I have been following Goenka tradition of vipassana for a few months now(one 10 day retreat and 5 months of daily practice). We are instructed to keep our attention below the nostrils and observe the flow of breath (i.e., just know that you are inhaling or exhaling). My problem with the instructions is that I can feel the sensations under my nostrils, but I don’t understand what that sensation means i.e., if it is inhalation or exhalation. For the longest time, in an attempt to figure/know what the sensation corresponded to, I think I was controlling my breath, which proved to be counterproductive as I was having trouble breathing normally. Even extending to normal day-to-day affairs. I tried using harder breaths, longer breaths, but I never could go beyond understanding that there is sensation under my nostrils.

I understand that it is for building shamata, and the knowing of if the sensation corresponds to inhalation or exhalation doesn’t matter that much. But I am assuming there is a reason the instruction is a certain way. Am I doing something wrong. Any help is appreciated.

I read that the Mahasi tradition emphasises keeping the attention on the rising and falling of the belly, but I don’t think I am ready to mix traditions yet. Does anyone know what might be happening here or have any suggestions on what can be done to help better my practice.

6 Answers 6


If the mind cannot clearly discern the respective sensations at/in the nostril as in-breathing and out-breathing, then simply rest/place a finger on the top of the lip so the sensation of each out-breath can be clearly felt striking on the finger.

Similarly, if the mind cannot clearly discern the respective rising and falling of the belly, then simply rest/place a hand on the belly so the movement of each in-breath and out-breath can be clearly felt moving the belly.

Therefore, at the same time, both a finger can be placed under the nostril and a hand can be placed on the belly. This will allow/help the mind more clearly know when the body is breathing in and when the body is breathing out.

  • That makes sense but that is a lot of arm movement bringing it up to the nose like that. It should be ok for a beginner though as long as they are mindful of the arm moving.
    – Lowbrow
    Dec 3, 2023 at 14:51
  • Maybe some Mahasi teachers or retreat locations can be said to mass market but the intention of Mahasi Sayadaw was that his interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching was to be given on a dana basis.
    – Lowbrow
    Dec 3, 2023 at 14:58

The point of this exercise is to become attuned to the presence or flow of energy/sensation in the body (I think the technical term is virya). It's isn't about feeling the air pass over the skin under your nose; it's about the energy/sensation that occurs within the body and is stimulated by the act of breathing. In that sense, the inability to distinguish in-breath from out-breath isn't a problem. It's an insight: a gateway to understanding that the energy/sensation of the body isn't tied to or dependent on the physical act of breathing. It's more like the swirl of smoke from a candle-flame, that is moved by the passage of air but not part of it. You can then extend that notion of energy/sensation to the rest of the body, even places where it makes no sense to talk about the physical flow of air in breathing.

Thinking of it as the air of breath passing over the frenulum is a constructive misconception: the best way someone can understand until they understand better. It may be time for you to move on from that.


Goenka claims that the Vipassana technique he teaches is the pure one which was lost by all other teachers. There is absolutely no evidence for this claim. In fact, if you look at Goenka’s teacher, and his teacher’s teacher, you will note changes already happening within a century! So it is exceedingly unlikely this was the pure technique passed down by the Buddha.

If you actually take a look at the Pali Canon, you will see that what Goenka teaches does not line up with the best (and quite good) actual historical record we have of something close to what the Buddha may have actually taught.

So you don’t need to be worried about “mixing traditions.” You might be interested in the following video https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=bcMC0iGGyFk&pp=ygUGU3VqYXRv . It is quite long, but one of the key points is that the Buddha did not seem to care that much about the technique of meditation, he was more concerned with how you used whatever technique you had.

So if focusing on the upper lip is not working for you, do not be afraid to focus somewhere else on the body.


No, the main purpose of breath meditation is not to develop samatha. Collection of sutta passages on breath meditation here: https://lucid24.org/sted/16aps/index.html The main purpose is to counter the tendency for most people to engage in senseless thinking. Breath awareness is a way to root your attention in a skillful Dharma and prevent the mind from wandering in unprofitable directions.

So in whatever way one can be aware of the breath, at the nostrils, abdomen, in any body part, or the whole body simultaneously, as long as it brings the awareness to the breath and any skillful Dharma and away from the mind's tendency to become deluded and wandering, then the purpose has been served.

Step 3 of the the 16 steps is also important to understand correctly. 'sabba kāya patisaṁvedi', is to become senstive to the sensation of breath in the entire physical body. Not restricted to nostril, or abdomen, or any other small part.

  • What is your definition of Samatha? I always just translated it as concentration, any kind of concentration.
    – Lowbrow
    Dec 3, 2023 at 14:45
  • DPD (digtal pali dict.) has:samatha 1.1 masc. (+gen) stilling (of); serenity (of); calming (of); settling (of); peace (of); (comm) mental unification [√sam + a + tha] ✓ grammarexamplesdeclensionroot familycompound familyfrequencyfeedback samatha 1.2 masc. (+gen) (vinaya) settlement (of); deciding (of); appeasement (of); adjudication (of) [√sam + a + tha] ✓
    – frankk
    Dec 3, 2023 at 18:02
  • samatha is an important ingredient of samādhi, but it is not equivalent to it. samādhi ("concentration") in EBT (early buddhism) means the mind is undistractible, lucid (seeing reality clearly without distortion). Samatha, if you wanted to equate it with something, would more closely match the passadhi awakening factor (pacification, deep relaxation).
    – frankk
    Dec 3, 2023 at 18:06
  • Seeing a concept clearly isn’t seeing the reality human beings didn’t make up clearly. Right?
    – Lowbrow
    Dec 12, 2023 at 10:30
  • How do you see impermanence when your looking at a concept?
    – Lowbrow
    Dec 12, 2023 at 10:32

Anapana just knows conceptual qualities about the breathing that you’re conceptual mind makes up given the moment by moment information on the breath. This is good for building concentration before you practice Vipassana.

