Breath by Breath

Larry Rosenberg and David Guy, Shambhala Classics

Engaging the reader into the depths of meditation is not easy. Breath by Breath is an in-depth look into meditation that succeeds in doing just that. It is a translation and commentary on one of the Buddha’s core teachings, the Anapanasati Sutra.

Like all of the Buddha’s teachings, the Anapanasati Sutra is a path to liberation from suffering. The Buddha gives clear instructions, a detailed map, of how to get there through 16 contemplations. They are grouped into four tetrads. The first four are about the awareness of the breath as experienced in the body. The second four direct the awareness to feelings as perceived by the sense organs. The third set focuses awareness on mental formations and the content of the mind. The last is “pure vipassana, seeing into the lawfulness underlying all phenomena.” The contemplations are held by the constant awareness of the breath, the in-breath and the out-breath.

“We are all breathing. The instruction is just to know that we are, not in an intellectual sense, but to be aware of the simple sensation, the in-breath and the out-breath. Even in this first instruction, we are learning something extremely important: to allow the breathing to follow its own nature, to breathe itself. We are not trying to make the breath deep or keep it shallow. We are seeing how it is.”

This is how the author guides you, one contemplation after another. The commentary is lengthy, conversational, and includes the author’s personal experiences. Each contemplation is explained in context and detail, often with anecdotes and humor. There are suggestions for practice. The book plays the role of an important guide to practice, whether it is a “yogic practice” or a “Buddhist practice.” As meditation develops, the initial distinctions and labels disappear. To one who is thirsty, the semantics are irrelevant. Quenching the thirst is the only relevance.

There are many striking commonalities in the structure of the Anapanasati Sutra and Satynanada Yoga Nidra as seen in the table below. Readers who are familiar with the Breathing, Introduction to Meditation, and tracks on this website will find this book and the sutra a complement to the practices. What is Meditation? expands on the chart below.

Anapanasati Sutra Satyananda Yoga Nidra
muscular tension body group: breathing long, breathing short, sensitive to body, calming body rotation of consciousness of the physical body
emotional tension feelings: sensitive to rapture, sensitive to pleasure, sensitive to mental processes, calming mental processes awareness of breath (leads to sensations within the body: heaviness/lightness, heat/cold, pain/pleasure)
mental tension mind group: sensitive to mind, gladdening the mind, steady mind, liberating mind feelings and emotions (watching the mental space or chidakasha and the content of mental formations)
insight/wisdom wisdom: focus on impermanence, focus on fading away, focus on cessation, focus on relinquishment visualization (can take many forms depending on the purpose of the Yoga Nidra and where insight is directed)

In yoga, the breath is critical as seen in pranayama. It is through conscious breathing that the process of meditation begins. In these Buddhist practices, there is constant awareness of the in-breath and out-breath. Both require the awareness to be attentive, the attitude of being a witness. They are guided meditations that release past experiences or samskaras. Freedom from past experiences follows a very similar structure: tensions in body, emotions, and mind must be released before insight is possible.

A major difference is that breath awareness is not constantly held in Yoga Nidra. Just the witnessing awareness, mindfulness, is held after a certain point. But both practices are rooted in the same pool and over time arrive at a similar state. Who watches, or is mindful of the breath? Who is mindful of mindfulness?

No matter what you practice, the encounters and experiences are universal. The commentary is immensely useful for everyone. Meditation starts out as a form self-therapy through catharsis. No matter what “style” is practiced, meditation happens a single breath at a time. No one can breath more than one breath or live more than a single moment at a time (see About).

Breath by Breath invites us to linger and revisit frequently.

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