There are three kinds of breathing methods in Meditation:
– The Basic
– The Wise
– The Smart
The Basic Breathing method in Buddhist Meditation is passively discerning breaths without controlling or interfering. Ones just observe their breaths without trying to breathe.
Most practitioners find it very difficult in discerning their breaths at the beginning because they keep trying to breathe whenever they pay attention to their breaths.
Thus, the more they do that, the more uncomfortable that they feel – both physically and mentally. Fortunately enough, Buddha taught and emphasized heavily in the Basic Breathing pattern in Nikaya:
– Breathing in deeply, I know that I am breathing in deeply. Breathing out deeply, I know that I am breathing out deeply.
– Breathing in shortly, I know that I am breathing in shortly. Breathing out shortly, I know that breathing out shortly.
Thus, the basic breathing method in Buddhist Meditation is to simply Know and Notice ones’ breaths without deliberately making them longer or shorter, deeper or lighter. This is a stepping stone for practitioners to master the more advanced skill of “Discerning breaths” in meditation later on. Knowing without Controlling Breaths requires a sophisticated and advanced cognitive skill.
Mastering this skill makes ones become much more mindful and aware, especially the states of mind. When the mind is uncalm and disturbed, the breaths will be rushing, heavy, and uncomfortable. When the mind is calm and free of disturbance, the breaths will be light, slow, and relaxing. Just by observing the breaths, one can understand the states of their mind. When ones understand the states of their mind, they will be able to adjust their breaths accordingly.
That leads to the Wise breathing pattern in meditation, which is built upon the Basic Breathing Method and the experience of many practitioners. From the basic breathing method, many practitioners have observed the relationship between the breath and mind, and they have realized that the deep breath helps to calm the mind down. From that realization, they have added one higher step to the basic breathing method, which we would call the “the Wise Breathing Method”
– Breathing-in (Inhaling) lightly, calmly, and shortly.
– With hold the breaths for a little bit (if possible, ones could hold their breaths 3 times longer than inhaling)
– Breathing-out (Exhaling) slowly, up to five times longer than inhaling
The Wise Breathing method makes it much faster for practitioners to attain a calmer and concentrated mind. From this breathing pattern, many practitioners are able to shut down all of their aimless thoughts and disturbances inside. Once again, the wise breathing method is built upon the basic. So if ones do not master the basic breathing method, it is almost impossible for them to cultivate the next step!
When using the breaths to concentrate the mind, Breathing-Out (Exhaling) is the key. However, in order to breathe out, ones must breathe in first (obviously!). Thus, ones have to breathe in shortly and slightly but still enough air to exhaling 5 times longer. Besides inhaling and exhaling, withholding breaths for a little bit could be beneficial to ones’ physical health and will also help them be more patient from the practice of not rushing to breathe out immediately.
Lastly, it is the Smart Breathing Method – the inheritance and combination of Basic and Wise Breathing methods. Smart Breathing Method is carefully evaluating each breath in and out and seeing if the length and depth of each breath are appropriate enough based on the state of mind.
This requires practitioners to be much more concentrated, careful, sophisticated, and smart to evaluate each of their breaths in every split-second. Still, they have to ensure that exhalation is always longer than inhalation, but each breath is different from one another. The length and depth of each breath should be based on the state of mind at that very moment. Based on the state of minds, practitioners evaluate and judge and adjust their breaths accordingly and appropriately. If they notice that their mind is currently like this, then inhaling this much is good enough, withholding this much is fair enough, and inhaling this long is reasonable enough.
There is no exact method to count how many seconds that one breath should take; it is all based on the current state of practitioners’ minds. Each breath is a different case; however, exhaling has to be always longer than inhaling!
Observing ones’ breaths and minds every single split-second and evaluate how appropriate they are – require the higher level of intelligence and wisdom. When practitioners get to this point and practice this level of breathing method, they actually become smarter and wiser in daily life. They are able to look at many things in life with greater depth and insight.
Though there is no solid instruction to breathe correctly in meditation, the right way is always to breath calmly and lightly, without moving the body much (especially the abdominal/belly area). Later on in higher stages, though still breathing, there is absolutely no movement that happens in practitioners’ bodies. Many Buddhist schools have taught the method of observing the inflation and deflation of the abdomen. Though it is not the most correct way to breathe in Buddhist Mindfulness Meditation, it is still considered as a basic Qi-gong exercise to concentrate ones’ vital force in their abdominal area.