Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation - by Larry Rosenberg


Picture a tree in a powerful storm, with high winds and heavy rain. The tree is blown back and forth by the wind, often looking as if it will blow over, but it doesn't, because it has deep roots. In our practice, the deep roots are a stable sitting posture--that's what acquiring a seat is all about, developing composure and stability--and the storm can be a powerful emotion, like fear or loneliness or anger.

Mindfulness is often likened to a mirror; it simply reflects what is there. It is not a process of thinking; it is preconceptual, before thought. One can be mindful of thought. There is all the difference in the world between thinking and knowing that thought is happening, as thoughts chase each other through the mind and the process is mirrored back to us.

Having worked with any number of students through the years, I feel that meditators should follow the breathing where it seems most vivid and comfortable to them, where it is most likely to hold their attention. None of these places will always, in every sitting, remain the most vivid. But it is important not to keep jumping from one to another, feeding an already restless mind. Station your attention at the nose, chest, or abdomen, and remain there with some consistency. As the practice matures, it may no longer be necessary to pinpoint your attention. You can be with the breath as it emerges and disappears throughout the body.

Walking Meditation

You begin by choosing a walking track, an unencumbered path where you can take fifteen to twenty steps (the steps themselves are quite small). Stand in a balanced posture and notice that you are breathing, just as you have been doing while sitting. You can clasp your hands in front of you if that feels comfortable. Some people clasp them behind the back; others just let their arms hang at their sides. It is helpful if your body is upright--not leaning in any direction--and relaxed. If you feel tension in any part of the body, just bring mindfulness to it and that will usually take care of it. The eyes are open but not staring. Try to maintain a soft gaze. To begin, wait for an in-breath. As it arises, raise the right foot, heel first, then the sole of the foot, then the toes. Move the foot forward as the breath continues, and as you exhale, place it on the ground, finishing the step. The heel of the stepping foot should be just ahead of the toes of the other one. Then wait for the next inhalation and take the same kind of step with the left foot. The breath sets the pace, so if you are breathing slowly--as you are likely to be if you have been sitting--you will move quite slowly. The challenge is to let the breath lead and to synchronize the movements of the legs with it. This requires close attention and doesn't leave much room for distraction. It is excellent practice in not controlling the breath, a skill that is valuable for sitting practice as well. At the end of the walking track, stand and breathe mindfully for a few moments, then turn and do the same kind of walking in the other direction. If, as you walk, some preoccupation takes over the mind, pulling your attention away from the walking again and again, you may wish to come to a halt and turn to the breath--along with the preoccupation itself--until the mind is clear. Your primary attention is to the feet as they leave the ground, move, and touch the ground again. The breath is in the background, dictating the pace of these movements. You may want to focus on a larger area, like the whole leg. But your attention is to the act of walking.

I have always enjoyed natural walking as a form of meditation. The breath and body are a unified field, and I attend to this walking breathing body as I move around the house or go outside. This feeling isn't something to force; it will happen naturally over time, as you develop mindfulness. Walking will then become a much different activity in your life.

Varieties of Breathing

As we become more familiar with breathing, we perceive subtle nuances in it.

The breath is an extremely sensitive psychic barometer. One of the things you learn about this whole process--the conjunction of mind and body, with the breath as the meeting place--is that awareness has an extremely powerful effect on it. This isn't a matter of controlling, or attempting to change, the breath. But as you pay attention, the quality of the breathing changes, perhaps because thinking is diminished. The breath becomes deeper, finer, silkier, more enjoyable, and the body starts to bear the fruits of that, to become more relaxed.

The whole process is meditation: being with the breathing, drifting away, seeing that we've drifted away, gently coming back. It is extremely important to come back without blame, without judgment, without a feeling of failure.

Respecting Each Moment

When we learn to surrender to one simple object, we begin to see how useful this skill is in other aspects of our lives. How many times do we brush our teeth, go to the bathroom, put on our clothes, make the bed? Our days are dominated by such ordinary and repetitive activity, which we generally handle by going on automatic pilot. That means that we miss out on much of our lives. This practice teaches us to stay fresh in the midst of all routine activity, really to live our lives.

