As we start to meditate, we quickly learn how capricious our mind is. It wants to take us here and there, and despite our best efforts we unknowingly get dragged into a thought conversation with our self about tonight’s dinner, tomorrow’s work or yesterday’s troubles at home. We start to meditate, and suddenly ‘wake up’ to the fact that we have spent several minutes wandering down a thought path of one kind or another.
One way that we can help keep our mind on our practice is to choose a focal point – some people meditate watching a candle; some visualize a colorful shape; and some repeat a meaningful phrase (a 'mantram'). By far the most common focus, used in almost all of the major traditions, is the breath.
Following the Breath.
The great thing about our breath is that as long as we are alive we can use it as a focal point. Whether we are sitting on the cushion meditating, performing household chores or in a busy shop, we always have our breath we can follow.
We say ‘follow’ in this kind of meditation, because the goal is to breathe as normally as possible. We are not trying to breathe differently, we are just trying to be totally aware of how we are breathing (note: this is different to other practices, such as Qigong or Pranayama in Yoga, where the goal is to breathe in a special way).
When we use the breath as a focus in meditation we start by becoming as aware as possible of all aspects of our breathing: how our whole body participates; how in-breaths differ from out-breaths; how the air coming in and out of our body causes a sensation on our lips or nostrils. We then allow our mind to ‘dwell’ on a specific aspect of our breathing, and allow it to remain there.
Be Here Now.
We should not strain to have an unnatural focus on our breath. Instead, the key word is to ‘dwell’ – to dwell in a place where we have complete awareness of our breath. As other thoughts arise (and they will), we just return to our breath. As we do this we will gain a sense of ‘presence’, being totally ‘here’ in the moment, not allowing our mind to drag us off into memories of things past or hopes, plans and fears for the future. As the title of Ram Dass’s book exhorts us, we need to ‘Be Here Now’. Our breath is a tool (and only a tool) that we can use to get us ‘into this moment’ at any time in our lives.
"We walk around like there are some holy moments, and there are all the other moments that are unholy.”– from ‘Waking Life’, Richard Linklater
Practice: Mindfulness of Breathing.
This meditation can become the core of your practice, in that you will do this at the start of other more involved practices in order to ‘center’ and focus. Once you have practiced this for a while you will find that you can use this ‘centering’ technique anywhere and at any time.
Sit as comfortably as you can, on a cushion or on a chair. Don’t slouch, but sit upright, with your back, neck and head straight and in alignment so that gravity supports your head. Keep you shoulder-blades back, and rest your hands gently on your lap or legs. Relax, keep breathing normally, and gently close your eyes. Now, turn your attention to the fact that you are breathing. Wait a little to feel the rhythm of your breath, without forcing or straining it. Gently visit each part of your body with your mind and see how your whole body appears to participate. Notice how your breathing isn’t a simple in and out, but there are pauses between the in and our breaths. Notice how breathing in feels different to breathing out. Now bring your mind to the place where the air is entering and leaving your body – your nostrils or lips. Become aware of the tiniest sensation as the air goes in or out. Now, very gently, allow you mind to dwell there, focused but not straining, on the ingress and egress of your breath. When a thought arises, acknowledge it and let it go. Be aware of your presence in this very moment.