credit: Cassandra Hamer

Anapanasati: The Subtle Art of Being Here, Now

A simple, ancient practice that you can do anywhere, anytime, and get back the control you need to make better decisions.

We humans are living in a hopeless time-warp. Our minds have a serious aversion to existing in the present moment. We may be sitting at dinner with our family, but our mind keeps jumping forward to that meeting we have at the office tomorrow, or to last week, when we had that big fight with our significant other. We live a split existence; our body is in the present moment, but our mind is either in the past or future.

And this split existence is at the root of some of the most difficult and nagging problems we have. One of those problems is the problem of self-control. When our bodies are in the present moment and our minds are fixed on some other time, we become out of touch with our bodies. When we become out of touch with our bodies, we give up the reins of control over them.

As we spend more time away from our bodies — so to speak — that distance between mind and body multiplies. We lose the opportunity for a deep knowledge of what our bodies are telling us, and how our mind and body relate to one another. When we lose that, we can feel anxiety, stress, hopelessness, and various other emotions that all share the common theme of weakened control over how we behave.

It tends to manifest in the same ways: you’re distracted and stressed; you have a lot to do, and a lot on your mind, so you venture over to the pantry and open the pack of cookies. Before you know it, you’ve eaten 3 of them. But you barely even feel satisfied. You walk into a meeting at work, thinking of all of the things that you need to do today, tomorrow, for the rest of the week. You drift in and out of paying attention during the meeting. You shift and squirm uncomfortably in your seat. Before you know it, the meeting is over, and you don’t even remember what happened in it. You feel more stressed, and it’s not even time for lunch yet.

A Way Forward

But there is something that can help. In the Buddhist tradition, they call it anapanasati, which roughly translates to “awareness of breath”. It may sound simple — almost too simple to do much of anything, but that’s kind of the point. Some of the most effective modes of change are so simple and obvious that they continue to be overlooked, until they’re not.

In a wonderful essay on the topic of anapanasati, Ajahn Sumedo says of the practice:

The rhythm of our normal breathing is not interesting or compelling, it is tranquilizing, and most beings aren’t used to tranquility. Most people like the idea of peace, but find the actual experience of it disappointing or frustrating.

The gentle rhythm of the breath, being slower than the rhythm of thought, takes us to tranquility; we begin to stop thinking.

It’s true, most of us are not used to tranquility, to peace. We may think we are, but most of us think that peace and tranquility are the same as a state of pleasure — being happy or feeling really good. But when most of us think of those feelings, they involve stimulation, activity (especially mental activity), and excitement. But peace and tranquility are not happiness or pleasure. They are feelings of quiet and stillness. They are the mental equivalent of a calm and glassy lake on a mild morning without wind.

And that is the point, the stillness of a mind concentrating on that fundamental bodily activity of breathing is the stillness that builds connection between mind and body. That connection between mind and body is the bridge to a connection between a person and the present moment.

When you can be fully in the present moment, connected — by mind and body — you can more effectively assert yourself. You can say “no” to tempting sugary treats. You can say “no” to zoning out and being preoccupied. And when that happens — when you’re not split between preoccupation with the past or future, and being conscious of the present — you will leave behind that feeling that accompanies missing moments of your day. You will have fully experienced the minutes and hours as they unfolded. No more “where has the day gone?” moments of anxiety.

More Than Just Breathing

The practice of anapanasati is not simply about attention to breath. It may begin that way, and any time you find yourself losing control, that is the touchstone: just collapse your attention into your breath.

But anapanasati evolves into the practice of cultivating a mindset — a way of approaching your own mind — a better and more compassionate way. Sumedo, again, elaborates:

We are training the mind like a good mother trains her child. A little child doesn’t know what it is doing, it just wanders off; and if the mother gets angry with it and spanks and beats it, the child becomes terrified and neurotic. A good mother will just leave the child, keeping an eye on it, and if it wanders she will bring it back. Having that kind of patience, we’re not trying to bash away at ourselves, hating ourselves, hating our breath, hating everybody, getting upset because we can’t get tranquil with anapanasati

In this way we’re not trying to become perfect all at once. We don’t have to do everything just right according to some idea of how it should be, but we work with the problems that are there. If we have a scattered mind, then it’s wisdom to recognize the mind that goes all over the place — that is insight. To think that we shouldn’t be that way, to hate ourselves or feel discouraged because that is the way we happen to be — that is ignorance.

Simple Steps

Now you have a basic understanding of what this practice is and what it can do for you. Now for the how. Here’s a list of simple steps to help deploy the practice of anapanasati, in order to get the most out of it.

  1. Close your eyes and inhale deliberately by using your diaphragm and belly. Then exhale at first sharply, but gradually easing.
  2. Open your eyes and allow your breath to happen without you directing it.
  3. Feel each inhalation and exhalation. A helpful way to start doing this is to imagine your stomach as a balloon, expanding and contracting as you breathe in and out.
  4. As you experience other thoughts pop into your head, simply note them with a smile (either an actual smile or a mental smile) — the same kind of smile that you’d used to acknowledge an innocent child in public. Be careful not to get angry or anxious about thoughts “intruding”. Just let them be.
  5. Gently bring your focus back to your breathing, leaving alone any thoughts that have popped into your head. It’s helpful to imagine yourself allowing your intrusive thoughts to stay with you, but as an audience, watching you focus on your breathing, peacefully — as if to say “here’s how to do it.” It sounds weird, but it works.

Do this regularly throughout the day, as you remember to do it. It’s especially helpful right before you begin eating a meal, or as you wash your hands after having gone to the bathroom. Even practicing for 30 seconds in between meetings or at a stoplight in your car can be extremely effective. It serves to punctuate your day with the kind of presence and receptiveness that can help you feel more like you have experienced the day, instead of another hectic day having gotten away from you.

As you practice anapanasati more and more during your normal days, you should notice a feeling of a bit more control over your actions. You’ll be less likely to find yourself with a mouthful of cake that you don’t quite remember putting there, and more likely to find yourself a bit less stressed out.