It is always appropriate to ask: What is my situation? What am I supposed to be doing, right here, right now? When you're in the car, your task is to drive. When your child comes to you with a problem, your task is to listen. Each moment has its own intelligence. Just as you follow the breathing, you direct yourself to that task. When you drift away you, come back. Again. And again. It's a matter of having respect for your activity. Ultimately, you're having respect for your life.

Settling Into the Body

There are various techniques for moving gracefully from a focus on the breathing to the larger field of the body. One is the way we've already mentioned, which comes about naturally: just pay close attention to the breathing, and as you gradually become stiller, you will begin to notice breath sensations throughout the body. Blockages will work themselves out over time, and you will feel yourself in touch with a field of energy we are calling the whole body. It is also possible to use a formal, more directed method to enter into the body more systematically. You can begin a given sitting with the breathing, and when you've calmed down a bit, move your attention through the body, focusing on one part after another. Breathing in, breathing out, you notice sensations or their lack in the scalp; breathing in, breathing out, you notice the forehead, then the eyes, the nose, the back of the head, the ears, and so on. This is not a visualization and doesn't involve thinking. You just experience the sensations in these places.

The first four contemplations prepare us to enter what are known as the jhanas, eight highly concentrated states, each defined by increasing refinement, in which--by becoming more at home in the body, laying to rest any blockages of energy, learning to sit in a stable and comfortable way--we provide an opportunity for the mind to become deeply absorbed.

At its worst--confined to the joys of a concentrated mind--meditation becomes a sanctuary that people drop into to get away from things, instead of a means to lead them into a fuller life. They don't work on their demons, so the demons remain strong. Such people are still deluded, just very calm in their delusion. They are calm fools. The point is to use that calm mind, even the joy that comes from it, to look deeply into ourselves. That is the heart of vipassana practice. It starts off being awareness of an object, like the breath or the body, and winds up being awareness itself. Our direction is always toward the knowing.


At some point, having developed a certain serenity, we shift the focus from calming practice to one of inquiry. We sit awake and alert, with keen interest.

All the Buddha's teachings, it has been said, can be reduced to one: Under no circumstances attach to anything as me or mine. It isn't that we shouldn't experience rapture or happiness but that we have to be careful not to attach to them.

The enlightened mind displays its nature in action.

The term feelings--sometimes called sensations--refers to everything that comes in through the sense doors, including the mind. Everything begins with feelings, all the difficult mind states that people get themselves into. The closer you are able to get to that original sensation, the more clearly you can see it.

Feelings and the Mind

Our feelings condition the way the mind behaves. Mindfulness can alter that connection somewhat, by short-circuiting the process. The connection is particularly operative in the case of what we call unwise or blind feeling, where no mindfulness is operating. That is why it is so helpful to be mindful: sharp, alert, and sensitive. You catch the whole process earlier, when it is much easier to stop. You won't avoid unpleasant feelings. But you just experience these feelings; they don't proliferate into mind states. And that makes all the difference.

Really, these sixteen contemplations concern the age-old adage that the ancient Greeks used: Know thyself. They involve not the vague theorizing about the human animal that philosophers often engage in, but self-knowledge in an extremely down-to-earth, practical way, in this very moment. How the breathing is, how the body is. What the feelings are. Ultimately, how the mind is. It's a gradual progression toward greater subtlety. One thing leads to another.

As samadhi becomes stronger, there's less self-consciousness about what you're doing, about being a meditator. There is no you meditating. There is just meditation.

At first when you start to practice, it's very hard to concentrate on unpleasant feelings. The mind wanders. It fantasizes. It thinks up ways to end the suffering. Concentration is beginning to develop when the mind is unwavering in its ability to stay with an unpleasant feeling. You can't force the attention to do that. Forcing doesn't work. The experience is more one of softening into the unpleasant feeling. You soften and the attention is able to rest on the feeling.

