An inquiry from a diligent student of meditation:
I wanted to ask you about “breath energy,” which seems to be an essential piece of Thannisaro Bhikkhu’s meditations. Could you please share with me what your understanding of breath energy is?
First, one of the best resources for elucidating Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s teachings is a Facebook group called, “The Skillful Teachings of Thanissaro Bhikkhu.” The admins are outstanding and very helpful in answering in line with the teachings. Also, I think Ajaan Lee’s teachings strongly influenced Thannisaro Bhikkhu in regard to this concept: Link . Below, I will be somewhat more tangential, but only in a way which is helpful to my own understanding, in hopes that it might be helpful to yours.
As you know, mindfulness of breathing is foundational in Buddhism and consequently in the teachings of Thannisaro Bhikkhu. The felt physical sensations of breathing are sort of practice for and part of the more subtle “breath energy,” referred to often in his talks. My understanding is that it is something one experiences often, and there are levels of recognition and subtlety. I sometimes think of it as the energy of awareness itself interacting with form. When you do a body scan, you are able to “light up” an area with awareness, bring it into focus. For instance, I find it useful to focus on the sensations of my hands, because they seem to respond well to my attention, and they can begin to feel very full and relaxed. Eventually, we suffuse the whole body with this awareness, and ultimately all of “the aggregates” (form, feeling tones, perceptions, mental formations, consciousness) can be witnessed in relationship to it; when we actively maintain this perception, we begin to experience deepening samadhi states, cultivated through continuous wise effort. We feel full, whole; the energy in our body and mind feels good, composed, integrated. As we practice with this state, the need for effort, as such, decreases as we become more and more in line with the “breath energy.”
It’s a little difficult to put this into words- sometimes I feel like I’m throwing words at the concept hoping that something sticks- which makes sense, I think; while it’s something we all feel all the time, it’s hard to pin down because it’s so pervasive, like water to a fish. Thannisaro Bhikkhu speaks of the breath energy as being prior to conditioned phenomena, aka the aggregates. In other words- and to take a metaphysical leap- this prior energy is our connection with the ultimate, because it is not itself dependent on time and space (and clinging), which is the nature of the aggregates. He uses the understanding of breath energy as being prior as a tool for us to help relax around those things which are causing dukkha; if we give the breath energy the right of way, we are less likely to identify with and cling to the aggregates. I suspect that in a way our ultimate harmonious flow, our alignment with this divine energy- that which is prior, unfabricated, birthless and therefore deathless- will lead to us taking on its prime aspect: nirvana.
That’s a bunch to consider, but for an interdisciplinary study, breath energy could also be understood like the East Asian concept chi, the Vedic prana, or the Greek pneuma. This should not be construed as definitive in any way, but as a doorway for complementary ideas for inspiration and connection. May your path be bright!