I have noticed that many people, even some who are sutta followers, do not know how to practice anapanasanti meditation. I too looked at that sutta like at an UFO in the begining. I just could not make sense of the 16 step anapanasanti meditation. This is despite the fact that I was already a sutta follower and knew Mahasi has nothing to do with the suttas, but still I had a “mahasi way of thinking”. I kept asking things like “how long do I need to do every step” or all kinds of other ideas.
The way to practice anapanasanti is quite simple. The sutta is very clear and straighforward. That’s why no other explanations are given about it in the whole 10.000 pag of suttas. It is so simple and straightforward it’s actually pretty strange not to understand it.
The reason you don’t understand how to practice it is because you feel like adding more steps to the sutta, such as doing every step for like 10 minutes or focusing on the breath 10 minutes before starting the anapanasanti meditation. You feel like the sutta is incomplete. You feel like you know better than the Buddha how meditation should be done, or that Buddha was an idiot and gave us just half a sutta of one of the most important teachings of his. I suggest to have confidence in the Buddha and give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to being a complete idiot. From 10.000 pag of suttas, you really think Buddha somehow left the anapanasanti meditation incomplete, waiting for a guy like Mahasi or others to come along 2400 years later and fix the missing half of the sutta ? Why not try the sutta the way it is and see how it goes ?
Before I explain it, let me first let everybody know how I first figured it out: I said I need to look at the sutta like you look at any other sutta. I said I am going to interpret the sutta based on what is written in it, WITHOUT ADDING MAHASI THINGS THAT I FEEL LIKE ARE MISSING FROM THE SUTTA. Yup, just read the sutta without adding things to it. Show a modicum amount of confidence in the idea of Buddha not being a total idiot. And second, ask yourself what is the goal of anapanasanti and how does it works ? Many think of meditation as a form of incantation, like doing a repetitive set of precise steps that will make magic pop up. This is a ritualistic, primitive way of understanding meditation. So you need to ask critically ask what is the goal and why does this anapanasanti meditation achieve it ?
So how it is done ?
You first do the observing of the breath part in order to calm down a little. Spend like 8 breaths on this first 2 steps. Do not “focus” on the breath Mahasi style. Just observe the breath in general if it’s long or short etc. The goal of these first 2 steps is to calm down a little before you start and make you’re mind a little more alert. I repeat, stop looking for a nail to hit with your “focusing on a fixed spot” hammer. That is not the goal. Just be aware of the breath in general, if it’s long or short etc. - do not focus on a specific part of you’re body. Do you see the sutta asking you to focus on the nostrils or on the chest ??? Is any other suttas asking you to do that ? I repeat, stop adding new mahasi steps to the sutta. I heard there is a passage in the vinaya witch implies the observence of the breath should be initially done on the chest. But do not “focus” on that region, the point is to observe the breath, to be aware if it is long or short etc. A totally different thing than “focusing” on something.
After you do this for like 8 breaths and calm down a little, then you experience the whole body for like 4 breaths. No, not some imaginary “breath body” or other such ideas. Just experience you’re body. Like you’re legs, hands etc. all at once. Try it right now while reading this, try experiencing you’re whole body. But why is this important ? What is the goal of this step ? The goal is to help with step 3:
Calming the body. You need to do step 2 for like 4 breaths in order to do step 3. You can’t do it without it. I repeat, you can’t do it without it. You first experience the body, then you calm the body. You just say to yourself “calming the body, calming the body” and an inch of intention will be present there that will calm it. If you did step 2 good and experienced the body for like 4 breaths, then you will see how well the body will calm down doing this step 3. It will really calm down, the breath will calm down too.
And it works the same for “mental activities” or for the mind.
You say “experiencing mental activities”. You need to experience them like in the same way you experienced the body. You do this for 4 breaths or how much you feel like needed. And then, again you get to the important step of:
Calming the mind. If you did the “experiencing the mind” part wrong, you will not be able to calm it too well. You really need to do the “experiencing the mind” part in order to do the “calming the mind part”. Try a couple of times and you will get it. You’re mind will get very calm at this point, same as the body got very calm too at this 3rd step. Now you continue with “concentrating the mind” and it will get concentrated.
And you go on and do the whole 16 steps like this. I did this anapanasanti meditation like 4-5 times in total and didn’t really do it till the end. I did just the first half of the steps. One time I got shockingly calm and concentrated, much better than the other times. The goal is to calm and then concentrate the mind, to bring you’re mind it best possible shape. By bringing it in such a perfect state, you will then be able to do the 4th tetrad in a much better way than you would do without bringing you’re mind to such a state through the first 3 tetrads. And doing the 4th tetrad like that will temporarely get you to a very free from attachment and conceit state, a temporary state in witch you can see things more clearly. In a normal state, it is like looking for you’re reflection in a bowl with boiling watter of muddy watter or etc. But by temporarely achieving this good state of mind, you can see things more clearly. That is why jhana is required for achieving higher levels such as non-returning. Seeing the 3 charachteristics while is jhana is required for achieving such levels.
I do not know how difficult it is to achieve jhana since I only did this a couple of times and did not even remember all the 16 steps, just the first part of them. For a better understanding of jhana I also recommand this sutta: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an09/an09.042.than.html