Calming the Mental Processes

The spiritual path seems to be creating more suffering, because it asks you to experience suffering that you used to avoid. Actually, of course, this paying attention is the way out of suffering.

The ground of fearlessness is fear. In order to become fearless, you have to stand in the middle of your fear. We shouldn't trust any fearlessness that doesn't have that as its basis. The beginning of that is to see your fear and admit to it, acknowledge that you're afraid, then have the immense courage--and humility--to study it. It can be a long process. That's what it means to calm the mental processes. A feeling arises--even one as powerful as fear--and, using the conscious breathing, you stay with the feeling, stay with it, stay with it. You let it be. Conscious breathing and mindfulness take the power out of the feeling so it doesn't condition the mind to get hysterical. Our feelings lose their potency to propel us into these unwise states.

When we're not aware of our feelings, we're driven by them, pushed around. There's a frenzied quality to our day; we react automatically, without really noticing our feelings. The practice is just to notice them, to experience them thoroughly and fully. That is what the Buddha called wise attention. It gives you freedom to respond to things or not. Every little thing doesn't knock you for a loop. You begin to see that it's all workable. You develop some equanimity.

The practice is to get into this extremely intimate fine-grained link with the present moment. Pushing the boulder. Pushing the boulder. I have found it to be an amazing experience. Instead of creating elaborate scenarios for what you should be doing, you just push the boulder. Do the dishes. Fill out your income tax. Follow the breathing.


Poisons of the Mind

There are three aspects of the mind that are extremely important to understand, what are called in Pali the kilesas, translated into English as defilements, or poisons. They are greed, hatred, and delusion.

A certain amount of what we're doing is a kind of reeducation, a clear seeing of what has been happening all along. You are the teacher and the taught. You can read books like this one, listen to tapes, go to talks: all those things aim you in the right direction. But finally, you're not studying Buddhism. You're studying you. If you know all about Buddhism but don't know about you, you've missed the whole point.

When you're feeling confusion, don't see it as interfering with your practice. It is your practice; it is your life in that moment. Stay with it and thoroughly examine it. Allow confusion to take you to clarity. The decision that finally emerges is likely to be much more dependable. It isn't the frightened ego reacting to a situation that feels uncomfortable. It is a natural process that is gradually unfolding.

Experiencing the Mind

The challenge of the ninth contemplation is to experience the mind thoroughly and fully just as it is, with whatever level of clarity we have. As we do that, we begin to see that mindfulness takes the energy out of our mind states, so that they arise but no longer have so much power to push us around. We no longer act automatically at their commands.

It is helpful to remind ourselves, especially as we get further along in the sutra and the teaching gets more complex, that what we are discussing is blue-collar work. You can talk about it all you want, but what it comes down to is observing your mind in this moment, just as it is, even now, as you are reading. You never escape from this task. When you think you have, that you're in a situation where you don't need to watch the mind, that is just one more idea in the mind: thinking you've escaped.

You're not ready for the tenth contemplation until you've reached a certain point in the practice, until you can calm the body, feelings, and mind fairly easily, until--more and more often--you remember to turn to what is happening for you in the present, just as it is.

Ways to Joy

There are basically two roads to joy. One comes out of samadhi or samatha practice, the practice of concentration. A concentrated mind is a happy mind. Even people new to the practice have experienced this fact, when they have a few moments of steady focus on the breath. It isn't that anything else is happening. The concentration itself is joyful. You learn to be with the breath more continuously, and a certain joy comes out of that. The other road to joy in this contemplation is vipassana, wisdom itself. You see into things very clearly, and that seeing gives you a joy that transcends what you get from a concentrated mind.

Of great help in developing a concentrated mind are the precepts (sila in Pali). They instruct us not to kill, not to steal, not to misuse sexual energy, not to use speech incorrectly, not to use substances that cloud the mind. If your personal life is in chaos, how are you ever going to concentrate the mind? Sitting and the precepts flow into each other. Straightening out your daily life helps you concentrate your mind. And as your mind grows stronger and more concentrated, it is in a better position to see and restrain actions that lead to trouble.

