(First part of "Introduction to Buddhist Meditation"1995)

By Ajahn Brahmavamso


The meditation that is taught here is a very old form of meditation, it was used by the Buddha himself – the meditation on the breath. The meditation on the breath is aimed, first of all, at calming down the mind and carrying one into very relaxed peaceful and clear states of mind.

When I am talking about the mind I mean that inner world of yours. Part of the meditation will be done with the eyes closed. When you close your eyes what are you aware of, what are you conscious of? You are conscious of thoughts and emotions and this is that part of the mind we are trying to calm and make still. The reason for this is that the mind is usually out of control. Thoughts and emotion come up which we do not wish to be there. Sometimes we are trying to concentrate on something or try to think about a particular aspect and we cannot maintain our awareness on that train of thought. Other times there are thoughts that we do not wish to be there in the first place. This should give us the indication that that which we call our mind is out of control.

The mind is the source and generation of our activities of body and speech. All the physical actions we do and all the words we say we first think about even though it may only be for a few moments. Those actions and words are generated from the mind and if the mind is out of control we find that those actions and words are out of control as well. So it is important for us to know this mind and to stop it from being out of control.

One of the reasons why so many people are interested in meditation is to relieve physical and mental stress and to get relaxation of body and peace of mind. That stress is caused by this thinking and working mind which is overactive. The job of meditation is to calm down this overactive mind and gain a state of peacefulness.

In order to illustrate what I mean by a state of peacefulness, I shall give you a simile that I expect will be from your own experience. If you have ever been down by the ocean watching the sun go down you may have gone there with many problems and worries, with many things to think about but you sat down there watching the sun go down over the ocean and because of the beauty of that experience with the colours of the sun streaking across the ocean, you somehow forgot all the problems of your life. It is as if the beauty of the sunset was so strong that it overwhelmed all the problems which you carried there. As one watches the sun going down many minutes might pass and at the end of that sunset one leaves the beach feeling the one has left a burden behind on that beach; one is feeling more relaxed and at peace. The reason for this is that, instead of giving constant attention to worries and troubles you have let go of that burden and ones’ mind feels at peace. The simile of absorbing into a beautiful aspect of nature such as a sunset is similar to this process of mediation. Instead of going to a beach and watching a sunset one looks inside of oneself onto the breath going in and out. One absorbs ones’ attention completely into that experience of breathing and by letting go of everything else and one forgets all of ones’ problems.

Another simile which might give you an indication what this mediation is about is the simile of the traveller carrying two suitcases. In life you may have seen tourists, including yourself, carrying two heavy suitcases through the corridors of airports or through the streets of town. A person who carried two heavy suitcases soon gets tired. The suitcase in the left hand you can imagine to be crammed, packed tight with all of your past, all of the things you have done, which you are still considering, which you may feel guilty about. One packs all of this unfinished business into a suitcase that one carries in the left hand. In the right hand is the heavy suitcase crammed with all the expectations and anticipations about the future, [in these 2 suitcases are] our worries and business, one we call the past, the other we call the future.

To be a responsible person we have to carry those suitcases now and again, but not all the time. If we wish to get some relief of the burdens we carry in life we let them go; we put them down by our sides and we rest our arms. We only have to put down those suitcases for 10-15 minutes for the pain in the arms to disappear. One feels at ease again and when one picks up those suitcases once more to carry them through the day they feel lighter, easier to carry. It is not that there are fewer things in them but because one has rested the arms that carried them and they feel much light. In this simile the arms are like your mind. I have already mentioned that the contents of the suitcases are the past and future. We keep carrying those suitcases around day after day, hour after hour. We even carry them into our bed when we go to rest at night. It means that our minds gets tired and this is the cause for stress. All we need to do is to let those things go and put them down. The way of meditation is learning how to put things down. If one puts those things down, those concerns about the past and future, then one finds that the mind rests; it gains peace of mind. After meditation one picks up those suitcases again and life feels much lighter.

Remember this simile of the 2 heavy suitcases because it gives an important indication where this meditation is focussed. It is focussed on the present moment – just now. The way of mediation is the way of focussing the attention in the present moment. Keeping the awareness here and now.

