Two Meditation Questions

Reading the Pali Canon has been an astounding journey for me. I’ve spent many years as a religious seeker, and I feel like I’ve finally found a spiritual system that goes most of the way toward making sense. And those parts that I don’t understand seem at least promising, which is great.

So… for the last several months I’ve been meditating solo for at least 30-45 minutes every day, and I have two questions.

  1. For a layman, what is the correct relationship between ethics and meditation? The Canon often seems to describe meditation as occurring after the cultivation of noble ethics. It’s intended primarily (though not exclusively) for monks and nuns. Yes, MN 51 among others shows that early lay Buddhists also meditated in similar ways. But laymen are seldom if ever instructed in meditation in the Canon, so… what would an early Buddhist approach to this question look like?

I am very conscious that wrong concentration is a serious danger, and I am concerned that my concentration will necessarily be wrong if I do not adhere to the full spectrum of noble ethics – avoid entertainments, don’t eat at the wrong time, observe chastity, forsake my material possessions, and so on. I’m not doing those things right now, and my family life is such that I recognize an obligation to remain as a layman. I do try to be ethical, but I’m still struggling with basic things like the five precepts and wrong speech in particular.

I know that meditation is not widely practiced by the laity in present-day Buddhist countries. I see the Canon appears to approve of it, but… under what ethical conditions should it be attempted?

  1. Specifically regarding ānāpānasati: I have made this a central part of my meditation. But it occurs to me that maybe I’m doing it wrong.

How much control is there over the breath? My current practice is simply to make the breath comfortable and regular, and then observe it. I’ve gotten noticeably better at this. There are times when it seems like everything else is happening in another galaxy, and the breath is this massive, heaving presence throughout my entire sensorium. There are few thoughts, and sometimes none, and it’s blissful.

But this may be wrong concentration, I fear, because the Ānāpānasati Sutta does not describe meditation in this way. If I am being honest with myself, I must admit that I am still making my breath regular and taking in the correct amount of it. I’m not just observing the breath purely doing its thing. And so again I’m forced to consider that everything I have done is just harmful wrong concentration. I’m grasping the breath, aren’t I?


There are three practice categories:

  • Ethics
  • Immersion (Meditation)
  • Wisdom

The Noble Eight-Fold Path is a subset of these three practices:

  • Ethics: Right speech, right action, and right livelihood
  • Immersion: Right effort, right mindfulness, and right immersion
  • Wisdom: Right view and right thought

For example, the above statement i see as Wisdom. :pray:

None. We observe. We observe in. We observe out. From physics we know that observation changes the observed. This happens in meditation. Observing the breath, it calms on its own. No force required. Mindfulness is not control. Control seeks outcome. Control is grasping. Relinquish control and see what is as it happens, without greed, without hate, without delusion.



Ah, but here’s the trouble: When I try to watch the breath without doing anything, I end up not breathing at all. This is scary and very obviously wrong.

Attention to the breath seems always to mean that I bring the breath under conscious control. I breath easily and regularly, and I am untroubled about it, but it’s still a thing I’m doing consciously.

There is no two ways about it: Either I pay attention, which means doing the breathing, or I don’t pay attention, in which case I’m not watching it either. (Possibly I’m thinking about something else, as in metta practice.)


Ah. Watching need not require stillness. A simple trick is to tell yourself to breath in. Then when you cannot breathe in further, breathe out. Completely in. Completely out. This is the advice I would give for zazen. And I would also say that you will find this practice very very vexing in its persistent mindfulness. It will drive you bananas. Do this slowly. If you do it quickly you will hyperventilate and pass out or something.

All this diligent mindful breathing will become quite irritating and cumbersome. At that point, you will have agreed with yourself that perhaps it’s easier to just watch the breath. So then do that and relinquish the thought of being a bellows. Just breath.

At some point you relax enough to simply understand the direction of the breath (i.e., in vs. out). At that point the suttas start making sense as practical instructions.


As with so many things in meditation, it’s hard to say whether this is exactly the advice I needed, or whether I’ve been following it already to a degree… or whether it’s neither good nor a thing I’ve been following!

I’m going to take your advice, though, at my next session.


In zazen, I was taught to count my breaths. This was very useful because it provided mindfulness sustained over a long period of time. For me 100 breaths is a little over 30minutes. My teacher implied that I was huffing and puffing at that rate and that lower rates happened naturally. Concentrating on counting is another way to avoid drowning in breath control. If I remember correctly, Tanouye Roshi mentioned breathing about once overy minute. Do not try that. Just count. After three decades my rate has not changed.


As I said, I pretty well know my comfortable breath rate. I just have a hard time separating the intentionality from the observation.

The two seem to co-occur, or at least I can’t rule it out: The only way to stop intentionality is either I stop breathing or I stop noticing. But when I’ve been meditating and it seems like I’m concentrating particularly well, I experience my breathing as easy and not requiring very much in effort.


Oh you don’t need to stop intentionality. Just be mindful of it. It gets tired and stops. Mindfulness is whats left over.

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Perhaps not everyone has the same experience, but my perspective has been in examining the breath that the distinction between the “voluntary” and the “involuntary” tends to collapse when examined closely. At the completion of both the in-breath and again at the completion of the out-breath, there is a diminution of satisfaction, and a build up of discomfort. Eventually the discomfort triggers a volition to exhale or inhale. As one calms down, the need to breathe as deeply and rapidly as we do during ordinary activity is lessened. But it never goes away.