You come to know concentration very intimately, discovering its various uses--when there is pain in the body, for instance. When attention is fixed on an unpleasant feeling, the mind doesn't have time and space to make up stories that can turn that pain into torment. The energy of concentration in isolating the pain also reduces its intensity. Concentration becomes a real friend in times of stress.

Facing Attachment

The sure way to nonattachment is by studying, observing, and understanding attachment. There is something false about trying to let go. It is often really pushing away. Our practice is to observe the holding on.

It is nevertheless extremely helpful to have a mind that can concentrate itself at will. Sometimes the circumstances of your life are overwhelming, and it is helpful--without repressing or denying anything--simply to step away from that for a while, to a place of peace. That is a common alternation in our practice, sitting in seclusion and stepping out into the world: to enter into a state of calm, then emerge more able to deal with whatever is going on. It is a wonderful skill to have.


When we originally did the first two contemplations, we were just watching the breathing. Now we are watching the way it changes in particular. Even on the simple in-and-out breath, the law of impermanence is clearly evident: no two breaths are the same. The emphasis in practice is on exactly what is happening in this moment. Really to learn this lesson, it is vital to be present when, for instance, a breath emerges, and also when it departs. You try to observe with a blank slate, to see the formation's birth and its death. You make that observation with all the formations, mental and physical, passing through your consciousness.

Even richer is the study of impermanence in the mind itself, which is what you come to when you revisit the ninth contemplation. You watch the way your mind states change all day long. Your mind might well surprise you, standing in stark contrast to what your body is doing or to the image you have of yourself. This is real self-knowledge, not what people say we are, or some idealized version we might have, but a moment-by-moment knowledge of how we actually are.

Impermanence is Suffering

Dukkha is the basic unsatisfactoriness that is a part of all life. It encompasses not just the most obvious forms of suffering--sickness, old age, and death--but also the fact that even in what we think of as pleasurable moments, there is a certain basic unsatisfactoriness. Something that is inconstant cannot provide us with ultimate fulfillment.

Because everything that arises passes away, a certain stress, or suffering, is an inevitable part of life. We cause that suffering by trying to hold on to these changing things, by making self out of them. The things you're identifying as self are merely mind states that you're going through. They exist, but not in the way you think they do. They're not self.

As soon as you say, Why am I having this fear? you make it into me or mine. What the practice is suggesting is that you not see fear in this way, as part of a self. You just give total attention to the movement of energy known as fear, total mindfulness, not separating yourself from it at all, also not identifying with it.

In Buddhist thought, these three facets of experience are inextricably linked: anicca (impermanence), dukkha (suffering, a basic unsatisfactoriness to life), and anatta (emptiness of self). These are the three signata of Buddhism, the royal stamp. Without insight into this cluster of concepts, what you are seeing in practice may be interesting, and may be quite valuable, but it is not Buddha dharma.

Emptying the Mind

When you stop identifying with things as self, you don't suddenly disappear. You don't walk around feeling vague or lost. You actually feel more alive than ever, more focused and intelligent, though your intelligence isn't based on knowledge acquired over time. Emptiness has the ability to know. When the mind is clear and empty, it is much more trustworthy in terms of what it sees and the actions that come out of that seeing.

So, to practice with the contemplation of not-self, you sit and breathe, with some amount of composure and clarity. You see the mind wanting, wanting, wanting, but you don't identify with the wanting and create a self. You just see it, see that it lacks a core, and stop attaching to it. Either that, or you do attach, and watch yourself get burned. Either of these is a valuable practice. We can't regulate what comes into our consciousness. All we can do is relate to it in a new way.

As you begin to see thoughts as formations, and to observe them--just as you do bodily formations--you see that they're quite mechanical. They're extraordinarily repetitive. We go over the same old conversations again and again, keep inventing new ones that will never happen. We have well-worn ruts in our brains. They're conditioned by our culture and by our personal history. We nevertheless take tremendous pride in our thoughts and give them great authority in our lives. Yet they are just thoughts. They arise and pass away and have no more reality than a sound we hear or a pain in our leg. Once you see that, your passion for thought begins to fade away. You can see when it is called for, see when it is helpful, and otherwise drop it.

