Tempel Smith spent a year ordained as a monk in Burma and teaches Buddhist psychology and social activism in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is currently part of the IMS/Spirit Rock Teacher Training Program.
At the beginning of breath awareness practice we can feel our attention is either with the breath or distracted. As we deepen out faith and dedication to mindfulness of breathing we learn to breath in and breath out in all conditions. The breath becomes a sanctuary to accompany us in all conditions.
In the detailed description of the 16 steps of anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing) the first 12 steps develop samadhi (concentration) as a basis for the last four steps (13-16) of insight practice. These are using in and out breathing to become sensitive to impermanence (anicca), and from impermanence to releasing the agitation (viraga) from trying to find security in a fluid and fluctuating world. The second to last step in relaxing into the completeness and thoroughness of endings (nirodha), as a support to the last step of fully letting go.
After our initial work to begin meditation on in and out breathing we can further relax with total faith into immersion with breathing awareness. Some gentle supporting techniques of counting can be helpful, as well as welcoming an attitude of devotion and patience to support breathing as a sanctuary.
When the Buddha taught detailed instructions for breath meditation he often used 16 steps from initial meditation to complete freedom. The first 12 steps on the common meditation guidelines to develop stable concentration and experience a mind temporarily free from inner turmoil.
After exploring many categories of beings to eventually send mettā to all beings, we can now approach each conception of single or many mettā subjects to be places of collected, restful mettā samādhi (loving kindness concentration). It's more simple and humble than many expect it to be.
This style of meditation practice is designed to support both the strengthening of mettā (loving kindness) and samādhi (concentration). The kind and benevolent tone of the brahmavihārās (sacred dwellings) carries a deep beckoning of our hearts to be whole and steady, so these are wonderful and meaningful qualities to use for samādhi/concentration. After many days of practicing we can taste our hearts becoming whole and can better see the possibility of letting go of old habits based in greed, insecurity and hatred.
Setting up and devoting ourselves to a steady mettā (loving kindness) meditation practice, we start where it is easiest and where we can keep it simple. With a basis of blending a sense of ease and relaxation with patient steady attentiveness, we invite mettā to arise in our hearts supported internally by images and phrases. Though it takes some experimenting to find balance with these tools, the repetition of mettā phrases keeps directing our attention to the purpose of mettā practice. These phrases are so very helpful when we live into more complex or challenging situations.
As we practice mettā meditation we will have waves where the practice feels easy, intuitive and validating; and we will all have waves where we struggle. There are five very common states which visit us in meditation practice called the "five hindrances". These are commonly named in English as craving, aversion, dullness, restlessness, and doubt. For steady mettā practice our first response to these challenges is to practice more carefully with patience determination. The second response is to offer ourselves kindness and compassion during challenging times. For mettā meditation and for the other three brahmaviharas, our third response to challenging times is to turn wakefully towards the qualities of the challenge and see them as only temporary conditions. We can greatly reduce the experience of suffering in the hindrances when we have mindful experience of them.
There are so many ways to practice formal mettā (loving kindness) meditation, and they all benefit from a relaxed mind and body. The proximal cause for samadhi (concentration) to arise is from a deepening sense of happiness, calm, and contentment. Many practitioners are drawn to use will and force to concentrate their attention, and this leads to agitation, frustration, and fatigue. With mettā breathing and body awareness we can cultivate the ease so useful for our hindrances to subside.
Sariputta equated the stream of liberation to being the very same 8 fold path of the Buddha's main teachings. The 8 fold path can be summed up as the three higher trainings: training in Sīla, Samādhi, and Pañña. To stay in the stream which only flow in one direction - liberation - we only need to embrace Sīla (ethical attunement), Samādhi (cultivating beautiful aspects of heart), and Pañña (living with wise perspective). Whether you wear robes on the outside of your body or if you are a lay person, we want to ordain our hearts to wear the inner robes of Sīla, Samādhi, and Pañña.