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In Anapana there is no regulation of the breath.

As I understood it, it's meant not to control your breath while meditating, but just let flow. Sometimes it's difficult for me not to control it, so I thought about watching my heart beat. Something I have less control of than my breath.

Is this kind of meditation known?

  • The book mentioned in this answer i.e. Mindfulness with Breathing talks quite a lot about regulation of the breath -- so the premise of this question (that there is no regulation) might be mistaken or unclear. – ChrisW Nov 2 '15 at 1:13
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    Not Buddhist, but it is used in forms of neigong. You see this a lot especially in martial arts like tai chi where you "pulse" the points you are trying to relax. – user698 Nov 2 '15 at 2:11
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    see interoceptive awareness - "...structure and function of the right frontal insula are correlated with the ability to feel one's own heartbeat...these neurons are involved in cognitive-emotional processes...such as empathy and self-aware emotional feelings..." Everyone (i.e. all bhikkhus) can follow instructions for breathing. – avatar Korra Aug 12 '16 at 3:20
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The only time I've seen the heart-beat mentioned in a similar context, is when Trungpa Rinpoche discussed beginner-level practice:

...Usually hinayana-level student works with reality using exclusively phenomenological methods. He pays attention to his heart-beat, he watches his breathing, controls his posture and gait, how he eats, how drinks water etc...

The reason the breath is watched (as was explained by Trungpa Rinpoche) is because breath is the window onto the state of mind, or rather, the state of the entire mind-emotions-body continuum:

If there is an out-breath conditioned by the mind, he is aware that the out-breath was conditioned by the mind. If there is an in-breath conditioned by the mind, he is aware that the in-breath was conditioned by the mind.
--from Ānāpānasmṛti Sutra (EA 17.1)

One you get access to your state of mind by seeing how your breath is "conditioned by the mind", you use the feedback of the breath to work on calming and gladdening the entire body-mind:

’Breathing in, I am aware of my whole body. Breathing out, I am aware of my whole body.’ He or she practices like this.
‘...calm my whole body...
‘...feel joyful...
‘...feel happy...
‘...aware of my mental formations...
‘...calm my mental formations...
‘...aware of my mind...
‘...make my mind happy...
‘...concentrate my mind...
‘...liberate my mind...
--from Anapanasati Sutta (MN 118), as translated by Thich Nhat Hanh

I'm not sure heart-beat alone provides the same level of insight into the state of body-mind as the breathing, even though it is related. If you think about the two from signal theory perspective, breathing is amplitude-modulated while heart-beat is (low) frequency modulated, so necessarily heart-beat is a lower-resolution signal. Although as Trungpa Rinpoche says, there is no reason it cannot be used as a secondary indicator, along with stomach and chest tension, face mimics, gait / body language etc.

More importantly, regarding your comment about it being difficult for you not to control breath. As per the above quotes, I don't think the point of (anapana) meditation is to watch breath without controlling anything, nor to regulate the breathing directly. The point is to use breath as a feedback for working with body-mind.

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The Wings to Awakening by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, on page 83 says,

There is the case where a monk—having gone to the wilderness, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty building—sits down folding his legs crosswise, holding his body erect and setting mindfulness to the fore [parimukham: in the Abhidhamma, this is translated literally as “around the mouth”; in the Vinaya, the same term is used to mean the front of the chest]. Always mindful, he breathes in; mindful he breathes out.

See also What is the Interpretation of Parimukham in the context of Buddhist Meditation?.

According to the above the heart area seams to be a valid focal point. Thanissaro Bhikkhu / Achan Lee also mentions about other focal points. (See: With Each & Every Breath and Keeping the Breath in Mind.)


Having said this I would advocate how S.N.Goenka advices to keep the focus.

  1. For a beginner - the triangular area from top of your nose to the base. This includes the inner walls of the nostrils where some feel the breath.
  2. As you advance in concentration - the triangular area from the tip of the nose to the base (the upper lip). This includes the tip of the nose and the sides, the nasal bridge and the base or simply around the nostrils and upper lip.
  3. As you advance further - the base of the nose (upper lip)
  4. As you advance even further - the centre of the upper lip (Philtrum). This point is referred as the spot in the chapter "Keep Your Mind on the Spot" (p 72 as per table of content in the original book but p 54 in the linked PDF as it looks like and extract) in The Way of Ultimate Calm by Webu Sayadaw.

And in terms of what you should perceive as the breath (Anapana Sanna):

  1. Beginner - Flow of perspiration
  2. Intermediate - Touch or brushing of the flow of perspiration
  3. Advance - the 4 elements associated with the breath (gaseous nature of the flowing air, heat or difference in heat of the in and out breath, solidity of the the point of focus, and moisture in the out breath and nose. [gross level] Also the same properties in every sensation you experience. [Subtle level] Further you can look at the Space Element initially bodily cavities like the nostrils [gross] and much later the gaps between the arising and passing of the Kalapas [subtle] and also Consciousness Element which in short is the recognising of arising and passing of contact and sensations again initially at a gross level where you recognise the start of a pain or sensation and the end of it in terms of time and also the location in the body where you start from boundary of the pain to the centre where it is the most intense [gross] and more subtle level when you start seeing the Kalapas which make the sensation. For further details see: Dhātu Vibhaṅga Sutta, Titth’Ayatana Sutta, Maha Rahul’ovada Sutta, Maha Hatthi,padapama Sutta, etc.)
  4. In preparation to switching to Sathipattana - sensations associated with the focal point and the perspiration process

When ever you find some combination difficult you can switch combinations like say the pure sensation at a focal point than the flow of respiration. If you feel dull and your mind is less sensitive you can increase the areas.

It is both right and wrong to say either you should regulate the breath and / or you should not regulate the breath! You should direct your sustained attention to the breath with the intention (but not necessary the direct action or direct manipulation of the respiratory process - if you manipulate the breath this becomes like Pranayama, hence I would generally say do not regulate the breath as this advice is less prone to mistakes by the novice) to clam your breath. Traditionally 4 steps are recommended:

  1. Concern - Abhoga
  2. Reaction - Samnnahara
  3. Attention - Manasikara
  4. Reviewing - Paccavekkhana

(See Knowing and Seeing - Revised Edition by Ven. Pa Auk Sayadaw p 45 for further explanation)

In simple terms this is keeping the though in the back of your mind that the breath should calm where you focus actively to keep your mind on the breath and whether it is long or short, smooth or not, etc.

  • Thanks! Your explanations are clearer than Goenka's explanations during the course. But what are the 4 elements associated with the breath? – michau Nov 2 '15 at 14:04
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    Updated. See if this explains it. – Suminda Sirinath S. Dharmasena Nov 2 '15 at 14:32

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