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Sixteen steps taught by the Buddha.
I hope this newsletter finds you well and DWEPin’ like a champion 😉.
An Interview with Leonardo Pellagotti
A year ago, I invited Leonardo Pellagotti (left) and David Tan (right) to our monastery to teach the brothers natural health practices.
Leonardo Pellagotti is an instructor of instructors in both the Wim Hof and Oxygen Advantage methods, making him one of the most sought-after teachers of all things breath-related in Europe. Leo is also a former national gymnast, a black belt in Shaolin Kung Fu and an Animal Flow instructor with a passion for natural biohacking techniques.
David Tan is a life coach, osteopath, physical therapist, and martial arts instructor. Passionate about the anthropology of health, David has traveled to 75 countries to learn about different medical traditions. The method he created is called Life Force, and it revolves around 5 pillars: life rhythms, nutrition, movement, breathing, and mindset. You can learn more about his work at lifeforcewithyou.com.
I am truly grateful for the wonderful work they do in promoting self-care practices in the Francophone world and beyond.
Beginning of this year, Leo asked me to write an endorsement for his new book, Maîtrisez Votre Respiration (Master Your Breath). I gladly wrote one, and also sent him an article on my Condensed Ānāpānasati technique, which he published in the book. If you understand French, you can read my article or buy Leo’s book. Otherwise, no worries, I also have a video about Condensed Ānāpānasati in English on my YouTube channel.
Yesterday, Leo published an interview he did with me (also in 🇫🇷) about the sixteen steps of breath-based mindfulness taught by the Buddha.
To reach enlightenment, the Buddha practiced breath-based mindfulness.
And after his enlightenment, he taught this practice to his disciples in sixteen steps.
Breath-based mindfulness can help us center our mind, relax our body, generate peace and joy, soothe painful emotions, develop emotional intelligence, cultivate inner freedom, and, according to the Buddha, permanently uproot the deepest causes of suffering within our mind, allowing an individual to experience the highest levels of freedom and happiness.
In Plum Village, where I live, our day-to-day life revolves around breath-based mindfulness. I have studied the Buddha’s instructions in their original language (Pāli) and made a serious effort to understand them in the light of the Buddha's broader body of teachings and my own meditation practice.
I want to write a book about them in the future because there is a lot to cover:
a scholarly discussion on controversial points in translation,
an understanding of the exercises in the context of the other teachings of the Buddha,
insights from modern science, and of course,
lots of practical advice.
Until then, here are the most important things to know:
The Sixteen Steps
(🖨️ I strongly recommend you print the following and post it where you meditate.)
(And no, you don’t need long dark hair and a moustache to learn from the Buddha. Sorry... I focus now.)
The practitioner should go to a quiet place, sit down with their body straight, and establish mindfulness.
Breathing in, they know they are breathing in. Breathing out, they know they are breathing out.
Breathing in, they know the length [/quality] of their in-breath. Breathing out, they know the length [/quality] of their out-breath.
Breathing in, they are aware of their whole body. Breathing out, they are aware of their whole body.
Breathing in, they relax their body. Breathing out, they relax their body.
Breathing in, they feel joy. Breathing out, they feel joy.
Breathing in, they feel happy. Breathing out, they feel happy.
Breathing in, they open their mind to the part of them which is in pain. Breathing out, they open their mind to the part of them which is in pain.
Breathing in, they embrace and soothe the pain. Breathing out, they embrace and soothe the pain.
Breathing in, they are aware of their mind. Breathing out, they are aware of their mind.
Breathing in, they gladden their mind. Breathing out, they gladden their mind.
Breathing in, they concentrate their mind. Breathing out, they concentrate their mind.
Breathing in, they liberate their mind. Breathing out, they liberate their mind.
Breathing in, they observe inconstancy. Breathing out, they observe inconstancy.
Breathing in, they observe dispassion. Breathing out, they observe dispassion.
Breathing in, they observe non-attachment. Breathing out, they observe non-attachment.
Breathing in, they observe letting go. Breathing out, they observe letting go.
These sixteen steps are both a guide to meditation and a description of what happens when the Buddha meditates. You can memorize them to guide your meditations, or you can compare your meditations with the Buddha's to see if you are going in the right direction and know what the next step in your practice should be.
The Buddha did not recommend a specific amount of time to spend on each step, because this would depend on our personal experience. When we are a beginner, the neural path is not available and we will need time to create it, but over time, the neural path becomes easier to tread and can take us further into the exercises more quickly. It is like when someone walks on high grass repeatedly, the grass collapses and a path is created, which makes further walks easier.
Understanding The Sixteen Steps In Reverse Order, Starting With The Goal
The goal of Buddhism is the greatest happiness, and according to the Buddha, the greatest happiness comes from letting go (ex. 16). Before letting go, however, we need to see the drawbacks and absurdity of attachment, and the Buddha's favorite way of doing this was to observe the changing nature of things, in the present moment. This is vipassanā, the contemplation of the liberating truth, and it is the subject of the fourth tetrad (ex. 13-16).
However, without strong mindfulness, we do not have access to the deeper parts of our brain that create attachment, and our contemplation remains superficial and ineffective. Therefore, we must first make our minds joyful, focused, and free in the present moment. This is the purpose of the third tetrad (ex. 9-13).