All of the products of mind--fear, hatred, love, envy, greed, compassion, anxiety, tenderness--come and go. When we're attached, we want them to last longer than they do or leave before they do, but as we watch the law of impermanence, we see that our wishes are futile. You can't get a grip on a waterfall. Our observation of this truth comes to resemble that of any other natural phenomenon. There is a certain joy in seeing lawfulness unfold. That is the strength of good samadhi, the stillness that can come with practice. It makes the mind much more sensitive. Such stillness is charged with life. You're more alive when you enter into it and more intelligent when you come out. You see something you've seen a million times and it's as if for the first time.

The practice of nonclinging is not off in the future. It is in this moment. Whatever ultimate fulfillment may be, it has to happen in this moment. The practice of liberating ourselves is an ongoing one. In any given moment, we see that we're attached to something, and that we're suffering. If we see that deeply enough, the grasping falls away and we are liberated.


  1. Practice with the breathing until a certain level of concentration and calm is achieved.

  2. Open the awareness to whatever arises in the mind-body process and see that it is all impermanent, unsatisfactory, and lacking an essential self.

This is sometimes referred to as samatha/vipassana, a two-step practice that does the work of all sixteen steps of the sutra. What turns up in consciousness will invariably be encompassed by the first twelve contemplations. The wisdom of the last four comes in as you see the impermanence of these formations and all that impermanence implies. Meditation is an art, and part of it is learning how to work with these two modes, staying with the breathing exclusively when that seems necessary, opening to a larger field of attention when it is appropriate.

To take a hard look at impermanence is to undergo a Copernican revolution, shifting the attention away from content and toward process. Most of us are fixated on content. But true vipassana practice requires us to see that it all arises and passes away. It lacks solidity. It is not real in the way we once thought. Meditators need to be somewhat at home with the content before they can do that. It can't keep startling or overwhelming them, which tends to make them cling to it or push it away. This shift from content to process is a major turning point in practice, a major advance in freedom.

Really to develop the jhanas usually requires an extremely rarified set of conditions. The meditator may need to be on a long retreat, protected by a great deal of silence, facing no other responsibilities in life at that moment, and guided by a skillful teacher. Such conditions aren't available for most of us. Furthermore, a Tibetan monk--Tara Tulku Rinpoche--once told me that it is difficult even for full-time contemplatives to develop the jhanas nowadays. There is a subtle level of distraction in the modern world that makes really deep concentration difficult to attain. The way I teach is an alternative to these approaches. I don't start with vipassana from day one, but I also don't insist that meditators develop the jhanas before they observe impermanence. I give them time to develop some concentration, and I introduce vipassana once they have. The two practices develop together, complementing and strengthening each other. A calm mind can be a more insightful one; insights give rise to further calm. They grow together in an alternating rhythm.

Becoming Choiceless

The second step of the condensed method is sometimes called choiceless awareness. Once you have achieved a certain calm by following the breathing, you sit in the middle of your experience just as it is. You have no agenda regarding what to be mindful of, and you are not for or against whatever turns up. I don't recommend this practice for beginners because it is too easy to fool yourself, to keep getting caught up in thought and believe you are practicing.

In taking up the condensed method, the question inevitably confronts us: how much samatha do we need before we go on to vipassana? It is very helpful to put the nivaranas, the hindrances, into abeyance: sensual desire, restlessness, sloth, anger, and doubt, five states that obscure the natural radiance of the mind. That isn't to say, of course, that they will never come up again, but that the meditator will recognize them and be able to come back to the present moment. Often when a meditator is having trouble concentrating on the breathing, it is one of these hindrances that is bothering him or her. If it keeps interrupting, it can be helpful to switch to the hindrance itself, give it the attention it is demanding while maintaining a light contact with the breathing. This isn't to think about the hindrance, or get lost in it, but to observe it with mindfulness. The breath is still in the background, of course, helping you remain attentive. When the hindrance is weakened, you can come back to the breath as an exclusive object. Sometimes you open up to choiceless awareness and find that you keep getting lost in one mind state after another. You find yourself analyzing and psychologizing and can't stay focused. That might be a signal that it is time to go back to the breath as an exclusive object. You can fine-tune your attention with a few conscious breaths before returning to choicelessness, or finish the session with samatha practice.