It may seem an easy thing for you to do – just to keep the awareness in one place but you will find that when you start to attempt meditation, because the mind is out of control, you will not be able to keep the awareness centred in the present moment for very long at all. When you try to bring the attention just to the here and now you will find that after a few moments it will wander a long way away. When you close your eyes you may try to bring the attention in the present moment and you start thinking about the persons sitting next to you. "I wonder how they are getting on"? You start thinking about how many minutes have gone; you start thinking about the dinner this evening and where you are going tonight; you start thinking about the holiday overseas you are going on soon; and before you know you are thousands of miles away from here, many months from this present moment. The mind likes to wonder off and this wandering mind is the problem that stops us from succeeding in this meditation; [it] is our enemy.

So we have to notice what our enemy is, what stops us from being peaceful and we have to find a way to overcome it so that the natural peace of the mind is there for our taking. The way to overcome this wandering mind is first of all to know that the mind is wandering. Very often we do not realise just how far this mind travels because we have got no anchor, no reference point for our mind. That is why in the meditation that I teach we use the breath as an anchor. It is like a ship in the ocean, if you have no anchor, no buoy to tie or to moor the ship to, the ship could be drifting in the currents and you do not realise that it is moving. It has no reference point, no marker to recognise this moving away. This breath of ours is what we use as a marker so that if the mind moves away and goes wandering off we know that it is not staying in the present moment, but that it has wandered far away.

Now I am going to give you the first instruction in meditation. Please breath in one and out once with full knowledge and mindfulness. Can you do that? In meditation all you need to do is to do is exactly that for 20 to 30 minutes, without missing one breath. Why is it that you can do it for one breath but not for two, three or four? Why can you not do it for one hundred breaths one after another? It is easy to do it once isn’t it? The reason is that after a while the mind loses interest in what it is doing and also it forgets what it is supposed to be doing. This is why that in this meditation there are a couple of words that are very important.

The first of these important words is mindfulness. Mindfulness is being fully aware of what is going on, are you fully aware of what is going on now? What is the feeling in your bottom against the cushion or chair? Be aware of that for a few moments. Can you feel it? See how long you can be aware of that feeling. Soon the thought may come up "What am I doing this for?" "This is not meditation!" That thought which is coming up is what we call the wandering mind. What mindfulness does is to remember; it reminds you what you are supposed to be doing: "Stop all this thinking; I am supposed to be watching the feeling in my bottom". The mindfulness is this little sign we keep in our mind which tells us what our task is supposed to be. Mindfulness remembers what we are supposed to be doing and it also makes clear whether we are doing that task or not.

So in meditation we try first of all to establish mindfulness, this clear awareness of what is going on. The clear awareness of what is going on is really just another way of saying: "Let’s keep the attention in the present moment, here and now", because what is going on is what is here and now". Even the thoughts about what is going on here and now are just a description that happens a split second later. The thoughts describe what has just happened. To illustrate this I shall give a simile.

Have you ever seen a tennis match on television? If you watch a tennis match on television have you ever noticed that there are two matches going on. There is a match that you are seeing on the screen and a match that you are hearing through the loudspeaker and they are not the same match. The match which you are seeing on the screen is what is actually happening; you are seeing it for yourself. That which you are hearing through the loudspeaker is filtered through a commentator. Now if there is an Australian playing in one of those tennis matches and there is an Australian commentator commentating then you will see that all of the Australians’ shots are so wonderful and our positions are lucky. This is because the commentator will always have some bias. The commentators’ biased comments are different then from what you see on the screen. In the same way the commentary which you listen to in your mind is different than the experience.

What are you commenting upon now? Can you hear the commentary or are you aware of the experience? This is an important aspect of meditation because if you do not know the difference between the commentary – that which describes, that which is always giving orders, that which we call thought and judgement inside of our mind [if you do not know the difference between the commentary] and the experience you will have no success in this meditation.

For this meditation we have to put our attention on experience, not on this commentary, this commentary is not truthful, it is biased and also it is thought which will take us on to many, many different things. Instead of listening to the commentary come back to experience by going to that feeling of your bottom on the cushion or the chair. It is hard to have commentary on that because it is a natural feeling which you cannot say very much about. This is why I mention this feeling because you will know it as an experience. The commentary will like to come in and say about the feeling "This is painful"; "This is unpleasant"; "This is like this" etc…. It is a commentary that stops you from being at peace, which makes you move, which takes you away from peace and relaxation.

So in this meditation know the difference between the reality of the experience and the unrealistic commentary. When we watch the breath we watch it as an experience just as you did a short while ago – just breathing in once, breathing out once – because it was so new you did not have much time to say anything about it, you watched it as it truly existed, as an experience pure and simple.

