Using the Anapanasati Sutta to Cultivate Shinay

Introduction – Tending Towards Simplicity

There are a few ways in general that we can practice with the Sutra on Mindfulness of Breathing. One is to think of the 16 steps as following one after the other, organically. We can also go briefly through the steps, or the tetrads (sequences of 4 steps) and then focus just one one part, or even just one step. As Thich Nhat Hanh has said, practicing any one of these meditations can bring insight, and freedom of mind


There’s a world to be found in this practice. For example, at some point, naturally we can sense the relationship between feeling and thought, or mental activity. When we are comfortable, the mind naturally settles down, and attention more easily stays with the breath. As Lama Yeshe said, ‘When our minds are satisfied, they don’t wander.’ It goes the other way was well. As Thay taught, when there is some strong emotion, we can also focus exclusively on the breath, which quiets down the mind, and this settles the feeling.

Since I would like to primarily use this Sutta to cultivate a clear and flexible mind, that can then be used for insight practice, it’s easy to just go step by step, and observe the results. It even feels at times like the Buddha’s meditation came first, and then this description of a natural process came later, to encourage others. It goes from the more tangible physical body to the more subtle feeling nature, and then more subtle mind, and themes for liberating insight.

Generally, in meditation, I’ve found it useful to cultivate a feeling of tending towards simplicity in practice. It counters over thinking, otherwise known as elaboration, and replacing thoughts about meditation for direct experience.

This breath meditation is actually a very simple practice. We just find the breath (1), and stay with it for a few breaths, or however much as we like; then we simply know how it is – whether is it long or short, rough or smooth, comfortable, light, or easy, and so on (2). Being mindful of breath all the way through the inhalation and the exhalation, leads naturally to sensing how it feels in our whole body (3); which is calming and relaxing all by itself. At this point in his explanation of the Sutta, Thay translates the fourth instruction as allowing the body to relax.(4)

This brings joy and ease, the fifth and sixth steps in the practice, as outlined in the Sutta.

Then, when it comes to the seventh step, we are maintaining mindfulness of the breath, and observing the relationship between feeling and thought

Breathing in, I am aware of the conditioning of my mind…
Breathing out, I am aware of the conditioning of my mind…

We can see how useful this practice alone can be.

Some thoughts we know, such as those of loving kindness, or gratitude bring delight to our feelings. Reading and reflecting for a time on uplifting themes can influence our entire day, or week. On the flip side, some thoughts we can clearly see bring upset or agitation, and are burdensome, or depressing. There is a lot of self knowledge to be gained from just this field of observation.

On the basis of experiencing very tangible or more subtle joy and ease, we can calm the mind (8) by relaxing, or we can say, slowly, gently and patiently allowing the mind to settle and become clear on its own.

This leads onwards, to observing, brightening, concentrating (collectedness, unifying the mind) and liberating the mind. These are steps 9 through 12, the third tetrad here, which focusses primarily on the mind.

One of the wonderful aspects of a practice such as this is that we can always check to see what is easy for us. If something is inaccessible for a time, we can always take up a preceding step or a more tangible area of focus. There’s a sequence that’s clearly laid out, and we can take up whatever is useful for us to progress towards greater ease, continuity of attention, and natural clarity.

* * *

Using the Anapanasati Sutta to Cultivate Shinay

The calm abiding teachings (shi-nay or samatha) usually use an object, such as a Buddha image or an external object to cultivate (this) peace and lucidity. What I’d like to do here is to outline how the teachings from the Anapanasati Sutta can be used to this same end.

When the awareness of breathing is taught in the Tibetan Tradition, it is usually given briefly as a preliminary practice, but I’d like to introduce this set of teachings as a main method that can accomplish this practice.

There are 16 steps in the Anapanasati Sutta, that cover cultivating both calm and insight, and they are divided into four groups, with four exercises in each: for the body, feeling, mind, and objects of mind. The last four are recommended as themes for insight – impermanence, letting go, cessation (the no-birth, no-death nature of all phenomena – TNH), and relinquishment.

The first twelve steps then are for this practice, of cultivating calm and clarity.

The three groupings, of body, feeling, and mind make this easy to remember, and to put into actual practice. They can be remembered in a shorthand way, just bringing to mind body, feeling, and mind, or in more detail.

Steps 1 – 12 in the Anapanasati Sutta are as follows. This is from the translation by Thich Nhat Hanh, with a few notes.


It is like this, bhikkhus: the practitioner goes into the forest or to the foot of a tree, or to any deserted place, sits stably in the lotus position, holding his or her body quite straight, and practices like this: ‘Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.’

