Meditation and the Breath
In today’s hectic, distracted world, a calm and settled mind may feel like wishful thinking. Fortunately there are established techniques that make it possible for us to tame and train our busy minds. Cultivating inner peace and calming the mind are two of the better-known benefits of mindfulness meditation.
In what is probably the best-known mindfulness technique, we focus on breathing. That’s right – breathing! Even though breathing and living go hand in hand, we generally only pay attention to the breath when we are congested or winded. We don’t realize that the breath is a marvelous meditation tool, and one that’s with us all the time. Paying attention to the breath is a time-proven method that helps us resist distractions and stay mindful.
Here’s a straightforward introduction to meditation based on breathing:
1. First, look for a quiet place
Especially for beginners, it’s helpful to meditate in a space where there aren’t too many outer distractions – your mind will produce plenty of distractions on its own! You may find that there are fewer distractions indoors, or you may appreciate being outside in fresh air. The quieter the better. Noises, smells, and people or pets who demand your attention all make meditating on the breath more challenging.
2. Find a comfortable seat
You should sit upright for meditation whenever it’s physically possible. Whether you sit on a chair or a cushion doesn’t matter. Simply ensure that the seat you choose is comfortable enough to support your breathing meditation practice for an entire session. If you’re on a chair, sit straight with both feet flat on the floor or a mat; you can use a cushion to support the back if desired. Ideally, your knees should be on the same level as your hips or a bit lower.
If you sit on the floor, use a mat and a cushion adjusted to your height so your knees are below your hips. If you do yoga, your yoga mat will provide a good floor covering but you’ll probably need to add a cushion or two. If you don’t have access to a proper cushion, you can also sit on a firm pillow, folded towels or a blanket.
3. Put the kibosh on distractions
Your cell phone should be off or in silent mode during meditation. If there are other people around, ask them to excuse you for a little while so you can meditate – sometimes you have to be very firm about this! As much as you love your pets, meditation time isn’t when you need to be demonstrating your affection. Consider putting them somewhere else so they won’t disturb you. By creating a low-distraction environment, you’ll simplify your meditation.
4. Count your breath cycles
Once you’re sitting comfortably straight and have eliminated as many external distractions as you can, focus your attention on your breathing as you inhale and exhale. Don’t try to modify or time your breathing; simply let your breath come and go at its natural rhythm. There are no “right” or “wrong” or “proper” breathing techniques in the sense that rather than forcing or modifying the respiration, you’re doing your best to relax remain attentive, one breath at a time. Each time you notice a distracting thought, simply be aware of that and bring your attention back to the breath.
It is often very helpful for beginners to count breath cycles. Count at the end of each exhalation. Count one cycle of inhalation and exhalation as one, the next as two, up to ten cycles, for example. When you’ve reached ten, begin again by counting the next breath cycle as one.
The goal isn’t to produce super-duper counters or to make a game out of reaching a high number, but simply to encourage mindfulness. If you lose track, take heart – it’s great that you noticed that! If you remember where you were when you drifted off, you can pick up there again. If not, start over at one. And over. And over.
5. Watch your breath
After you’ve counted for some time, if you prefer, you can relax your technique and simply watch the breath. While you can watch both the in-breath and the out-breath, at this point, you really only have to focus on the out-breath. Exhaling has a quality of relaxation and letting go, whereas concentrating on inhaling may feel more like pulling in and holding on. By focusing on the spaciousness of the outbreath, you may naturally tune in to the expansive quality of mind. If you notice that you’re distracted, you can simply return your attention to the next outbreath or return to counting breathing cycles
6. Notice your body
As you practice breathing meditation, see if you can also be aware of how your muscles and different body parts feel. Sense how your muscles expand, your diaphragm shifts and your body gently moves as you breathe in and out. Paying attention to physical sensations is an ideal complement to watching the breath.
7. Work with those wandering thoughts
This is probably the most crucial and most misunderstood part of meditation. The goal is not to get rid of thoughts, but to become aware of them with gentle mindfulness. It’s certainly a very common misconception – beginners especially may conclude that they can’t meditate because their minds seem busier than ever. What’s actually happening is that – perhaps for the first time – they’re noticing their thoughts. This is very important – it’s the first big discovery in meditation! How can anyone truly work with their mind if they’ve never noticed how active it usually is? The trick, as always, is to be aware and simply bring the attention back to the next breath.
Practicing these techniques will enhance your concentration and improve the effectiveness of your meditation. Check out our beginners guide to meditation or even our online course in learning to meditate.