During the meditation the mindfulness, the awareness of what is going on, has always to be very careful to be wary of the commentary. Never give the commentary too much interest and put more and more attention on the bare experience: what is actually happening; how you feel; what you are experiencing from moment to moment, and put little or no interest into the commentary which comes alongside. What you put interest in eventually grows. If you put interest in the commentary it will grow louder and louder. If you put interest in the experience it opens up and you become more experiential person who is feeling the world rather than thinking about it.

Have you ever noticed we only think about things? Thinking about things is like a satellite revolving around the planet, never landing, never going to the centre. Thinking goes around things it never penetrates to their core. Only experience penetrates to the core of things.

So experience is a very important thing we learn about in this meditation when we are just experiencing without commentary and making this thinking mind silent. As we do this and put a lot of attention on the experiencing mind, the meditation becomes quite easy because all we need to do is just to know, just to experience the feeling of the breath. When I say the feeling of the breath it is just what you notice when you breath in once and breath out once. The breath is a feeling, an experience.

Another important word in this meditation is ‘letting be’. ‘Letting be’ means doing no work. ‘Letting be’ means not forcing, controlling and giving all these orders. In normal life we give orders and try to control but here in this meditation we let things alone, we let things be; in particular you let the breath be just as it is, you do no try to control it and make it anything different than it is. Unfortunately the nature of human beings is that whatever they are looking at they want to get involved in. You go to somebody’s house and redesign it for them; you go to someone’s work and [you] say: "That is not the way to do it; this is the way to do it!" We always like to get involve in some else’s business.

The business of breathing is the business of your body, it breathes very well without your attention and has been doing this for so many years without your thinking about it. You survived so far so your body must know something. In this meditation let the body do the breathing all you need to do is just to watch, to be what we call the silent observer, someone who can just sit and watch the breath come in and go out.

It is just like sitting at the edge of the ocean, the waves come in and then go away again. The ebb and flow of the ocean we call the waves. When you are sitting by the ocean you know that you cannot control those waves. You cannot make them come in faster or make them bigger or make them go away at great speed; they come and go according to their own nature, not according to your will. In the same way look upon the breath as the waves on the ocean which come and go according to their own nature, your job is just to observe without getting involved.

If you get involved with the breath then you are like a person sitting by a lake whose job it is to try to calm down the waves on the lake. The way a person calms down the waves on the lake is to put his hands in and try to smooth them all away but their putting down only creates more waves and is not the way to calm down the waves on the lake. The way to calm down the waves is just to stand back and to wait, to create no wind, no disturbance and the waves calm down by themselves. This is the way of your mind, the difficulties, problems movements, thoughts, and even the breath itself, calm down by their own nature. So we do not try to control the breath in this meditation we just sit back, let it be and watch very patiently until the breath settles down.

The last simile I give comes in an ancient Indian story which describes meditation very well. It is the story of the teacher who is teaching his students meditation through the practice of archery. He had three students who he thought had practiced meditation long enough and he wished to test them out to see how concentrated, stable and still their mind was. He got a stuffed bird and put it on a branch of a tree a long way away. He gave a bow and arrow to his first student and told the young man to meditate and concentrate his mind until his mind was one with the target – the bird on the tree – and when he was ready to shoot the arrow and see if he could hit it. After fifteen minutes the student said that he was ready and his teacher asked him what he could see. Could he see the tree? "No", all he could see was the bird. "You stupid meditator!" said the teacher, and pushed the student away, took the bow and arrow, handed it to his second student and told him the same as the first student.

After half and hour the student said he was ready. The Master asked him "Can you see the tree?" "No, I cannot see the tree", answered the student. "Can you see the feet of the bird or the wings"? "No teacher, I can only see the head of the bird". "You stupid meditator!" said the Master, pushed the student away and gave the bow and arrow to his third student.

The third student concentrated his mind for one hour and gave a signal to his teacher. The Master asked him "Can you see the tree, the feet and wings … the head of the bird?" "No", answered the student. "What can you see?" asked the teacher and the student answered "All I can see is its’ eye". "Ah, you know about meditation!" said the teacher. This is real one-pointedness of the mind on the object. "Shoot that bird right through the eye!" The student let go of the arrow and it went right through the target.

