Anapanasati: The breath of freedom

In this blog, Bodhilila talks about her upcoming retreat The Breath of Freedom, and we find out how meditating on the breath can transform our hearts and minds. What did the Buddha have to say about it? And how can this retreat enrich your practice?

The breath can open you up to creativity and joy and different relationships with others and the world. There’s a taste of freedom.
- Bodhilila

In April, we have a brilliant opportunity for retreatants to deepen their meditation practice – Bodhilila, chair of the West London Buddhist Centre and a teacher with 30 years’ meditation experience, is coming to lead a retreat called The Breath of Freedom. During this retreat, we will explore the Anapanasati Sutta, a series of reflections on the breath that can help us to develop calm and insight while freeing our hearts and minds.

The sutta is lovely. It opens with a description of a rainy season retreat, which in some ways evokes our retreats at Taraloka. More experienced practitioners are teaching those less experienced. There is such a sense of contentment in this collective practice that the Buddha decides he will stay for another month. He describes the assembly as “free from idle chatter… and established on pure heartwood… the sort of assembly that it would be worth traveling for leagues, taking along provisions, in order to see.[1] At the end of that month – rather beautifully called the White Water-Lily Month – the Buddha gives a teaching on how one should meditate on the breath.

When teaching the Mindfulness of Breathing, meditation teachers today often suggest students number their exhales and inhales. With minds full of clutter and confusion, this can provide a simple structure for observing the breath.

The Buddha, however, gives a richer and more specific teaching: To observe the quality of the breath, to breathe with sensitivity to the body. To be aware of pleasure, as well as ‘mental fabrication’ – distraction. To breathe with sensitivity to the mind (citta – literally, heart-mind), and finally, to breathe with insight into the nature of reality.

Sometimes we might think breathing meditation is dry or dull. But this isn’t how Bodhilila relates to it.


The breath works on lots of different levels. There’s a very physical experience of breathing and all these sort of archetypal, symbolic, metaphorical ways you can experience the breath as well. And it is very much the way that we interact with the world, and with other living beings that are also breathing. It’s a way of connecting with life.


Breathing is also metta; becoming aware of breathing can be vibrant and warm, inviting us to live our connection with all beings.


The Buddha is saying, ‘Mindfulness of breathing is a path to awakening and insight.’  It’s all there. It’s very simple. You can practise at any level.

You can do it in a very body-based, very breath-based, very grounded way. And the insight doesn’t have to be something intellectual… you can be actually experiencing say, impermanence through the body, through the breath. Through your experience of what’s arising and passing away at the time.


As well as deepening insight, Bodhilila emphasises the value of breath-based meditation as a way to engage with our own difficult emotions.


I’m very aware of how transformational meditation can be. It probably has saved my life and stopped me from being in a lot of very unhelpful, self-destructive patterns. Quite often, people learning to meditate want to empty their mind of thoughts and things like that. And they think they should be having all these positive mental states all the time. But this practice gives you a structure and a framework where you can explore everything and hold everything.

I think for me, the more I practice the simpler it gets; we’re just trying to cultivate more kindness and more awareness. Being with the body, being with the breath is crucial for that.


Also on the retreat are Sudurjaya and Maitripushpa, who have longstanding Anapanasati practices and decades of experience teaching meditation.


Sudurjaya and Maitripushpa who are on the team with me, they’re both very body-based, they’re both very real, very kind, very creative. And they’ve also got that love of the sutta. That’s their practice, and they’ve been doing it for many years.


Maitripushpa has explored yoga for over twenty years, including teaching yoga retreats at Taraloka and elsewhere. Sudurjaya sees art as part of her personal practice, weaving it in with breath-based meditation. As well as being able to share a love of Anapanasati, being alongside others on retreat is important to Bodhilila.


I find teaching helps me grow and develop and understand my own practice more. I really love that kind of connection with people on retreat, learning and exploring meditation together. It’s very much in the moment and in relationship to who’s there. You can respond to the group of people you’ve got, you can encourage them, and you can go on a journey together.


The Breath of Freedom runs from 1st – 8th April.

May those who come create – as the Buddha’s disciples – an assembly established on pure heartwood.