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Buddhadharma : Spri 2007
buddhadharma| 43 |spring 2007 Observing the Breath at the Abdomen In vipassana meditation we observe the breath, or rather the sensations caused by breathing, in order to concentrate moment to moment. because the breath is a neutral object, this practice effectively calms the heart-mind. there are several places where meditators feel the sensation of breathing, and they vary from person to person. some feel it more at the nostrils or upper lip, others in the rising and falling of the chest, and still others in the abdomen. In terms of vipassana meditation, observing the breath at any of these places is a valid practice. mahasi, however, favored observing the sensa- tions of the breath at the abdomen, in part because it is related to slow walking. Just as we observe and experience the foot rising and falling, so we experience the abdomen rising and falling. With awareness of the breath in the abdomen, for the better part of the day a meditator can observe the characteristic of transience in a very obvious way. observing transience or impermanence (anicca) is one of the ways in which the buddha asks us to investigate ourselves. Is there anything we expe- rience that is not impermanent? the other two avenues of investigation are observing dissatis- faction (dukkha) and not-self (anatta). accord- ing to the buddha, our insights into these three characteristics of existence can lead to liberation from all suffering. the second reason mahasi favored focusing on sensations at the abdomen is that when we con- centrate on the breath at the nostrils, we tend to lose contact with the body. that is why observing the breath at the nostrils is a popular and effective way of achieving those higher states of concentra- tion known as the absorptions, or jhanas. but in absorption, there is a danger. When concentration locks one-pointedly on a single object, the effect is to suppress everything else. such focus stops the process of purifying the heart, which is our emotional life. this is not to say that deep con- centration practice cannot go hand-in-hand with vipassana. Indeed, such practice is well supported in the buddha’s Discourse on How to Establish Mindfulness (Satipatthana Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 10). but mahasi espoused the direct path of vipas- sana only (ekayano maggo). the mahasi technique does not preclude observ- ing the breath at the nostrils. although mahasi preferred the abdomen as a place of primary observation, he did not ban anyone from observ- ing sensations at the nostrils. however, when we center our attention instead on the abdomen or chest (when the breath is shallow), we remain in closer contact with body. this is an important ele- ment, as our emotions, moods, and other mental states express themselves through the body, often as blocks or aches and pains or even as raw emo- tion. allowing mental turbulence to express itself within consciousness and bearing it patiently in meditation is how we burn it off. this is the psy- chotherapeutic effect of vipassana. Noting noting is the second component of the vipassana technique that mahasi sayadaw taught. Paradoxi- cally, the result of noting is that it takes a med- itator beyond thinking. It is not an end in itself. the buddha taught that there are two stages of concentrated thought before full concentration is established. the first is a simple noting or nam- ing of the object. this act of labeling, vitakka, whereby the attention is pointed at the object, is The Mahasi vipassana technique has the power to guide a meditator through the classic stages of the insight knowledges, which lead to the first direct experience of nibbana, known as stream-entry. (opposite) Burning Leaf, 2002 Chlorophyll print and resin CourTeSyofTHearTiSTandHaineSGallery,SanfranCiSCo