Concentration is like this; if you put your mind on the object at first there are many other things you will see, just like the student concentrating on the bird on the tree who at first sees the whole tree and many other things, but as he concentrates on the target - the eye of the bird – more and more things start to disappear around the edges. First of all the tree disappears and all he can see is the bird. As he concentrates more on the target he is aiming for even the body of the bird disappears and all that is left is the head. As he concentrates more on the point he is aiming for – the eye – eventually everything else disappears and all he sees is what he is aiming at. This is the way of this meditation.

At first when you start meditating and try to be aware of the breath coming in and going out you will also be aware of so many other different things. You will be aware of sounds, feelings in the body, and many, many thoughts. But as you sit longer and longer concentrating on the object you see that bit by bit these things will pass away and disappear. You are letting them go as the mind focuses and centres in on the object of your awareness. The more you stay looking at the centre, the more the things on the edge on the outside fade completely away.

When you are doing this meditation on the breath you will find that first of all the people next to you will, as it were, disappear because your awareness of them will disappear. Your awareness of everything else outside of you will disappear. You will just be left with your body sitting here, meditating. Your family and home, your past and future will disappear. As you concentrate more on the centre which is the breath more and more will disappear until eventually all you are left with is just the breath. When this occurs and all you are aware of is just the breath going in and out, it becomes a very peaceful experience. The mind is settled on one thing.

The way of meditation is settling the mind on one thing. It is only when the mind is on one thing that one can call it peace of mind. If the mind is going from one thing to another it is called business, movement, it is not stillness. If we are talking about stillness of the mind it means a mind which is not moving. It means a mind which must be on one thing, not moving backwards or forwards. This is the stillness of the mind which has the quality of peace. If there is much noise it is not peaceful if there are orders in the mind it is not peaceful. If everything is still and nothing is moving that is what we call the deep peace of mind. This peace of mind brings about peace of the body; when the mind is at peace the body settles down, and when the body settles down it gets this marvelous tranquillity – this rest of the body caused by rest of the mind.

I shall now say something about the posture, the way one sits in meditation. It is not an important part of this meditation. One can sit cross-legged, or one can sit on a chair, or one can sit with one’s legs out, the only important thing is that you can keep the body still because if the body moves so does the mind. In meditation we try to keep the mind still so we first have to find a way of keeping the body still. We sit in a position which we are comfortable with, the sort of comfort you can maintain for 30 – 45 minutes.

Meditation Exercise Sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes. When you close your eyes you find that you can become more aware of your body, more sensitive. Ask yourself whether your body is comfortable, a comfort you can maintain without moving for about 30-45 minutes. If your body needs adjusting do this at the beginning of the meditation. When the body is set-up then leave it along, let it be, there is no need to move it anymore; instead of [attention] on the body we are going to put our attention on the mind.

Remind yourself that this is meditation time, not the time for business. Imagine yourself with two heavy suitcases, one in each hand. The one in your left hand is filled with your past. Imagine yourself with that suitcase which you have been carrying around for such a long time and imagine yourself putting it down on the ground. So that you have no past for the meditation time. Remind yourself not to pickup that suitcase again until the meditation is finished. Then imagine that in your right hand you have another heavy suitcase filled with the future: your fears, expectations and anticipations. How heavy they are! Now put them down on the ground and feel the release of two heavy burdens. They will be there for you to pickup later, no one can take them away. You are leaving them there to rest the mind which has been carrying them for so long.

When you have let go of the past and future what are you left with? You are left with this body and this mind in the present moment, just now. How do you feel? As you are looking at how you feel can you see what I referred to earlier as the experience and the commentary? Just like a television with two sources of information: what is actually happening and what you say about it. Turn all your attention to the experience and do not listen to the commentary. Just know the experience of how; the experience before words. Experience one breath going in and one breath going out and then another breath going in and out and then another….. Watching this rhythm of breathing air as if it were waves coming to the shore. Not trying to control it, just standing back and watching in the moment. Be careful of the commentary, just put all your attention on the experience of the breath. Know the experience of one breath as clearly as you can.

If you put your attention on the breath for a long time you start to see things in it that you would never imagine were there. The only thing you need to be concerned about is that breath is happening right now. If the commentary is still there, see if you can catch the experience just before the commentary starts. Do not try to control and give orders but for once in your life just be a silent observer. Always beginning, just by watching one breath. Just being with one breath, not forcing the mind and trying too hard but letting your attention rest gently on the very air which sustains your life.

