prevent access to the jhanas. The jhanas are not a prerequisite to liberation and an enlightened way of life.


There are eight useful pointers towards the development of a jhana. These include:


  1. To count each in and out breath to develop initially the power of concentration.

  2. To develop a connection of mindfulness with each breath

  3. To make moment to moment contact with the impact of the breath on the skin

  4. To fix the mindfulness on the breath

  5. To observe the ongoing connection between mind and matter

  6. To turn away from everything else that serves to distract from the application of these pointers

  7. To recognise the relationship of calm and clarity to mindfulness of breathing when fully connected with the breath

  8. To reflect on the process leading towards being established in a jhana.


With the counting method, it might be useful to count up to 10 and then return to number 1.  The meditator says the number inwardly at the moment of the end of the breath. It is often happens that at the end of the out breath the mind loses its contact with the object, primarily the breath.


Mindfulness acts like the gatekeeper. The gatekeeper remains at the gate watching the gate open as a person passes one way and then watches the person coming back and passing through the gate again.


The gatekeeper remains clear, steady and focused. In this analogy, mindfulness is the gatekeeper, the breath is the person and the gate is the body.


There is the analogy of the carpenter. The carpenter is mindful of sawing but does not have to pay particular attention to the rule location where the saw touches the word. The teeth of the saw move slowly and smoothly backwards and forwards. Unity shows through the action of the sawing. The carpenter sees the one-pointed flow even though he or she does not focus on the point of actual contact of the saw with the wood.


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