(How) can I change the point of focus from the nostrils to the hara?

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This topic contains 7 replies, has 4 voices, and was last updated by  Mike G 7 months, 3 weeks ago.

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    Mike G

    Hi guys,
    thanks a lot for welcoming me into this community. I used to participate in a Zen group a few years ago, but when I moved cities, I dropped out of practising on a daily basis. Now I want to restart my practice, and would be very happy if you could give me some advice. Since I
    a) don’t have a teacher here yet and
    b) have been hugely impressed with what I’ve read from TMI so far,

    I’d like to make it the basis of my practice and complete its stages. (I do visit a group here and will check out local teachers, but most of them don’t have the time to go as far into detail as the book, also I want to do some work on my own. Should work, since TMI’s approach seems to be compatible with a lot of techniques).

    So, basically, the plan is to follow the instructions very closely and work with the book in great detail, to see that I apply every element to its fullest before progressing. BUT there is one change I’d like to make, and for this I ask for your opinions.

    I would like to make the Hara / Tanden the basis of my meditation, instead of the nostrils. The hara is a point a few inches below the navel, some would call it root chakra, but I have not much knowledge about chakras. But in Zen meditation, especially Rinzai, it is not uncommon to focus on the Hara, and, let’s say, “observe the breath from there”. Sometimes there’s something vizualization-like applied when one imagines to lead the breath through the hara, in other cases, its just that the attention is held there. Plus, of course, working with the breath.

    I assume that this should not be in conflict with the rest of TMI’s instructions, but it might require a slight alternation of technique, since there is not directly a sensation of breath as is with the nostrils. So, in order to observe the breath, attention needs to be split to a certain degree, because most of the breath sensations are being felt in other places, but not “down there”.

    The downside of this is obviously that I need to digress from the instructions in the book to a certain degree, complicating things, and that it is somewhat less intuitive, because one watches the Hara “and” the breath, while in the classic vipassana-style approach of focusing on the nostrils, one also has the breath sensations strongly present.

    The advantage (for me) is that I am having some familiarity with this approach, and I have a strong positive association with focusing on the Hara. It gives me a calming, grounded, centered sensation. I have the tendency to live far too much “in the head”, neglecting the rest of the body. Not only by thinking, but also by the fact that my eyesight is by far the most dominant of all the senses. So, focusing in the center of the body is an effective remedy for me. This is why I am wondering if I can avoid applying a technique that involves focusing on the head.

    Now, of course, I could do just the nostrils thing. And the longer I practised, the less difference it would make, I’m sure of it. But I assume that the point is not that the focus is on the nostrils and nowhere else, but that it is consistently in one place, and that there’s working with the breath.

    Please tell me what you think about this – do any of you have experience with such an approach or a similar one? Is there any reason why I should (not) do this, or any further advice?

    Thank you all already.

    Best wishes



    Hi Mike,

    I no longer use the breath in the nostrils but use the hara as the locus of my attention. The Visuddhimagga suggests that different personality types are best served choosing by different meditation objects. For anxious people, such as myself, an object below the neck is best. And for a range of reasons, I also used to block off the sensations of my body because I have a lot of negative associations therein. Anyway, I learned to meditate on the hara and it enabled States of deep calm that the nose never did.

    I would suggest reading Thanissaro Bikkhu’s “With each and every breath”. Then read his teacher’s book, Ajahn Lee’s “Keeping the breath in mind”. They teach a very similar style of meditation as TMI, but more body-focused. These two books taught me to breath in and out of my hara. Then I came back to TMI to take this style of meditation through the stages.

    These two short books accelerated my practice exponentially. TMI still provides the underlying framework for the progressive development of my practice, because as you noted, the lessons are applicable to any object of meditation.

    You can read Thanissaro’s and Ajahn Lee’s books for free at dhammatalks.org. It’s a wonderful resource.

    Feel free to contact me directly if you want to discuss.



    Darlene T


    Perhaps try this. Think bottom to top. Place your attention at tantien/hara about 4 inches down from the belly button and move attention to mid body or another 4 inches in. Breathe and experience expansion throughout the whole abdomen…as if radiating from the centre of the body in all directions. You should be able to feel the expansion in the sides and in the back of your body.

    Draw your breath in as if through a straw (making it even and long) and you will learn how allow the lower body to open fully to receive the diaphragm, pulling the lungs down and outward, receiving the air, that holds the chi. You can stop there….or…

    Should you allow for a fuller breath, the sequence of your breathing is lower body into chest cavity with the same radiant expansion. This includes feeling the mild expansion under your collar bones where your ribs are and taking the breath right into the sinus cavities through the nose….and release. Remember it is the body that breathes… Best wishes!

