Practising the mindfulness of breathing correctly, means practising the mindfulness of death correctly.
The Buddha has offered mindfulness of breathing as a replacement for the practice of mindfulness of death. That was because mindfulness of death pushed some monks over the edge, so to speak. It made them wish for ending of their life before being fully awakened. Yet, it is important to note that mindfulness of breath aims at the same result as mindfulness of death does. That result is dispassion towards the world and life (of sensuality) in general. The mindfulness of breathing was a direct response to the need for rapid dispassion of those committed to its practice. This of course doesn’t mean that mindfulness of death was wrong, but it means that mindfulness of breath is simply less risky. It cannot be stressed enough though – they both aim at the same result.
Furthermore, this applies for any other “meditation” that we find in Suttas. They might sound very different, but their aim is the same: the establishment of mindfulness. Mindfulness to the extent necessary for the discernment of Dhamma. Thus, we can say that if someone’s meditation is not bringing them closer to understanding of sensuality and experience of dispassion – that meditation is wrong.
The breath can end at any given moment, and we wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. Random organ failure, heart attack, lung collapse, none of these things would be accessible to our will power, yet, our entire life (that same “will power”) directly and simultaneously depends on it. For example, if something were to happen to the vital functions of our body, our life would end that very moment. Regardless of where our hopes and intentions were aiming at the time. This recognition can be very unpleasant for an average inauthentic man of the world and it could result in the experience of a tremendous fear and dread. It is the aim of the mindfulness of death to cut through the manifold layers of that inauthenticity. But, as the Buddha has himself seen, it can sometimes be too much to handle; if a person realizes one’s own mortality too fast and is not prepared for it. Hence the mindfulness of breathing comes as a more gradual replacement. A replacement that still, very much, leads in the same direction of recognizing the inherent insecurity of one’s own life. This insecurity manifests through realizing the impermanence of breath, while one mindfully breathes. So, the difference between mindfulness of breath and mindfulness of death is not in its “object”, but in a point of view. (or where the mindfulness is anchored in).
In ‘death meditation’ the point of view is in one’s sense of Self. This is more “personal” approach (which is why it is sharper, quicker, and thus riskier). In ‘breath meditation’ the point of view is placed on the intentional act of breathing. By doing so, one’s sense of Self is not in the direct center of the experience. (as opposed to the thought “I will die”, for example). Either way, one can realize that no matter how volitional an act (of breathing) might be, it is fundamentally rooted away from one’s control. (Control that is the exemplification of one’s sense of Self.). This becomes clear when one recognizes that while breathing, the body (or the lungs, or heart, etc.) could stop working. They could fail. That whole dimension, where the failure would come from, would remain entirely “inaccessible” to one’s intentions and will. No amount of one’s volition would be able to “cross” that threshold of control that is determined by the present body that is simply “able to breath”. (i.e. unobstructed airways, functioning lungs, beating heart, etc.). In simple terms: one’s sense of control, intentions, will, sense of Self, are all bound up with presently arisen functioning body. And the presence of that body is not accessible to one’s will. (If it were so, we wouldn’t be susceptible to illness, aging and death.). Recognition of that lack of access to the fundamental aspects of one’s own life, is the recognition of impermanence. Thus, in mindfulness of breathing, one exposes oneself to the sharp truth of anicca, but without winding oneself up through the anxious contemplation of death.
We can go as far as to say that one’s life is completely rooted outside one’s own sense of control. In other words, one’s ability to exercise will and control, is something that one has no control over. For example: if something random, (an accident or, a disease,) were to simply block the air passages, no amount of intentional breathing would be able to help us. Yet, our whole life would depend on it.
Correctly discerning this, results in the right dispassion. And that means having no desire for either life or death.
The reason why this is very important to see is that many people use a mere pleasure that they derive from meditation as a criterion for their progress. But, pleasure is secondary, and is not something an unawakened being should use to judge things against. Pleasure is not the measure of success, it’s the unshakeable composure of peace in the face of death, that is. Thus, one’s meditation of breath should establish itself upon mindfulness of the impermanence as described above. It should not become something agreeable that one uses for not dealing with the world.
A dying man can only rely upon his wisdom, if he developed it. Wisdom is not dependent upon any phenomenon originated upon six senses. It is developed on the basis of the discernment of the same. That’s why when one’s senses start to wither and die, the knowledge of their nature remains unaffected. When there is no wisdom, there will be despair, in the face of death.
by Ajahn Nyanamoli Thero