Buddhadasa Bhikkhu calls this ‘finding’ the breath. A moment before also, we were breathing, but we may not have been aware of it. Here, we bring our attention to this simple fact, of our breathing in and out.

One interesting note at this point, although we may number the progressive steps, we are still practicing this first instruction, all the way through the entire calm abiding section of the Mindfulness of Breathing Sutta. When we practice the second step, the first is still there, as it is in the third, fourth, fifth, and so on.

The Sutta continues

1. ‘Breathing in a long breath, I know I am breathing in a long breath. Breathing out a long breath, I know I am breathing out a long breath.

2. ‘Breathing in a short breath, I know I am breathing in a short breath. Breathing out a short breath, I know I am breathing out a short breath.

Here, ‘a long breath’ or ‘a short breath’ means however the breath is. As Thich Nhat Hanh taught, it’s not that we make the breath longer or shorter. We just observe how it is so. Starting with ‘finding the breath’, and bringing our attention to it, we now see how it is, if it is long or short, easy or not, comfortable or not. However it is, we are aware of it. This in itself calms us to some extent.

Here we are introducing a wisdom factor, called in the Theravada teachings sampajanna, or clear comprehension. Often in these teachings the compound term sati-sampajanna, or mindfulness-and-clear-comprehension is used. We are not only breathing in and out, or standing, or walking or reaching out to pick something up, we are doing it with full awareness and discernment.

3. ‘Breathing in, I am aware of my whole body. Breathing out, I am aware of my whole body.’ He or she practices like this.

4. ‘Breathing in, I calm my whole body. Breathing out, I calm my whole body.’ He or she practices like this.

The Thai Forest Tradition and Thich Nhat Hanh both teach us to bring mindfulness to the whole body and to permeate the body with awareness. This is enjoyable and refreshing, and all by itself this gradually calms our body, and mind as well. We can also cultivate peace by intending to do so, and this is very good to know. It’s useful for our whole lives.

I have thought that people practicing loving kindness meditation, or mantra can surely benefit from this practice that brings an awareness of the quality of mind and feeling to the body. It is easy to see the connection between our state of mind and how we feel physically, and then to cultivate the kinds of experiences, of peace, stability and well being that we want for ourselves, and that we want to share with others. This leads naturally to the following exercises.

5. ‘Breathing in, I feel joyful. Breathing out, I feel joyful.’ He or she practices like this.

6. ‘Breathing in, I feel happy. Breathing out, I feel happy.’ He or she practices like this.

‘Joyful’ and ‘happy’ here are Thay’s translation of piti, and sukha. These are wonderful experiences we can identify and then cultivate in our meditation and in our daily lives. They are the basis for going easily towards states of jhana, or cultivating the qualities of shamatha. The mind naturally stays with the breath or its theme or object when it is both awake and clear, and comfortable.

Joy is a term here for a pleasant feeling that has some uplift or excitement in it. Joy can be created and increased when we need more energy by simply taking pleasure in the virtue we have that serves as a foundation for our practice, or in the relief we feel when setting aside the hindrances for this time. We can think of our teachers, or of our great good fortune in meeting the Dharma, or other uplifting themes. Joy can be strong or subtle, but when it is there, we should recognize it. It’s a kind of necessary spiritual food.

When joy settles it becomes well being, sukha, or meditative happiness. This is also something we should learn to cultivate and then learn to recognize. It is the feeling of being settled, satisfied, awake, and at ease.

It’s been liked to the feeling of arriving at our destination after a long trip, and sitting down with a cool, refreshing drink. There is a sense of happiness, fullness, accomplishment, ease and well being.

* * *

Four gathas taught by Thich Nhat Hanh, taught between 1987 and 1993, and how they line up with the experiences cultivated in this Sutta:

I attended my first retreat with Thay in 1989, and in the first session, one person asked him to remind them of the gatha, or short meditation poem he had offered to the community on his last visit, in 1987. It was

Breathing in, I calm body and mind
Breathing out, I smile
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment

Then in the years 1989, ’91, and ’93 he offered the following:

In – out
Deep – slow
Calm – Ease
Smile – Release
Present moment,
Wonderful Moment

In sitting and walking meditation, each line can be brought to mind, along with the in and out breath, as many times as one likes.

In – out
Flower – fresh
Mountain – solid
Water – reflecting
Space – free


(one inhalation and exhalation per line for the following)

I arrive
I am home
In the here
In the now
I feel solid
I feel free
In the ultimate,
I dwell

Over the years practicing with these meditation poems, and also studying both his and other traditional teachings on the Anapanasati Sutta, it became easy to see how these short verses are intended to lead a person gracefully through the experiences presented in that Sutta. They begin with simply being aware of the breath, and the body; they calm the feelings and calm and brighten the mind.

