Mind, Brain, Consciousness


Many people when they first take up meditation are discouraged to find how little control they have over their minds. Intrusive thoughts, distracting thoughts, sensory distractions, mental “chatter”, over-excitement, dullness, sleepiness etc. This is of course “normal”, and is the first stage in developing attention, by giving attention to a meditation object such as the breath. The achievement of jhāna may seem a long way away, but these first steps are the most important, and with patience and encouragement the meditation practice will steadily deepen towards more peaceful and concentrated states, leading to the jhānas.


Much of the development of Samatha may be described as the development of attention, with an increasingly subtle awareness of feeling and perception. The obstacles to developing attention, such as those mentioned above, are described in the Buddhist texts as the “hindrances”. The language is Buddhist, but the principles behind the hindrances could equally be described in psychological terms, and related to everyday difficulties in maintaining attention, and “interest” in whatever tasks we may be doing. In psychological terms, an increasingly familiar example of a problem with attention is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children, characterised by a mix of overstimulation, a need for continued stimulation, and boredom.

The breath as an object of attention is unique, in being always with us. From the first breath when we come out of our mother’s womb, to the last, when we die. Mostly it goes on in the background, unconsciously, never ceasing, but it can be made the focus of conscious attention whenever we choose. It is also intimately linked to our emotional mental state, as is well known to anyone working in mental health. The inhibited breathing of someone deeply depressed is completely different to someone overcome by rage, or in a manic phase of bipolar disorder, or to someone in a delusional psychotic state, or to someone struggling with obsessive compulsive disorder.

Yet despite its central role in our lives, it is at first not a very exciting or interesting object to pay attention to in meditation. In fact it may seem dull and boring. Hence the ease with which our attention wanders, seeking something more interesting, that has more feeling; it is feeling that gives us a sense of continuity, a sense of self. Hence also the reason why other meditation objects such as a colour Kasina, or an image of the Buddha, are initially easier to grasp and to have interest in.

It is just this simplicity and neutrality of the breath, however, that gives to Ānāpānasati its potential to develop attention fully, through understanding and mastering the hindrances, and developing willpower. Those who persist with Ānāpānasati also find the breath becomes increasingly interesting, increasingly subtle, and even magical in bridging life and death, and intricately linked to consciousness itself.

The nimitta

To help the meditator link his/her attention to the breath, the preparatory stages typically progress from mentally counting during the in and out breaths, to following the breath continuously in and out without the need for numbers, to finally fixing the attention on the sensation of touch of the air at the nostril or upper lip. By this stage the meditator is better able to resist distraction, the meditation practice becomes more settled, and becomes more of an internal process of being content with oneself.

As the meditator continues to attend ever more peacefully to the sensation of touch of the air, the breath becomes more subtle, and the meditator’s attention becomes in turn more sensitive and subtle. At this stage the meditator will “sense” his attention deepening by certain “signs”, which is the usual translation of the pāli word nimitta. The nimitta is the mark or sign, for that particular meditator, that characterises his or her awareness and its intensity, or concentration. For example, in everyday life joy and happiness may be accompanied by a sense of lightness of body and mind, sometimes tears, and sometimes a prickling of the fine hairs on the arms or head. These are the signs of joy and happiness.

In breathing mindfulness, the nimitta is the sign of a deepening attention to the breath, and of a turning away from dependence on outer sense objects. The sign may be tactile – such as a sense of touch across the face, or, even more subtly, simply a sense of the mind touching the experience itself. But it may also for some meditators be visual – like a diffuse light, a colour, sometimes a tiny point of light, or clear and bright like the full moon.

The arising of a nimitta is a significant stage for a meditator. Without giving attention to the details of the nimitta – i.e. resisting the urge to label or “re-cognise” it – the meditator settles his or her attention onto the nimitta in order to further deepen their meditation towards more complete absorption, i.e. jhāna. The nimitta acts as a guide (see also the nimitta and neurofeedback).

© 2012,

Rupa jhāna Arupa jhāna