An Xennial's Unlikely Journey of Spiritual Discovery
Whole Body Breathing as Technique to Achieve Single Pointed Attention
In the context of cultivating samatha, an oft-stated goal of meditators is achieving the elusive state of "single-pointed concentration". For illustrative purposes, the discussion that follows assumes that the meditator's object of attention are breath sensations at the nostrils (breath for short). In terms of defining single-pointed concentration, I define it as "exclusive" and "effortless" attention on the breath (i.e. Stage 8 of The Mind Illuminated). Attention is "exclusive" when distractions that threaten to take the meditator's attention away from the breath either fail to arise or arise but do not succeed in actually distracting the meditator. Attention is "effortless" when the meditator is able to stay with the breath by simply setting an intention to do so, with no further effort being required to keep attention on the object of meditation. Personally, when I achieve effortless and exclusive attention on the breath it feels as if the meditation meditates itself. By this I mean that I simply sit and the attention goes straight to the breath, with any distraction and dullness that arises being automatically corrected for without any conscious effort. It is as if it were all happening on its own and I'm just along for the ride.
Having explained what I mean by "single-pointed concentration", in what follows I will describe a technique for achieving this state called "whole body breathing". This technique is highlighted in Stage 6 of "The Mind Illuminated" as a tool for achieving effortless and exclusive attention (i.e. "single-pointed concentration"). At first glance, the concept of "whole body breathing" may sound mysterious, since only certain parts of the body tend to be associated with breathing sensations, such as the areas around the nostrils, belly and chest. As such, whole body breathing has generated a great deal of angst amongst The Mind Illuminated yogis, since many find it difficult, if not impossible, to perceive breath sensations outside of the areas traditionally associated with the breath. In an effort to help those who feel stumped by this technique, I will devote the rest of this post to sharing my thoughts on how to approach whole body breathing skillfully.
In sum, I think the best way of thinking about whole body breathing is not as actual/real breath sensations flowing through the body, but rather as bodily sensations that correlate with breath sensations. That is, you don't need to look for breath sensations that cause physical bodily sensations far away from the typical breath focal points (nostrils, chest, belly, etc). Instead, look for bodily sensations that arise and pass in tandem or in a way that seems related with the arising and passing away of the breath. I spent a lot of time actually looking for physical sensations caused by the breath to no avail and great frustration. Once I understood that correlation between breath and body sensations suffices, it made things much easier.
Another suggestion is to don't obsess over this technique. Obsessing over it leads to chasing ghosts, trying to find the a distant bodily sensation (say in one's foot) that is caused by one's breathing. It's fine if you find it, but you need not do so. Once more, correlation is more than enough for our purposes here. Also, if you've done your best over a reasonable period of time and can only feel bodily sensations that correlate with the breath in some parts of the body but not the whole body, let that be enough. As a teacher once said to me on retreat: "Do the best you can, and let that be enough".
Finally, note that whole body breathing is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. In a nutshell, the point of whole body breathing is to expand your attention to encompass an object of attention that is much wider in scope (bodily sensations that correlate with the breath) than the one you're used to (breath sensations at the nostrils). Why? Because we want to develop exclusive attention on the breath (Stage 7 of The Mind Illuminated) and in order to do that we want to keep our mental bandwidth as occupied as possible with the breath. We do this by expanding our notion of the breath to include many more bodily sensations than the ones at the nostrils. By doing this, almost all of our bandwidth goes to paying attention to breath related sensations, thus preventing distractions from coming up and alternating with attention. That is, you're using so much attentional power when paying attention to sensations correlated with the breath throughout the body, that there is very little additional bandwidth or headspace left for paying attention to distractions. This eventually helps you subdue subtle distractions and gain exclusive attention on the breath. That's where you want to go - exclusive attention (Stage 7) and whole body breathing is simply a means to help you get there. If whatever sensations you can correlate to the breath help you get to exclusive attention, then whole body breathing did its job, regardless of whether you were able to feel your breath literally in your whole body.
In terms of practical guidance, these are my suggestions:
(1) Look for correlation, not causation, when thinking about the relationship between breath and bodily sensations, especially subtle bodily sensations. If you find causation, that's fine, but it's not necessary. Correlation is enough.
(2) Begin with gross sensations. For example: the belly and the chest expanding and contracting with the breath. You can also feel how clothing touches against different parts of your body as you inhale and exhale. Notice as well how your shoulders go up and down with your breath. Once you've expanded your attention to nostrils, belly, chest, shoulders, clothing touching your skin as you breathe in and out, etc, then start looking for more subtle sensations, like tingling, vibration, electrical currents, etc. Keep all of these sensations, gross and subtle, correlated with the breath in attention.
If you get piti, which happens often during this practice, see what correlation there is between piti and breath. What happens with the piti when you breathe in? What happens when you breathe out with the piti? Keep this in attention as well.
(3) After you've explored this by doing the best you can for a reasonable period of time, then be content with what you have and let that be enough. It's not necessary for you to make progress to identify the subtlest of breath sensations in every single part of the body. It would be great if it happens, but not necessary. Once you've done this, move on to whatever is next in your practice. Don't get stuck trying to get whole body breathing perfect!