The first eight exercises of mindful breathing

In the Mindfulness of Breathing text, the Buddha proposes 16 exercises on the subject. It’s very practical, and everyone can do it. It’s not complicated and the effect of the practice is noticeable after just an hour or two.

These are the first four exercises of mindful breathing recommended by the Buddha so that we can take good care of our body.

1.Be aware of in-breath and out-breath

This exercise is so simple: to be aware of your in-breath and out-breath. Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. So simple. And yet the effect can be great.

As you breathe in, pay attention to just your in-breath, so it becomes the only focus of your mind. If you are truly focused, mindful of your in-breath, you will release everything else. You will release the past, the future, your projects, your fear, and your anger, because the mind has only one object at a time.

Focus your mind on your in-breath and you release everything else and become free.

There is regret and sorrow concerning the past. There is fear and uncertainty concerning the future. In just one or two seconds you release all of that, because you are focusing all of your mind onto your in-breath.

So breathing in mindfully sets you free. You have freedom.

If you are to make a decision, it’s better to have enough freedom to make it. Without the influence of anger or fear, your decision is much better than when you are not free. Just breathing in makes you free.

And it is pleasant also; it’s pleasant to breathe in. So though the exercise is very simple, its effect can be great.

2. Follow your in-breath and out-breath all the way through

Breathing in, I follow my in-breath all the way through, from its beginning to its end. There is no interruption at all, not a millisecond of interruption. So while you breathe in mindfully, you cultivate concentration; you are not only mindful of your in-breath, you also concentrate on it.

The energy of mindfulness carries within itself the energy of concentration. And it is also pleasant to be mindful and to concentrate on your in-breath. You don’t have to suffer. In fact, you can feel wonderful just breathing in, especially when the air is fresh and if the nose is free.

You can enjoy these two exercises anywhere, at any time.

3. Be aware of your body

Breathing in, I’m aware of my body. Doing so, you bring your mind home to your body. And your mind becomes an embodied mind. That will help you to be established in the here and now, fully present and fully alive. And you can live that moment of your daily life more deeply if body and mind are together. 

The oneness of body and mind is what you realize with this exercise.

When you spend two hours with your computer, you forget entirely that you have a body. You are not truly alive in that moment; you are truly alive only when the mind is with the body. Then, you are fully in the here and now, and you touch the wonders of life in and around you.

Many of our brothers and sisters in Plum Village program a bell of mindfulness on their computer. Every fifteen minutes, they hear the bell, they stop working, and they enjoy their in-breath and out-breath, smile and enjoy their body. And release the tension in their body. That is what the Buddha recommended 2,600 years ago. 

4. Calm your body

Breathing in, I calm my body, releasing the tension in it. When you come back to your body, you may notice that there is a lot of tension there. Then you may like to do something to help your body be more peaceful, to suffer less; with your out-breath, you allow tension to be released.

5. Generate a feeling of joy

With the fifth exercise, we go to the realm of the feelings. A good practitioner knows how to generate a feeling of joy, because she knows that mindfulness allows her to recognize all the conditions of happiness that are already available.

We can remind ourselves and we can remind our loved ones that we are very lucky. We can be happy right here and right now; we don’t have to run into the future to look for happiness.

The Buddha gave the teaching of “living happily in the present moment.” Life is available only in the present moment. And in the present moment, you will notice that there are many conditions of happiness already available. That is why joy and happiness can be born right away.

The expression “living happily in the present moment” is found five times in one sutra. The Buddha was teaching Anathapindika, a businessman, in the city of Sravasti. That day, Anathapindika came with many hundreds of other businessmen to visit the Buddha. And the Buddha gave them that teaching: “Gentlemen,” he said, “you can be happy right here and right now. You don’t have to run into the future; you don’t have to look for success in the future in order to be happy.” 

I think the Buddha knew very well that businessmen think a little bit too much about the future and their successes. And that is why he used the expression “living happily in the present moment” five times in the same sutra, the same scripture.

Drstādharmasukhavihara: “vihara” means to dwell or to live, “sukha” means happily, and “drstā-dharma” is the present moment.

So a good practitioner does not look for happiness in the future. She knows how to go home to the present moment and to recognize all the conditions for joy and happiness that are available right away. And she does that for herself and for others.

Creating happiness is an art: the art of happiness.

6. Generate happiness

The sixth exercise is to generate happiness. 

7. Be aware of pain

The seventh is to be aware of a painful feeling or emotion. Breathing in, I know there is a painful feeling or emotion rising up in me. The practitioner does not try to fight this pain, to cover it up inside, or to run away from it.

In fact, because she is a practitioner, she knows how to generate the energy of mindfulness. With that energy she recognizes the pain and she embraces it tenderly. ‘Hello, my little pain. I know you are there. I will take good care of you.’ Whether that is anger or fear or jealousy or despair, we have to be there for our pain. There is no fighting; there is no violence done to our suffering.

Our pain, our suffering is our baby; the energy of mindfulness generated by our practice is the loving mother. And the mother has to recognize that the baby suffers.

She takes the baby and holds it tenderly in her arms. That is exactly what a good practitioner will do when a painful feeling arises.

You have to be there for your painful feeling or emotion: continue to breathe and to walk in such a way that the energy of mindfulness continues to be produced. With that energy of mindfulness you recognize the pain and embrace it tenderly.

