Setting Motivation: Breathing Exercises with Leah Zahler

Book coverby Leah Zahler

Because of the interdependence of the body, channels, winds, and mind, the breath becomes a means of purifying the meditator’s motivation; Gedün Lodrö refers to the process as “the settling down of the winds.” The winds in question here are those of the afflictive emotions—that is, “the coarse winds that serve as the mounts of impure motivations and coarse thoughts”—which are expelled with the breath.

The simplest method, explained by Lati Rinpoche, is to pacify any afflictive emotion that is present by counting “three, five, seven, nine, or twenty-one” breaths, beginning with the inhalations; the sharper the meditator’s faculties, the fewer breaths will be required. Then, when the mind is “somewhat neutral” (lung du ma bstan pa, avykrta), the meditator establishes a pure motivation by cultivating the altruistic mind of enlightenment before turning to his or her usual object of observation.

Gedün Lodrö presents three methods of meditating on the breath, in increasing order of difficulty; these can be used either by one person, who “progresses from one to the next as he or she increases in capacity,” or by different persons, according to their initial capacity. The first method involves attention to just exhalation and inhalation, not to how one is breathing—whether in long or short exhalations and inhalations—but simply to the fact of exhalation or inhalation; the meditator thinks, with each breath, either, “I am exhaling,” or, “I am inhaling.”

The second method, called the “twenty-one cycles,” is, essentially, the same method set forth by Lati Rinpoche, except that the number of breaths counted is always twenty-one.

The third method is known as “the nine-cycled dispelling of wind-corpses”—that is, of bad winds. Gedün Lodrö explains that “it is as if the coarse winds that serve as the mounts of impure motivations and coarse thoughts are expelled” with the breath. This method involves inhaling through the left nostril and exhaling through the right three times, inhaling through the right nostril and exhaling through the left three times, and then inhaling and exhaling through both nostrils three times; beginners can use the fingers to press closed the nostril not being used, but, according to Gedün Lodrö, this is unnecessary for advanced practitioners. There are other systems that instruct the meditator to do each type of inhalation and exhalation once and then to repeat the series twice more.

According to Gedün Lodrö, “This practice does not mainly rely on the exhalation and inhalation of the breath but on the imagination of it,” since “in order to purify bad motivation, it is necessary to make it manifest.” Here “making it manifest” means visualizing it.

Meditators should imagine or manifest their own impure motivation in the form of smoke, and with the exhalation of breath should expel all bad motivation. When inhaling they should imagine that all the blessings and good qualities of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, in the form of bright light, are inhaled into them. This practice is called purification by way of the descent of ambrosia (bdud rtsi ’bebs sbyang).

Book cover
According to Lati Rinpoche, who discusses this type of breath meditation in the context of the objects of observation for purifying behavior, this practice originated in Tibet and “is not mentioned in the Indian texts”; for that reason, although Lati Rinpoche considers it “helpful,” he does not regard it as mandatory.

To explain why observing the breath makes possible the establishment of a pure motivation, Gedün Lodrö, relying on Dharmakīrti’s Commentary on (Dignaga’s) “Compilation of [Teachings on] Prime Cognition” (prama - navarttikakarika, tshad ma rnam ’grel gyi gshig le’ur byas pa), points out that “when strong desire manifests, hatred will not manifest and vice versa because desire and hatred are…different conceptions of a similar type”—similar in that both are mental factors—and therefore, in systems asserting six consciousnesses, cannot operate simultaneously in the continuum (rgyud, samtana) of one person. Similarly, it is impossible to have discursiveness or manifest afflictive emotions and, simultaneously, to focus on an object of observation. Gedün Lodrö emphasizes the importance of this initial period of observing the breath:

As much as you are able to withdraw the mind during this period of meditative stabilization on the breath,
so great will be your ability to do as you wish in meditative stabilization [on your main object of observation].

Meditation on the breath pacifies all afflictive emotions somewhat; it especially pacifies discursiveness, or coarse conceptuality, thereby increasing the meditator’s ability to focus not only on the breath but also on other objects of observation. Thus, although there are many possible objects of observation, this initial period of observing the breath for the sake of purifying motivation is important to a meditator’s progress in observing any of them.

—Adapted from Study and Practice of Meditation: Tibetan Interpretations of the Concentrations and Formless Absorptions, by Leah Zahler

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