To see to the bottom of a pond, the water needs to be clear and still. The same applies to your mind. Until the mind is stilled, it defaults to stirring up debris in the form of stories, doubts and endless self-narrative. This debris clouds your experience, distorting the true nature of your mind.
By focusing on the breath, we give the mind something to fully apply itself to. With the mind focused and absorbed in the breath the debris settles, our clarity increases, and our experience becomes still. Clarity and stillness are the prime conditions for insight.
How do we focus on the breath? The instruction is to maintain moment-to-moment awareness of any sensation, movement, heat, tingling, or pressure associated with the rise and fall of the abdomen. Try to maintain focus as consistently as possible, through the inhale, exhale and any apparent gap in between. Give your whole attention to the breath, without straining to see more than is freely available. How much can you feel?
When you lose track or get caught up in some train of thought, simply recognise where you are and return to the breath. What’s important is that you just come back. The more you practice paying attention, the more open and receptive you become to the truth of your own experience.
Q: How long should I stay with the breath before moving on to Vipassana/insight practice?
If you find it hard to consistently notice the Three Characteristics, then return to focusing on the breath. If you find it hard to focus on the breath, recognise where you are, accept that the mind has wandered… and return to the breath. Progress as you feel able.
There is no strict division between following the breath and insight practice – if you are able to consistently notice the Three Characteristics when using the breath as an object of focus, then stay with it.
Following the breath is sometimes looked down on as something of a preliminary practice; something to do before the real work. But the breath is a powerful anchor – always fresh, always present; an ever novel process of expansion and contraction happening right inside you, and a free invitation into the non-verbal, non-conceptual immediacy of this moment.