Store consciousness

In Buddhism we speak of consciousness in terms of ‘store’ and ‘mind’ There are at least two layers of consciousness. The lower layer is called “store consciousness”. Our fear, our anger, and our despair are there at the bottom of our consciousness, in the form of seeds. There is a seed of anger here and if it accepts being soothed into sleeping quietly down there, we are okay. We can laugh, we can have a good time.

But if someone comes and says something or does something that sets off that seed of anger, it will come up as a source of energy. Down there it is called a seed, bija. But when it comes up to the level of “mind consciousness”, it will become a kind of energy called mental formation. This is the mental formation called anger.

So when the practitioner notices anger coming up, right away she breathes and invites the seed of mindfulness to come up as energy. 

Mindfulness is another seed there. If we are a good practitioner, the seed of mindfulness in us has grown to become a very important one. It needs only a light touch to produce a lot of energy coming up for us to use.

If we are not a practitioner, the seed of mindfulness is there, but very tiny. If you practice mindful breathing and mindful walking every day, the seed will grow.

Whenever you need that energy, just touch it and you will have a powerful source of energy to help you to deal with whatever is happening. 

So the practitioner begins to breathe or to walk mindfully. A second mental formation is manifested on this level; this one is mindfulness. 

It is the energy of mindfulness that will take care of the energy of anger – but there is no fighting. Instead, mindfulness does at least two things: firstly, a simple recognition of the pain. And that is the seventh exercise: breathing in, I know anger, or despair, or jealousy is in me.

Simply recognize, without fighting.

8. Calm the pain

The second thing mindfulness will do is to embrace. And that is seen in the eighth exercise: calming down the pain like a mother holding a baby. The mother does not know what is wrong with the baby. But the fact that she’s gently holding the baby can immediately help it to suffer less.

The same is true with the practitioner. She does not know what is the cause of that kind of anger or fear – but recognizing and holding that energy of fear and anger can immediately help her suffer less, after one or two minutes.

This is the art of suffering. This is the art of happiness: how to generate a feeling of joy and happiness. How to take care of a painful feeling or emotion. How to calm it down, how to get relief. And with the subsequent exercises, you can go further and transform pain, sorrow, or fear into something more positive, like making good use of mud in order to grow lotus flowers.

So a good practitioner is not afraid of pain; she does not try to run away from the pain. In fact, she tries to be with the pain. She knows how to handle a feeling of pain, a strong emotion. And she knows how to make good use of that mud, in order to create understanding and compassion – which are factors of true happiness. 

[This transcript has been edited for readability.]

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  1. Hi!
    Thank you very much for sharing!
    Regarding exercise 8: embracing the painful feeling, I don’t really know what I should do to be able to embrace painful feeling. Do we make ourselves aware of those painful feeling? if so then how does it differ from exercise 7: recognizing painful feeling?

    1. Dear friend, thank you for this very good question! I have asked a monastic to help me answer this question for you and I will try to give you some guidance from my humble beginner’s practice.

      You could say that exercise 7 and 8 inter-are. In order to embrace and calm the painful feeling, you must first recognize it and if possible, call it by its true name. If we can know that what we are feeling is anger, fear or jealousy for example, it will be easier for us to embrace it. But sometimes we might not know what kind of feeling it is – maybe it’s several feeling together. So what we can also do, is to look and see if the feeling is somewhere located in our body as well. Body and mind inter-are and very often we have a bodily sensation in connection with a feeling. So when you have recognized the feeling, that’s basically it for exercise 7 and you can move on to exercise 8 where you hold the feeling without judgement and care for it to embrace it with your love. Just like a mother would do when her baby is crying. She doesn’t need to think much, she’s giving the baby her attention, calming it with her love, being awareness that the baby is crying and in need of her comfort and love.

      Later she can look more deeply into why the baby started crying in first place, which will then be easier when the baby is calm.

      I hope this answer can help you with the practice of the 7th and 8th exercises.

      A lotus for you 🙏,
      The Plum Village App team

  2. I can only say that what a remarkable man very wise if we were inky taught thus in a young age.
    Thank you

  3. Hello!

    I have been studying and practicing the 16 breathing exercises. I was wondering if there is an order you need to practice them, and a certain amount of time you spend on each, or if it is more important which one is helpful to you in the moment.

    For example, if I have ten minutes to meditate in the morning i might spend a couple minutes on each of the 4 exercises in the first set. Alternatively, if i am trying to let something go or i have a painful feeling, I might spend 5 minutes on Set 4 exercises 3 (cessation) and 5 minutes on exercise Set 4 exercises 4 (letting go) or i might choose some exercises from Set 3 and some from Set 4 and do them each for a couple minutes.

    Is it okay to practice this way? I am trying to build it in to my daily routine at morning and at night, but slowly and only meditate anywhere for 5-20 minutes at a time.

    Thank you!

    1. I have a similar question regarding how to practice the 16 breathing exercises. How much time should I spend on each of the 16? For example, repeat one exercise for 5 minutes, then move on to the next exercise, and so on and so forth. Thank you.

  4. Dear friends above. When I listened to the podcast “The Way Out is In” with Brother Phap Hu and Sister True Dedication on this topic it was very clear how to practice with the 16 excercises of mindful breathing. They each shared their own practices and described that some monks and practitioners only practice with one of the practices the whole time, while others find that they are able to practice with all of them in a space of a few minutes. The exercises interare and when one is done with full awarness they all arise. This was my understanding. I found this podcast episode, which had two parts, very helpful and will definitely listen again to it.

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