Now notice how you feel deep inside. By laying down those suitcases do you feel any peace, softness, quietness and stillness inside? What does peace actually feel like as an experience?

When the meditation time finishes quietly open your eyes but do not move any other part of your body. Know how you feel. Know the result of meditation. The peace in the mind and the peace in the body. Then slowly move your body and get comfortable.

So this is a taste of this thing called mediation. There are many things which you would have experienced during this time. One of the things that you would have experienced is how difficult this mediation can sometimes be. You just want to watch the breath, choosing one object, but you actually do other things. You might have become aware of the experience and the commentary and how little we know of experience and how addicted we are to the commentary. We think about life but how rarely do we live it.

Hopefully you would have known through direct experience at least some degree of peace of mind and stillness of body and realised that that which we call peace of mind is joy and happiness and that stillness in the body is a great delight and pleasure.

You may notice that often you wish to move, scratch or fidget. Why? To get rid of a pain, disturbance or discomfort. This body is full of discomforts that is why we cannot keep it still. The only time you can actually rest this body is through meditation when the mind goes inside and forgets about this body. That is why you can sit still for such a long time. The aches, itches and discomforts disappear when we do not give them attention. That is how we rest the body. Even when we sleep we are in constant movement. In meditation we leave the body alone and it settles down by itself.

These are some of the things you may have noticed in this meditation and gained at least some sense of what I mean by peace of mind and tranquility of body. It is important to know this sense of peace since afterwards it will give one the incentive to meditate more and more and to develop that peace of mind. There are many, many things worth developing in this world but peace of mind is one of the most important.

To illustrate this I shall tell the story of the Professor and the old sailor. This story happened many years ago in the days when travel was by the big oceanliners.

The Professor was going to give a series of lectures in another country and was travelling by one of those big oceanliners. One evening after dinner he went up on the deck and saw an old sailor who had obviously sailed the ocean for many, many years. The professor who was in a good mood that evening saw the sailor looking at the waves and asked [him] whether he had sailed the oceans for most of his life. "Yes, for over 60 years", answered the sailor. "then you must know everything about what is in this ocean, the currents, various fish and other creatures which dwell beneath you. You must be an expert on marine science". "Actually not, I do not know a thing about marine science", answered the old sailor. "What!" exclaimed the Professor, "you have sailed the ocean for so long and you never bothered to learn about the life beneath you? What a stupid old man, what a waste of a life!" and walked away in disgust.

The second night after a particularly good meal the Professor walked on deck again and saw the old sailor again. He thought, "I shall give him a second chance". He saw the sailor looking up at the stars and thought that at least then the sailor would know something about astronomy since the stars guide the ship. He went up to the sailor again and said. "Do you see that star in that constellation called such and such?" "What are you talking about?" replied the old sailor. "What!", said the Professor, "in all those years as a sailor have you never bothered to learn about the stars and their positions?!" "What a stupid old man, what a waste of a life!" and again walked away disgusted.

The third night was a very beautiful night a warm breeze was wafting over the waves and the Professor was in such a good mood that he gave the sailor a third chance. "Winds are important for sailing" thought the Professor – who was actually a Professor of Meteorology and asked the sailor. "Now I understand, you are no expert in marine science, nor in astronomy but you must know all about the winds, about meteorology. Probably you know more about meteorology than I do having experienced these things rather than having studied them in University?" "Actually", said the sailor, "I do not know anything about meteorology". "What!", said the Professor, "in all those years as a sailor have you never bother to learn about meteorology?", and determined never to speak to this fool again.

The fourth night the Professor did not bother to go on deck, nor did he bother to have dinner. It was one of those rough nights on the seas and the Professor, having a weak stomach decided to stay in his cabin. As the night wore on the storm grew stronger and the ship was rolling quite heavily; the Professor became fearful, his fear grew to a crescendo when he heard people run outside of his cabin door. He opened the door and who was there; the old sailor, the sailor stopped, turned around to the Professor and asked "In all these years, Professor, have you ever learned about swimming?" "No", said the Professor. The sailor walked away saying "What a stupid Professor!, what a waste of a life! The ship is sinking!"

I leave this with you because there are many important things to learn in this life but to learn to swim is very important if you are going to sail in a ship.

Just so, if you are going to live in this world then peace of mind is very important; make sure that you can swim….