The natural tendency of the mind is to pursue pleasant sensations, shun unpleasant sensations, and ignore neutral sensations. These tendencies keep our mind divided. Hence the interest, in order to prepare the mind for equanimity, to review its relationship to sensations. This is the object of the second tetrad (ex. 5-8).
To access sensations (interoception), there is nothing like bringing the mind to the body (proprioception). And to bring the mind back to the body, there is nothing like starting with the breath. This is the object of the first tetrad (ex. 1-4).
Practicing The Sixteen Steps, From One To Sixteen
So, we start with an awareness of our natural breath (1). We become aware of our respiratory rate (2), allowing our breath to slow down by itself. We become aware of our whole body at the same time (3) and allow our body to relax (4).
This mind-body reunion creates joy (5), which we allow to deepen into happiness (6), which gives us the strength to open our mind to the part of us which is suffering (7), which we then embrace (8).
We make sure that our mind (9) is glad (10), focused (11), and free (12). Glad means fresh and available. Focused means engaged, connected, and stable in the present moment. And free, here, is not the ultimate freedom of nibbāna, which is the subject of ex. 16, but the temporary freedom from the five obstacles to meditation which are: desire and aversion, restlessness and sleepiness, and doubt. Practicing the third tetrad, our mind becomes very awake and very equanimous.
With this awake and equanimous mind, we can observe that, in this present moment, everything is changing (13). Sounds, forms, sensations, thoughts,... whether inside or outside, in obvious or subtle ways, everything is changing. Whether we like it or not, everything is changing, because it is their nature to change. Our thoughts of contemplation are also changing, and the state of consciousness we are in during meditation is also changing. The more we see this change, the more the mind naturally becomes dispassioned (14) and disentangle itself from attachment (15). Dispassion and non-attachment change our experience of the present moment for the better: more lightness, peace, inner-space and freedom. This is the bliss of letting go.
Total letting go (16) refers to the experience of nibbāna which is the greatest happiness… ever-ever 😅. According to the Buddha, one can distinguish between the great happiness of partial letting go (14-15) and the greatest happiness of total letting go (16) in that nibbāna has the observable qualities of non-beginning and non-ending, of non-conditionality and consequently of imperturbability.
According to the Buddha, an experience of nibbāna does not necessarily create a permanent and irreversible change in the way we experience life. To do this, the Buddha teaches that we will have to repeat the sixteen steps in further meditations. I imagine this is so that the neural path to nibbāna becomes easily accessible and the experience leaves an indelible mark on the brain, permanently reconfiguring it. According to the Buddha, it is the same practice of these sixteen steps that leads to the four stages of enlightenment. In the final stage of enlightenment (arahat), identification, which is the attachment to the body and mind, has been completely uprooted and cannot reappear.
This is the ultimate aim of Buddhism: not to take ourselves too seriously 😅.
According to the Buddha, this is the highest level of spiritual realization and the most pleasurable way to experience life. I am obviously not speaking from personal experience here, I am just repeating what is found in the suttas.
It is important to remember that,
even a very great happiness in our meditation is not necessarily the greatest possible happiness which is nibbāna (to distinguish, see properties mentioned above), and that,
even a genuine experience of nibbāna does not necessarily imply a deep awakening, a lasting change of personality.
Another thing to bear in mind is that our ability to practice any exercise well depends on how well we practice the previous exercises. Imagine that you have four empty cups and that you play with filling the first one, and then passing the water from the first to the second, then to the third, and finally to the fourth. If you want the fourth cup to be filled to the brim, you will have to be very careful with each of the previous operations. In the same way, our success in contemplating liberating truth depends on our success in contemplating the mind, which depends on our success in contemplating the sensations, which depends on our success in contemplating the body.
This does not mean that we cannot practice vipassanā without having perfectly practiced the three previous tetrads. Even with a partially awake and equanimous mind, we can observe change and experience a certain happiness of letting go. This simply means that our "vipassanā cup" will not be filled to the brim, that the letting go will not be complete, and that consequently, there will be no experience of nibbāna, the greatest happiness.
I hope this newsletter will inspire you to practice the sixteen steps of breath-based mindfulness taught by the Buddha.
To learn more about breath-based mindfulness, you can find,
instructions on the first eight exercises in my Daily Wellness Empowerment Program’s 10 min guided sitting meditation, and
variations on the last four exercises in many of the vipassanā exercises in my upcoming book (next newsletter).
I’m also preparing a video on mindfulness.
But in short, the Buddha’s instructions on breath-based mindfulness are:
we follow our breath,
become aware of our whole body, allowing it to relax,
establish equanimity towards all physical sensations,
make our mind awake and open,
and contemplate change happening from moment to moment.
If we can do this correctly, we touch an ever higher bliss of letting go.
Otherwise, we need to consolidate the previous steps.
This newsletter is free and will remain free. It is 100% written by me. I only use AI to help me with the spelling, grammar, and word use. I welcome concrete and specific suggestions for improvement.
The #1 thing you can do to get started on this Mental Health Revolution is to print a Daily Wellness Empowerment Program (DWEP) Sheet and get going.