But I think what is important is to see that the volitions themselves are conditioned. They don’t come out of some invisible source of pure will, as though commanded by an inner God. Trying to achieve some state where the breathing is not accompanied by volition would be futile, because volition is an inherent part of the processes that condition breathing, so that’s like trying to achieve some state where the breath arises spontaneously without condition. But it would be equally erroneous to regard the breath as conditioned by volitions, but to regard the volitions themselves as unconditioned.

On morality, it seems to me that sila and meditation go hand in hand. You try to lead a harmless, modest, chaste and inoffensive life because these habits are conducive to mental peace and seclusion from the noise of the world. So when you sit down to meditate, your mind is not a raging battlefield of worldly passions and tensions. And then the meditation itself conduces to deeper peace, which makes the moral discipline a bit more natural and effortless.

Nevertheless, I think the tension between the habits and practices required to live and maintain a worldly life, with its typical obligations, and the habits and practices of a thoroughgoing world-renouncer capable of attaining liberation is ineradicable. Some worldlings are able to live more peaceful and secluded lives than others. But there are unavoidable limits.


Hmm. Maybe this is the problem. I could be calling it intentionality, and beating myself up over it, but really there’s a lesson here about intentions. Thank you for this and your whole comment, @DKervick.

Would an Awakened one be able simply to stop their breath indefinitely and die if they chose?


That’s a good question. I tend to think so, since they can presumably endure any amount of physical pain without responding. But if they limited their breathing so much they pass out, I don’t know what would happen. This gets into a lot of murky territory about the boundary between sleep and waking, unconsciousness and consciousness. Maybe some of those boundaries break down at the highest levels of attainment. Every so often you run across one of those stories from a traditional Buddhist community about a mummified monk who, so the faithful believe, is still alive.

The fourth jhana is known as the breathless absorption.
My Roshi did say that relinquishing this life was voluntary for those with training.
That is all I know and I would not infer anything from those two statements.

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There are suttas which show lay people were practicing Satipatthana -Four Foundations of mindfulness from time to time. I think this would be the equivalent of going on retreat. But their stories may have been recorded less.

Keep subtle pressure on it, don’t let the rope go too lax or pull too hard. It will come around. Two steps forward, one step back… See the ‘global’ drawbacks of not keeping the precepts, either before or after breaking them.

Its arguable whether it is ‘Buddhism’ or a degenerate version that such people are practicing.

Any step of the Noble Eightfold Path can be independently practiced. If we wait for one aspect to be perfect it will take too long and since each step helps the other ones out it makes sense to do them simultaneously.

Wrong concentration is being focused on craving, focused on aversion etc- on a defilement. Slight variations in focusing on the breath isn’t a problem. There must be hundreds of ways the breath could be felt sightly differently in samadhi. It’s usual to sense the proportions, could, speed etc vary outside what would be considered ‘normal’. Whatever happens, just focus on the breath and don’t worry too much about it. Let the breath be… let it do what it does and all you need to do is to watch, and the progress will come if you give it adequate time… and freedom.

Anapanasati sutta is possible but its important to get comfortable with the breath first.

I haven’t heard of this happening in the suttas. As long as the body is alive its functions keep on operating. So even in deep meditations the body is said to come out of deep absorptions after a few days as it needs water or food. Control and fear are often linked,and the observing breathing can make people anxious.


Ajahn Brahm’s book “The basic method of meditation” gives a good introduction into breath meditation. A copy can be downloaded here. Very often, when people practise meditation on their own, there comes a point when they struggle in a way as you are describing here. At that point it might be good to look for an experienced teacher and discuss your meditation personally, for example on a retreat.


I’m personally partial to Ven. Anālayo’s instructions, here. He’s currently working on an Ānāpānasati book that should be done in the next year.


Perhaps not everyone has the same experience, but my perspective has been in examining the breath that the distinction between the “voluntary” and the “involuntary” tends to collapse when examined closely. At the completion of both the in-breath and again at the completion of the out-breath, there is a diminution of satisfaction, and a build up of discomfort. Eventually the discomfort triggers a volition to exhale or inhale. As one calms down, the need to breathe as deeply and rapidly as we do during ordinary activity is lessened. But it never goes away.

This is a great description that matches my experience, too.

In general, I find advice along the lines of “just observe the breath, let it flow naturally, and don’t interfere” to be not very helpful, because once I get closely involved with my breath, it’s not clear to me what it means to be doing it intentionally or not. For me, it’s just a matter of being with it fully.


Hey Gus,

  1. Meditation and ethics will support each other. You’re a good person and are sincere in what you are doing, so there should be no problem. It’s just that if one’s ethics are ungrounded, meditation won’t proceed smoothly. But there’s no actual danger unless one’s intention is corrupt (for example, meditating to gather power).
  2. In addition to the other advice here, may I suggest that the “intentionality paradox” is the point (or one of the points) of doing breath meditation? The breath exists on the border between autonomous and intentional activities, and that is what makes it so challenging and so rewarding. Don’t see your struggles here as a sign that something is going wrong: see them as a sign that deeper and more subtle levels of intentionality are being exposed to you, and let go of, again and again, peeled back like an onion. And this is the letting go that leads to true peace.

I inhale exhale in every one second (say every two seconds)
That is 30 per minute and 900 for thirty minutes.

I had this problem and I found Ven Thanissaros daily talks generally helpful for unwinding control. He broadens the frame of reference of the breath to include the energy in the body as a whole. The body is viewed as a kind of breath distribution network. Maybe this is veering into Vipassana but I am happier.

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This is imagination. If we start thinking of subtle breath energies etc we can agree to any and all superstitions.

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