Presence, Breath, Awareness — The Trinity of Mindfulness
Presence, breath and awareness are the timeless keys to spiritual practice. A thousand years ago, right now, or a thousand years from now — for the vast majority of beings, especially those caught in endless work cycles or complex social situations, these three will rule the day.
Breath is the engine of all activity. The substances of your body, from the densest matter of the bones, to the refined fluids of the spine and brain, can all be realized directly as just breath. And so can consciousness itself.
And breath, in turn, as well as the whole body, can be realized as consciousness.
This is, in fact, the mixed matrix of the body-mind, the process of neverending change through the form of a being, which is, internally and externally, the actual form, or body, of the being.
Form is what we generally call matter, yet matter is just a particular state of form. All appearing things have form, as does energy, in any form, inner or outer, and so do the mental images of consciousness that appear when you close your eyes. But all appearing forms are always aggregated. There is never a singular pure form, rather, every form, and mixes of various forms, are the result of the interactions of consciousness and the air element — which is the element of process and change. This interaction of air and consciousness generates form, and that form is thus an aggregate, but also the pure spontaneous presence of whatever appears — of reality, of the nature of mind, of whatever you may want to call this whole. Whatever appears has a spontaneous wholeness, but it can only be known through presence and awareness.
So returning to the body, it is an aggregated mess of endlessly changing consciousness attributes, and at the same time it is pure presence. The utter completeness and simplicity of your presence, containing whatever it may contain at that very moment — this presence is a perfect nature of mind. You can know it, let go into it, open up with it, concentrate it, be aware of it and let it grow into awareness or let awareness shine into it and cut through it and cut through anything together with it. Pain, thoughts, emotions, even consciousness itself — anything can be cut through with presence and awareness.
All beings have a triune function: Body, Voice and Mind. The Body can be understood as pure presence, Voice, as breath, the neverending empty process of change, and Mind as awareness. All forms and processes of consciousness, as well as the very nature of consciousness itself, whether empty of containing objects of consciousness, is just the brilliant play of awareness — brilliant because it is spontaneous, and brilliant because it is clear and perfect, empty and ever anew. Whatever mental processes are ongoing in your mind, whatever questions about those processes you may generate, however you may twist them, whatever objects of consciousness you may conjure, or are followed by continuously, their basic nature, their root and middle and end, the translucent consciousness-substance they are made of, it’s always the same instantaneous play of awareness.
And that play occurs in an empty transcendent nothingness that is Mind, or the Nature of Mind, but this is another story for another day. I’ll say that, beyond consciousness and the brilliant play of awareness, and beyond all spontaneously appearing forms, there is a great unknowable nature, which is Mind. And to fully realize this nature in the spontaneous play of presence and awareness is the work of great beings.
Now back to more practical, and simpler things. Pure presence and pure awareness, as well as the aggregated physical body and the endless changing forms of consciousness, are united by breath. The breath is just as simple and spontaneous as presence and awareness are, so this triad is incredibly useful for spiritual practice, and in fact, any type of mindfulness practice that does not engage all three tremendously misses out.
In general, the type of mindfulness usually practiced nowadays is based on the space-element, on observing phenomena and developing a fullness of the quality of attention, then turning that attention back onto the mind itself and enjoying the restful and the active benefits of a state where there are less phenomena present, and more stable mental qualities. In this state the breath will also become somewhat more stable, and due to this change in the quality of breath, the state of mindfulness will to some degree be able to pervade the more active stages of one’s life. Because without the support of breath, without transforming the breath into a more pervasive and powerfully stable basis for concentration and consciousness, there really is no chance to bring mindfulness into even somewhat active scenarios. Modern mindfulness is concerned with the objects of consciousness, and some of the qualities of consciousness, a type of indirect awareness practice with either narrow or open focus, without working directly with the spontaneous and endless process of change and transformation that is the nature and mechanism of experience and of the whole body-mind.
But when working the breath, it eventually becomes a spontaneous energy drive and endless unifying support for presence and awareness, and it never leaves, not even in the tensest and harshest situations.
And this is why the Buddha taught breath cultivation, and why especially in true tantric practice, it is such an incredibly important tool. When the breath is truly cultivated, it becomes inner, it becomes stable and balanced internally, and what occurs then can be describes as an actual breath body, a body of breath that permeates the full presence of the form body, and has far more spontaneous and powerful qualities than that body. In this state of inner breath, the empty balanced concentration of samadhi allows one to even see into the consciousness processes of the body, to literally see through the various forms of the body and realize their nature and the consciousness processes that drive and compose them. It is like looking at a consciousness landscape that is, in fact, one’s own body. And through this mix of breath cultivation and direct mental realization, the presence of the body transforms, and with it, the actual substances of the body begin to change.
Because all the five elements are permeated by air, and can be realized as just consciousness and energy, transforming the air element, which is energy, naturally transforms the other elements as well. This process unfolds when breath and awareness are united — without realizing the inner consciousness landscape of the body, the whole process remains at a level where consciousness is restricted to the head, and breath to the chest, and perhaps a bit of the abdomen.
But unfiying presence, breath and awareness, and concentrating all three naturally, leads to a stage of natural samadhi, of natural empty concentration which extends to presence, the breath, and awareness, in any moment of life, and eventually leads to the stage where consciousness is unified internally and externally, and inner and outer landscapes are no longer differentiated.
Of course, this is no different from the simple and brilliant play of awareness, which is like the natural freshness of all mental appearances, inner and outer, of the breath, and of the spontaneity of one’s own presence.
Gently stop the breath, in a balanced manner — it’s easy, anyone can do it, simply mentally concentrate your nose a bit and the breath gently stops — then become aware of it, unify breath and awareness, and once that is stable, simply bring it into your natural presence, wherever you are. The nose is also the natural resting place of concentration, the one-pointed union of inner and outer.