The idea behind following the breath is that you have this web of thoughts which you are working with at the same time. They are these models that underlie our behavior and there is also the “stuff” of our experience. What this technique does is to take one thought and ask your awareness to stay with that thought, and thus extricate yourself from identification with all the other thoughts. It’s very simple.
You’re following the breath, and it’s natural, it’s part of nature, and it’s a simple thing. It’s moving, so it’s a little easier than just following a point. However, you can pick any point. It doesn’t matter, but you pick one thing, and then every time the mind wanders, you bring it back to the breath.
You sit down to meditate and you say, “I’m gonna follow my breath,” breathing in, breathing out, a rising, a falling, and then the first thought comes, “This’ll never work.” That’s a thought that can come along. Or maybe it’s, “Think me, think me, I’m real!” At this point what you could do is make a telephone call, or get up and read your email, or read the Times or something, but you hear the teacher saying, “When our mind wanders, bring it back to the breath.”
So you let go, and you go back to the breath, and then the next thought is, “What an idiot thing! I got a PhD and I’m sitting here following my breath 17 hours a day?” Then, again you hear the teacher saying, “Bring your mind back to your breath.” Then your knees hurt, then more sensations, and it becomes, “Oh, well my knees hurt, I should get up and move around…” See how each thought says, “Think me! I’m real!”
What happens after a while is the mind starts to quiet until the breath starts to become the solid phenomenon. It’s made into millions of little pieces, because what happens is, as your awareness narrows, becoming like a laser, and it focuses on a phenomenon, and it moves it out of time and space, this is very extraordinary. It’s like using a microscope because it expands everything immensely. You become aware of the subtleties of the tiniest mind moment, and even that is all still the experiential stuff, and then at some point, you go to the next level.
Well I can best describe the next level through the trainings I do with Dzogchen. The Dzogchen is idiot simple. You just go out and lie down and look up at the sky. You look at the sky, and you experience its vastness. This is all experience, and then every now and then a plane goes by, or clouds come and go, and you start to experience your mind as a mirror of the sky. Your mind becomes a field of awareness, a ground of awareness, and the phenomena arise. The phenomena of your own thoughts, the phenomena of sounds, of planes flying, that you are doing this thing of staring at the sky. All your thoughts become phenomena, all the sensations as well, and the awareness keeps turning back in on itself until… I wouldn’t know how quite to say it, because words really just can’t do it.
What is left is not the experience of emptiness, but just emptiness and clarity, while all of the other planes of the experience are still present.