Mindfulness of Breath (ānāpānasmṛti: smṛti = mindfulness, ānāpāna = inhalation and exhalation), is a fundamental form of meditation personally taught by Buddha Shakyamuni. According to this teaching, classically presented in the Ānāpānasmṛti Sutra, practicing this form of meditation as a part of the Noble Eightfold Path leads to the removal of all defilements and finally to the attainment of liberation. It is important to appreciate that Mindfulness of Breath is not the same as breathing exercises; it is the mind that is cultivated in this practice, and not the breath.
Breathing is something that we all do. For human beings it is a primary sign of life, and therefore it is very useful as an object of meditation. The breath has many qualities to recommend it as a specific object for developing concentration: it is natural, vital, effortless, accessible, pervasive, calming, and portable.
Traditionally, Mindfulness of Breath is used as a basis for practicing meditative concentration until it reaches the state of full absorption. The Buddha’s teaching in this matter was based on his own experience in using Mindfulness of Breath as part of his means of achieving enlightenment. Basically, Mindfulness of Breath refers to holding the awareness of breath in the mind for an extended period of time. Sustained attention on the breath is training in stillness, and produces dispassion and contentment.
In an untrained mind, thoughts constantly arise, disturbing the focus. They arise and fall away, like waves in an ocean. If we disregard them, they slowly wither and disappear. On the other hand, if we pay attention to them, we are soon lost in a web of thinking. There are two types of thoughts: thoughts from the past and thoughts about the future. These may bring happiness or sadness. When left unattended, the mind will flit from one thought to another, wandering aimlessly. We are thus instructed to return attention to the breath instead of chasing after thoughts, which distract us.
The Ānāpānasmṛti Sutra specifically concerns mindfulness of inhalation and exhalation, leading to the cultivation the seven factors of awakening: mindfulness, analysis, persistence, delight, serenity, concentration, and equanimity. The Buddha taught that, with these factors developed in this progression, the practice of Mindfulness of Breath leads to release from suffering.
Two of the most important Mahāyāna Teachers, Asaṅga and Vasubandhu, in the Grounds of Hearers chapter of the Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra and the Treasury of Manifest Knowledge, respectively, state that Mindfulness of Breath is a profound practice leading to insight (vipaśyanā). In the practice tradition presented in Asaṅga’s Grounds of Hearers and Vasubandhu’s Treasury, Mindfulness of Breath is a necessary and sufficient basis for reflection on Dharma, leading to insight. Furthermore, in the Pañcakrama tantric tradition of Nagarjuna, Mindfulness of Breath is also said to be sufficient to trigger an experience of insight in the context of the completion stage in highest yogatantra.
In the Jonang, Kagyu, and Nyingma traditions of Buddhism in Tibet, Mindfulness of Breath is considered an integral component of the practices of Vajrayoga, Mahāmudrā, and Dzogchen, respectively, as it is the ideal way for the meditator to transition into taking the mind itself as the object of meditation and generating insight on that basis.