    Darlene Tataryn (TMI Teacher in Training)


    Mike G

    Dear Matt, Dear Darlene,
    thank you both for your replies. The provide interesting input!

    Matt: I skimmed both your texts, and found them very interesting. They are certainly very good instruction. If I got it right: the bottom line is to use various points in the body as the focal points, leading breath energy and feeling the breath in various places. In the end, this is quite similar to what you kindly proposed, Darlene.

    I’m not sure how I can use this, because I see one crucial difference, and please do correct me if I got it wrong: all of this includes a kind of ‘mental’ technique, using imagination to ‘do’ things with the breath, and focus, and body. The TMI approach, at least at this point, seems to focus on observation on one point alone. And this might be a good idea for now, because I’m trying to keep it as simple as possible for now.

    I’m focusing on steps 2-3 as of now. While I do have a fair share of meditation experience (I started 8 years ago, did Zazen and some mindfulness movement stuff, and read quite a bits, but didn’t practice very consistently) I haven’t built concentration that is as solid as it might be. So, for now, I want to really invest some time to very solidly master the first steps.

    What is clear to me is that the main difference between Zen breathing (If I misrepresent anything, it’s my fault and not my teacher’s) and the TMI approach is the latter’s great amount of detail in the instructions. In the Zazen I did (it’s not a monolithic technique, there’s a lot of variation), you follow the breath, sometimes breathe “into” the Hara, but you don’t analyze in so much detail. The way of focus is much more open, intuitive, following the breathing sensations wherever they arise, trying to keep the whole process in mind. I’d say, it’s roughly comparable to step 3 of the gradual 4-step transition outlined in stage one. And of course, there’s the minimalist framing, which shuns too much instruction and analysis. Obviously, this has advantages over the samatha-vipassana technique as well as disadvantages. But, it is, in the end, a very different approach.

    This is probably why I’m having difficulty: there’s not much sensation ‘left’ in the Hara, which is below the abdomen. One uses what I might call a kind of mental technique, imagining how the breath is being lead into the hara, which is exactly where you two have been so kind to suggest further information. And one doesn’t focus on the Hara alone, but includes other breath sensations. I’m not sure what to do with it, because for me, both of these approaches seem to rather contradict what is outlined in TMI, being the classic vipassana approach in only focusing on the physical sensations in one place, without adding mental suggestions or images, or taking several different spots into considerations, or keeping a more lose, open focus.

    So how could I do it? If I want to follow the physical sensations associated with breath, I need a point in the body that provides a fair share of them. I can either use the whole abdomen, as is mentioned in the book several times, but that’s not really Hara breathing anymore. Or I can keep the focus in the Hara, which necessitates a ‘dual’ approach, because I’ll have to focus on breath sensations in another spot where they are present.

    The closest thing to keeping my familiar technique would thus be to keep focusing on the Hara, and observe the whole breathing process somewhat intuitively. I think that it is possible to use this whole conglomerate as the focus of mediation, and apply the 10 stages to it. But this would mean re-interpreting a lot of the precise instructions of the TMI manual to make them fit.

    I would very much appreciate your input on this, since I wonder if I’m doing myself a favor here, coming in as a TMI beginner and wanting to modify the technique. I’m starting to think that it might be wiser to drop all of the previous technique for now, start from scratch and simply go with the nostrils.

    Thank you very much.



    At first I was resistant to the idea of focusing on the nostrils. I thought I would not be able to stay with something so light and subtle, as opposed to the more conspicuous sensations of the abdomen. Plus, I was conditioned to think of the hara as more significant, or energetically special, while the nostrils seemed completely arbitrary. These “negatives” turned out to be positives, in view of the goals of stable attention and vivid perception.

    My suggestion is to give the nostrils a fair trial, for at least a few weeks, with the intention of perceiving as much detail as possible in each in/out cycle. You can always go back to the abdomen if desired.


    Mike G

    Hey Ward,
    yes, I believe that my motivation is similar. I decided to go with your suggestion. I’ll report in in a few weeks, but I believe that I’m just gonna stick with that. And reserve Hara related things for alternative practices further down the road, when I have established a solid Vipassana practice.



    Hey Mike,

    I have one observation to make about your characterisation that might help if you choose to focus on the hara again in the future. As you noted, when focusing on the hara there isn’t much sensation to deal with. There is stillness in the hara. I’ve heard it described as “the part the of body that is already always in meditation”. So if you focus your attention there in the future, place your attention on that stillness. Really appreciate it qualitatively, and how it stands out from all the background noise, due to its lack of sensation. It’s like a looking at a hole in the middle of picture.

