There is a teaching passed down from the Buddha that is known in all the different Buddhist traditions. It is a complete self-contained training that can take you all the way to the end of suffering. It is called the 'Anapana sati sutta' (teaching on mindfulness of breathing). There are also many different interpretations from different teachers on how to practise this sutta. So it is good to shop around and try out different techniques and see what works well for you.
I have found a way of practising that suits me and I feel comfortable with. I set myself a length of time, and cycle through the sequence over and over till the alarm goes off. If I am just doing a short meditation I will cycle through it once.
For the first cycle I do each step for three complete breaths, as I want to go over it all, as it is a training exercise. This also helps me memorise the sequence and helps with the modern day human deficit of having a short attention span at times.
For the second cycle I slow down a bit and increase the amount of time to about 5 – 10 breaths for each step. Then for subsequent cycles I don’t count the breaths anymore, I just stay with each step for as long as feels good, taking my time and naturally moving on when it feels right to do so. Sometimes I am not even worrying about the sequence, it just all seems to happen naturally like a flow.
But when first starting to learn I found it helpful to practise 3 breaths per step, as going through the sequence like this can easily be fitted into a ten minute break. Then when one has memorised the sequence and knows it well enough and has the luxury of time, one can let go of the counting and just enjoy going through it at whatever pace feels good, I find sometimes I do it rapidly and other times I really go over it slowly and get deeply absorbed in it.
Learning this sutta is a bit like learning to play a piece of music. It has four tetrads. First you’re learning to calm and bring ease to the body.
Then you are working with feelings (in Buddhism feelings are bodily sensations and a mental feeling tone that accompanies them which can be either: pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral). In this tetrad one is deliberately and shamelessly bringing into being feelings of joy, bodily pleasure, and bliss.
Then one becomes sensitive to thoughts, watching them and calming them to a hush. (Thoughts are seen as sensations in Buddhism, they come from the mind sense.)
The third tetrad is about the emotions, our moods, our state of mind, noticing it and then satisfying and gladdening it.
Then one steadies the mind, and releases it - setting it free.
The fourth tetrad is where it gets deep and one focuses on change, both change here and now in the short term, how we are currently riding on the energy of the big bang, all these energies arising and passing in the moment, impossible to hold on to as they keep changing; and how things change in the long term: time, day and night, seasons, ageing, death, entropy, impermanence, how things fade away and decay, both in the short term and long term. And seeing that nothing lasts, one invokes dispassion for the senses, for the world, samsara, and the story of self.
One then focuses on cessation of suffering and the knowledge that there is a much greater happiness to be found within. What does the mind feel like when it is not craving?
And the last step is about letting go of the grasping. Moments are phantoms, there's nothing to cling to, they are insubstantial because they are always changing. My body changes, my sensations change, feelings change, perceptions change, thoughts change, emotions change, consciousness changes, and one day I will die and this body will rot, and whatever I leave behind will also in time fade away, nothing lasts, nothing is eternal. Everything I hold dear and everyone I love will become separated from me due to the nature of change. Understanding this, one lets go of the attachment to samsara, lets go of attachment to the world, lets go of aversion, of delight in the senses, of delusion. And instead learns the secret of how to cultivate a profound lasting bliss that does not rely on anything outside oneself. A state of mind that doesn’t suffer, that exists in a perpetual state of emotional well-being in spite of everything. Nibanna.
It is a training, you are training the skills in this meditation to induce these states of mind, and it’s okay to use one’s imagination and memory to help invoke them. Find ways of talking yourself into these states of mind. It is a lot about the stories we tell ourselves. It isn’t easy at first, there’s a desert one must cross as one learns it, and it can take many hours of practise. But one day the Buddha promises it will yield great fruit, and be of great benefit.
As with anything we learn in life, with practise and perseverance it will become automatic, like second nature. And when one knows it off by heart, one can really get absorbed in it, and carried away in it’s melodies and increasing depth to beautiful states of higher mind, all conjured and brought into being by the meditator.
A concise summary of the steps taught in the anapana sati sutta:
First tetrad (body)
1. Breathing in long, one knows they are breathing in long. Breathing out long one knows they are breathing out long.
2. Breathing in short, one knows they are breathing in short. Breathing out short one knows they are breathing out short.
(Just simply notice if your breath is long or short, you are gently gathering the mind in.)
3. One trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in sensitive to the body and breath; one trains: ‘I shall breathe out sensitive to the body and breath.’ (The sense of the body is in background awareness whilst central focus is on the breath, this is known as one-pointed attention. It is not a narrow tunnel-vision focus. It is a whole-hearted attention involving the whole of one’s being. An embodied attention. )
4. One trains: ‘I shall breathe in calming the body; one trains: ‘I shall breathe out calming the body.’
Second tetrad (sensations and feelings)
5. One trains: ‘I shall breathe in sensitive to rapture (joy); one trains: ‘I shall breathe out sensitive to rapture (joy) .’
6. One trains: ‘I shall breathe in sensitive to pleasure ; one trains: ‘I shall breathe out sensitive to pleasure.’
7. One trains: ‘I shall breathe in sensitive to thoughts; one trains: ‘I shall breathe out sensitive to thoughts.’
8. One trains: ‘I shall breathe in calming thoughts; one trains: ‘I shall breathe out calming thoughts.’
Third tetrad Mind (Heart, emotions, mood, state of mind)
9. One trains: ‘I shall breathe in senstive to the mind; one trains: ‘I shall breathe out sensitive to the mind.’
10. One trains: ‘I shall breathe in gladdening and satisfying the mind; one trains: ‘I shall breathe out gladdening and satisfying the mind.’
11. One trains: ‘I shall breathe in steadying the mind; one trains: ‘I shall breathe out steadying the mind.’
12. One trains: ‘I shall breathe in releasing the mind; one trains: ‘I shall breathe out releasing the mind.’
Fourth tetrad (Dhamma, insight, knowledge, wisdom)
13. One trains: ‘I shall breathe in focusing on change; one trains: ‘I shall breathe out focusing on change.’
14. One trains: ‘I shall breathe in focusing on dispassion (because everything fades away); one trains: ‘I shall breathe out focusing on dispassion.’
15. One trains: ‘I shall breathe in focusing on cessation (of suffering); one trains: ‘I shall breathe out focusing on cessation.’
16. One trains: ‘I shall breathe in focusing on letting go (of the clinging); one trains: ‘I shall breathe out focusing on letting go.’