Although Thich Nhat Hanh and many of the teachers from the Thai Forest Tradition do not use the language of the jhanas, or the calm abiding tradition, they certainly do cultivate these very same qualities, as a way to make the mind clear and serviceable, ‘fit for use’. They about bring the same pliancy, freshness and joy, and strength that is then used to cultivate insight – understanding.

* * *

Returning to the Sutta, steps 7 and 8 are on the relationship between feeling and the mind, calming the mind, respectively. This involves setting aside and overcoming the hindrances to meditation.

7. ‘Breathing in, I am aware of (feeling) conditioning the mind
Breathing out, I am aware of (feeling) conditioning the mind.’
He or she practices like this.

In direct translation from the Sutta, ’citta sankara’ is called ’Mental formation’,

‘Breathing in, I am aware of my mental formations. Breathing out, I am aware of my mental formations.’ He or she practices like this…

This refers to conditioning the mind, an active verb here, more than it being so much a noun or state of being.

This is the instruction to see how the quality of our feeling effects our mind – thought, memory, and interpretation. We can see also how thought, or mental activity also clearly effects feeling.

{For more on this practice, see this essay, On Step Seven of the Anapanasati Sutta.}

8. ‘Breathing in, I calm my mental formations (thought and feeling). Breathing out, I calm my mental formations (thought and feeling).’ He or she practices like this.

Naturally, as we keep practicing being aware of our breathing, and body, calming the body, bringing joy and ease, the mind calms down, and becomes more clear. We don’t have to make any special effort to make it so.

Bhante Gunaratana only half-kiddingly said that he thought patience should be added to the list of traditional factors that bring about the jhanas. If we stay with the practice, patiently, with humility and attention and confidence in ourselves and the practice itself, gradually our mind calms down, and becomes more clear and bright.

Ajahn Sumedho also said the following:

If you wait and endure restlessness

When you try to get rid of fear or anger, what happens? You just get restless or discouraged and have to go eat something or smoke or drink or do something else. But if you wait and endure restlessness, greed, hatred, doubt, despair, and sleepiness, if you observe these conditions as they cease and end, you will attain a kind of calm and mental clarity, which you will never achieve if you’re always going after something else.


9. ‘Breathing in, I am aware of my mind. Breathing out, I am aware of my mind.’ He or she practices like this.

10. ‘Breathing in, I make my mind happy. Breathing out, I make my mind happy.’ He or she practices like this.

I like to call step ten in this Sutta ‘brightening the mind’, and it lines up perfectly with the stages of calm abiding where one is settled and naturally present with the meditation, and then more subtle dullness or the lack of vividness is the challenge to move through. We can brighten the mind at any time, in any context, but here it has the special function of removing those more subtle veils or obscurations that keep us from seeing fully, and clearly, with real vividness, and precision.

We can’t push this to make it happen. We need a host of supporting factors in meditation, and one of them can be our joy and happiness in the Dharma. There is an organic process to cultivating the mind. From the beginning steps, that we go over each time we meditate, to this point, all of it unfolds based on the previous steps being done well, with enthusiasm, care and patience over time. They lead to:

11. ‘Breathing in, I concentrate my mind. Breathing out, I concentrate my mind.’ He or she practices like this.


12. ‘Breathing in, I liberate my mind. Breathing out, I liberate my mind.’ He or she practices like this.

Sometimes a change in phrasing can make a big difference in terms of how we hear a teaching. For example, if we hear that we should have indestructible single pointed concentration, it may sound like more than we can do. We may ‘squeeze ourselves’ – which is not so skillful. We need to be aware, and also to gently relax.

If on the other hand we think of concentrating the mind here in the sense of giving something our undivided attention – Buddhadasa calls this ‘natural concentration’, it can seem like something that we can do, at least for a time. We’ve all had this experience, when, having set aside distractions, we make an effort and our attention is there in full. I also like the word collectedness here, as there are degrees to it, but it’s also something that we’ve all experienced at times.

The liberation that is mentioned then in step 12 refers to the temporary freedom of mind accomplished through practicing these steps. We provisionally set aside the hindrances (anger and craving, restlessness, sloth and torpor, and doubt), and with faith in our teachers and the teachings and ourselves, we take up this practice, and gain some result.

It’s suggested in the teachings on jhana that we review the steps we took to get each result. That way we can repeat them at will, and gain the benefit, and continue our practice from there, further refining and liberating the mind.

From A Resource for the Practice of Meditation