    To do this will require some solid concentration and a broad awareness, so that you don’t lose sight of all the other sensations in the background. As such, you may indeed find it better to practice with another location for now, as Ward suggests.

    One observation, too, which I had to learn the hard way and _may_ be useful to you. I held a misconception for years that I should avoid “doing” too much when meditating. I’d heard about all the non-doing and I’d somehow internalised the idea that I should “just observe” the breath, not think, let thoughts come and go. This really limited my progress.

    It wasn’t until I read the short chapter, “Just right concentration” in Ajahn Lee’s book here: link that I understood what I was supposed to be doing: I was supposed to using thought to evaluate cause and effect. After all the four noble truths are the truths of cause and effect in the mind. 1) The mind experiences stress. 2) The cause of this stress is the things the mind is doing. 3) There are other things you could be doing with the mind that would not generate this stress. 4) These things are the 8 fold path. It’s a practical guide to mastering the mind.

    Meditation is a skill to be learned. So when meditating, it is important to stay continuously aware: What exactly am I doing? Is it working? If not, what can I do differently? This is how we improve. It doesn’t have to be intrusive. Just define your object very clearly and keeping that in mind. Know whether you’re currently observing it, as defined, clearly or not. If not, try something to make an improvement. Did it work? If so, that was skillful. If not, try something else.

    Culadasa, Thanissaro and Ajahn Lee all have great suggestions of things you can do to improve the clarity and develop your skill. But ultimately it’s trial and error 🙂 The things that you _do_ should lead towards clarity, calm, and unity. They may be subtle. Or they may require a sledgehammer. Don’t discount the sledgehammer, it can be very effective! Whatever you need to do to deal with the current conditions in the mind needs to be done, and you definitely have to _do_ them and then see if they worked.

    Anyway, I may have seriously over-interpreted your post. If so, I am very sorry. I may have read my challenges into your narrative! I just got the sense that you were try to simplify the practice to the point of non-doing and I had to discover myself that that road takes years to travel, and its a dead end 🙂

    As always, I’m happy to discuss further if you find anything in the above. We’re all on this path together.

    Peace be with you,

    • This reply was modified 7 months, 3 weeks ago by  MattyBee.

    Mike G

    Dear Matt,

    thank you so much for your precious observations – they are profound and very helpful! Yes, the fact that the Hara is still is why I was having trouble using it for watching the breath. I decided that this creates more complications than are necessary. I’m sure to come back to it and to your great incentives later down the road, when I have established a reliable focus and am ready to expand my techniques.

    About the attitude about in meditation: I assume that I don’t have all too many problems with this. I think that I got a decent understanding for now that doing nothing absolutely isn’t the same thing as not doing anything 🙂 I have been so lucky to have practiced for a while in a great Zen group with a fantastic teacher – I’d like to think that this has given me a head start. (Why am I here then, now? The main reason is that I moved away from that city about 8 years ago, and I lost the focus on keeping up the practice. Without a good Zen teacher who is present, I decided to go with TMI’s detailed approach until further notice. Be warned – further questions about Zen vs. Vipassana might follow).

    Still – this is such an important point that it simply can’t be stressed often enough. Also, the clarity in Ajahn’s writing is very inspiring, it helped a lot to read this.
    Shinzen Yound said this nicely: You’re damned if you talk about stuff, and you’re damned if you don’t. Then Zen way is to avoid too many directions – the advantage is that it reduces the danger of getting stuck on instruction. The disadvantage is that not everyone ‘gets it’ this way. A style of instruction that probably works best if there is a teacher physically present to embody this kind of teaching – many things can be communicated non-verbally.
    Vipassana, on the other hand, has all these detailed explanations, which have their own advantages and drawbacks. It
    s like its stated in the TMI manual – one has to drop the instructions and thinking at a certain stage.

    Oh, and I have been meditating on the nostrils – it worked out decently for me. I often fall back into watching The Breath as a whole, how I used to – but I’m sure this is a minor problem. It’s probably better to fall back on that, at least keeping with the breath at all, than to go full mind-wandering and resume my dreams of world domination. But, of course, it is still a loss of focus, since I intend for now to follow the TMI instructions closely.

    So, thank you all again for your replies, my dilemma has been solved for now. I might come back to this thread in a while, when I’m past mastering the basics (Milestone 2 or something like that) and am ready to explore other techniques.

    • This reply was modified 7 months, 3 weeks ago by  Mike G.
    • This reply was modified 7 months, 3 weeks ago by  Mike G.
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