If you are practicing Vipassana and not strictly anapana then you just know the non-conceptual experience of the breath. It should feel warmer when it comes out and cooler when it comes in and that is not conceptual when it’s happening. Don’t worry if you can’t see everything so clearly at first. That is how everyone is when they start out even 5 months later. Don’t try to breath or not breath in any particular way and if it seems you are still controlling then it’s ok as long as you’re practicing correctly. If you don’t worry about it because you know that you are practicing correctly, you have good faith or confidence in the practice, then that feeling that you’re controlling the breath should stop but even if it doesn’t, good practice isn’t always comfortable.

Really, what is controlling the breath? This is where you might start deeply seeing how you aren’t in control. Anatta. Don’t worry if things seem counter productive as long as you’re practicing correctly.

  • That's not according to the suttas. What you're describing is anapana and the samatha vipassana corrupted by LBT (late buddhist teachings), later Theravada corruptions in the dhamma.
    – frankk
    Dec 4, 2023 at 11:46
  • think about it. The breath is a physical process! You have to be sensitive to a physical body to be aware of physical processes. When you start believe LBT redefinitions where kāya (body) gets redefined as "collection of only mental factors devoid of physical body", you have to ask yourself whether you should be trusting teachings that came 500-1000 years later after the buddha's death and contradict his original teachings.
    – frankk
    Dec 4, 2023 at 11:48
  • What do you think I got wrong exactly? I never said that kaya was a collection of mental factors. Although I do have confusion about namarupa and what exactly a pairwise occurrence is. Also, the critiques I have seen on the Visudhimagga seem extremely biased. Obviously, Buddhagosa had helpers and they had different ideas about heaven and Maitreya.
    – Lowbrow
    Dec 12, 2023 at 10:14
  • How are you going to downvote another approach to Buddhism that maybe you don’t understand? You must understand everything then? You don’t see any ego laying around over there? What if you’re right? That could really swell that ego up. Walking around all swollen. I want to be wrong in a way so that I can learn and not be all puffed up.
    – Lowbrow
    Dec 12, 2023 at 10:24
  • Paramatha is fundamental to the deep understanding of the Buddha’s teaching. You don’t understand?
    – Lowbrow
    Dec 17, 2023 at 21:50

Its because you or your body is not calm enough or healthy enough to experience natural breathing. Your tendency to DO is strong.

However the faculty of knowing never get hindered. At present you know that there is breathing. Though you are struggeling to reflect this knowledge at sensation level.

Just contemplate that you are alive. And no one can remain alive without breathing. Rest in that knowing.

This knowingness is sufficient enough for you. Mindfulness just is. Mindfulness can not be more or less.

At the same time you are also aware that breathing is gross. Its not smooth enough to be discerned as satisfied.Thats all.

Once you give up tendency to control it. It will get smoother depending on health,precept and consistency of mindfulness.

As you particularly said difficulty of differentiating in and out. Try just differentiation between one direction to other. Instead of labeling in and out. Just lable change. It may be that what you think is IN may be Out and vice versa.

Its anicca. Not in your control. Hence dukkha. Stay in this discernment.

At the same time if you wish there are various ways to inprove sensatios

(1) try to differentiate left and right nose breathing.

(2) keep changing and narrowing /widening area at nose.

(3) try forceful breathing for a while.

(4) try to hold breath for a while.

(5) do some pranayam like kapalbhati, deep breathing in advance.

(6) exercise.

(7)change food habit.

(8) take ayurved medicine.

(9) kriyayog.

(10) jalneti. And yogasana to improve it.

  • Some people just have differently shaped noses. I can put a finger to my upper lip, breathe very hard, and still not feel much of anything, because the shape of my nose is such that the air exiting it does not strike my upper lip.
    – Jbag1212
    Dec 5, 2023 at 15:39
  • Sensation of breath is not by striking on upper lip. It is either by touch on passage or by feeling the pressure. Mainly by very tiny hair in nose.
    – enRaiser
    Dec 5, 2023 at 15:50
  • But if its too tough, i suggest go for chest or belly movement.
    – enRaiser
    Dec 5, 2023 at 15:50
  • But again, some people might not have the same types of nose hairs in their nose, and when the breath is soft there may be no discernible change in pressure if one has stiffer nose cartilage.
    – Jbag1212
    Dec 5, 2023 at 18:27
  • People like to claim that some people may not feel the breath near the nose because the mind has not become subtle enough yet, but in reality certain people just have different body types and they may never be able to feel the breath there no matter how subtle their mind is. There is nothing spiritual or magical about the nose.
    – Jbag1212
    Dec 5, 2023 at 18:29

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