Look with naive eyes and you will see that life is just one such thing after another. Practice isn't a part of life. Practice is life. And life is practice.

One thing that many students find is that the more they pay attention to the breathing throughout the day--while eating, washing the dishes, listening to music, walking in the woods--the easier it is. The capacity to stay with the breath gets stronger and stronger, and the breath itself becomes more vivid and available and alive.

In order not to be overwhelming, I encourage beginning students to bring mindfulness at first to one routine activity per day. It can be anything: taking a shower, shaving, preparing breakfast, eating it (any meal that you consistently eat alone is a good one to practice with). As you give yourself over to this activity and feel the benefits of doing so, you'll be encouraged to bring mindfulness to other things. The idea is to bring a gentle attentiveness to whatever you are doing, to do that thing and nothing else.

There are times in the day when you can give almost exclusive attention to the breathing. You might be waiting for an elevator, waiting for a clerk to fill out a slip in a store, standing in line for a movie. For most people, these moments are dead time, when they become more distracted and less present. If you turn your attention to the breathing, even just for a few breaths, you can become more calm and centered. You are coming into touch with a kind of energy, and you emerge from the encounter refreshed. Any number of moments that we normally see as inconveniences can be used this way. Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of the way stoplights can be like mindfulness bells in the monastery. In many places where Buddhism is practiced, and where people are working, a bell is periodically rung to bring people back to the present moment. The custom is to stop whatever you are doing for the space of three breaths in order to bring yourself back to the present.

All walking can be walking meditation. You can focus on your footsteps, on bodily awareness, or on the breathing itself, anything that brings you into the present. Any kind of physical activity--raking leaves, mowing the lawn--is ideal.

Tips for Practicing Mindfulness

  1. When possible, do just one thing at a time. It is always appropriate to ask yourself: What is my central action in this situation? If you are washing dishes, just wash. If you are driving, just drive.

  2. Pay full attention to what you are doing.

  3. When the mind wanders from what you are doing, bring it back.

  4. Repeat step number three several billion times.

  5. Investigate your distractions.

Bringing the Practice Home

The amount of time is less important than the regularity. It is good to sit a little longer than you want to so you see the part of your mind that resists practice, but you don't want to torture yourself. In the same way, it is important to sit even on days when you don't feel like it. If you sit only when you want to, you will know only the mind that likes to sit.

I can't emphasize enough, however, how helpful it would be to find a teacher and a place to do intensive practice.

Relationship is an extremely rich and viable part of practice, especially when you are able to use it as a mirror, so that you always see yourself in it.


We have such strong conditioning toward the world of thought and action that we need to weaken it, diminish its hold on us, before we can taste the vast richness of silence. When we have retreats at the Insight Meditation Society, we ask that meditators not read (even Buddhist texts), and not write (even a journal of their experiences). Eliminating these two activities is another way of diminishing the incessant hum of thought and language, of penetrating deeper into silence.

It is often helpful for a contemplative to do a certain amount of practice with death awareness. Apart from its inherent value, it helps us enter the realm of silence, which we fear because--like death--it is unknown. Actually, this realm is quite wonderful, an immense relief, but the mind doesn't know that. It might also be helpful, when a meditator feels ready, to go on prolonged self-retreats, where we may encounter loneliness in a profound way. Once we have made friends with our loneliness, silence will be much more accessible.

Silence in action is the doerless doing that we've spoken of before, in which you just wash the dishes, just vacuum the floor. The ego is not present. Typically, whatever we do, we bring an "I" to it, attach to it as me or mine. But silence is the place where there is no ego, and silence in action involves acting in the world without making the action me or mine.