Preparation is Important
Mediation is difficult and unfamiliar making practice and preparation very important. You can set yourself for success by following the preparation guidelines in this section. Try not to skip any steps; they have been in practice for hundreds of years for a reason! If you want to achieve results, set up the conditions to allow that to happen.
You can go back to use our lesson on posture and practice just sitting for 5 or 10 minutes a day to build up a comfort level, and then come to the breathing stages. You can also practice some of the yoga stretches for meditation we’ve outlined to help your body adapt to long periods of sitting.
Our goal here is deepen our awareness of our bodies and minds, and to be able to put ourselves into a state of deep relaxation. This will lead to a calm, clear, less stressed and more peaceful mind.
Focusing on the breath during meditation has many benefits. Our minds will attempt to wander with extraordinary force, and in meditation, we are attempting to dim the clamor of thoughts, anxieties, and restlessness, without shutting out all brain activity entirely. By redirecting our attention to our breath, we are able to focus on a calming physical sensation that will help us to reduce those chaotic and sometimes negative thinking patterns, and open ourselves up to a more balanced, positive and receptive state.
Distraction will happen. It’s a given. By bringing our attention back and back again to our breathing is a consistent point of focus that we can return to as we notice our mind chattering again and again.
Now we will go through a step-by-step practice guide for breath focus which is based off of the samatha approach. Samatha meditation techniques emphasizes “concentration practices designed to enhance sustained voluntary attention, and culminates in an attention that can be sustained effortlessly for hours on end” (wikipedia.org). This practice will become invaluable for other methods of meditation as it forms a solid base for calm concentration and extended sitting techniques.
It is important to note that we will not be doing anything to change our breathing pattern. We will be simply using the breath as our point of focus. We will become conscious of it and follow the physical sensations of it without trying to extend or shorten or change our pattern in any way. It’s all about recognizing the natural flow of our breath and counting along with it in order to calm our mind and root it in a stable position.
If you do notice thoughts cropping up (because they certainly will!) Let them come, and imagine them flowing out of your nose on your exhale. Let them stream out of you and return your attention to your breathing. Wait until you try it– you’ll see just how distracted we can become and how persistent our thoughts are! I tend to go over lists for the day when I’m trying to meditate– somehow all of the things I “need to do” that day will creep in. This is not exactly beneficial. Removing the “chatter” and worrysome thoughts will help leave you more calm, clear-headed and happy during and after a meditation session.
Physicality of Breath
Find your comfortable sitting position that we had you go over in our third lecture in this series, or check out this helpful guide from Wildmind Buddhist Meditation. Once you are moderately comfortable and ready to begin, close your eyes. Breath in and out a few times deeply to get the feel of air rushing in and flowing out. Feel the physical sensations it produces. Your chest cavity expanding on an inhale, then collapsing as you empty your lungs of air. What other parts of your body are moving as this happens? Feel around yourself to get a full sense of how your breathing changes and affects your body.
Controlling Mind Chatter
Continue to do this until a thought crops up in your head and you’ve forgotten about your breathing. You will begin to see how little control we have over our thoughts and how hard it is to maintain an quiet, calm mind. Perhaps it is habit, perhaps the mind doesn’t like to be quiet. You might even feel like your mind is in control of your thoughts, separate from yourself! Meditation and breath awareness can help you regain control from these unwanted distractions, but it does take time and practice.
Often our thoughts take us to a focus of worry, of what we should be doing, rather be doing, how we’re feeling about ourselves at the moment…when we put ourselves in an unfamiliar state, the body and mind together both begin to feel uncomfortable and restless. You might feel like you want to give up meditating. This is perfectly natural in the beginning stages of meditation, or any unfamiliar practice, such as yoga, and even emotional counseling. Pushing past our discomfort is extremely rewarding in these cases and both yoga and meditation have a good-sized toolbox for helping this problem.
Awareness is a big deal in daily life. Everyone can benefit from becoming more aware. Listening and thinking about the words you’re going to say can help you be more consistent, thoughtful and helpful when talking to other people. Listening and assessing your own ideas can help you build a stronger idea of who you are what your beliefs are. Actions as well can grow sharper, more refined and you can become more adept at certain tasks if you practice daily awareness. In this breathing practice we are going to open ourselves up this awareness and re-focus on our breathing every time the daily distractions come in. Distraction is habit. We live our lives in half-distracted states all the time, without even realizing it. How often do you find yourself on the phone, texting, or looking at the computer while trying to complete a task or talk to someone else simultaneously. We can be multi-taskers, but when we focus our attention on a particular goal or task, we can enter more deeply into it- and be much more satisfied and happy about it than when we’re not really paying attention. Becoming distracted can turn into a choice. You can cultivate awareness by maintaining mindfulness of breath. When we realize we’ve become distracted, we can turn our awareness back to our breath.
You want to make sure that whenever your mind becomes distracted, your turn back towards breath awareness is gentle and kind. Don’t let yourself become frustrated, this is a completely natural process of meditation (hence the long article on how to reduce your distractions!). Kindness and goodwill towards yourself should infuse your practice and you should strive to carry that through your daily life practice as well.
As you’ve already learned to do, adjust your posture so that you are comfortable. Make sure that your hands are supported, either resting on your thighs, knees or together in your lap. Use the progressive relaxation technique to make sure you aren’t holding any tension in forgotten about body parts. Close your eyes.
Progressive Relaxation Technique
Moving from your toes to the top of your head, focus on each body part and relax it, letting the tension dissipate as you concentrate on that body part. Let each toe relax, them move onto the foot, your ankle, your calves, kneecaps, thighs, etc. Pay attention to your tongue and jaw muscles, smooth out the space between your eyebrows and try and catch a tingle of relaxation at the top of your crown. Then feel your entire body in its relaxed state, going over any areas you think might have tensed up.
And now, focus on your breathing. Let it completely fill your awareness, its rhythm, its sensation, its flow. Don’t let it come out as just one breath in and one breath out, let them be felt in a continuous cycle. You should be feeling calmer and quieter now. Stay with this stage for some minutes to immerse yourself in these sensations. Remember, if a thought enters your mind, let it flow out with your exhale, and turn your attention back to the sound and feel of your breathing.
Stage 1 – Counting with Your Breath
Now that you’ve felt the sensations of breathing, add a count to each cycle of breath, letting the number come on the exhale. In, out, (1). In, out, (2). And on until you reach 10. Then, start again at one. Consider yourself to be following your breath. Your body is doing the breathing, and you mind is keeping track of it. Practice at this stage for several minutes. As always, if you notice your mind wandering, let your awareness come back to your breath on an inhale and begin counting again.
You can begin to add more awareness to your practice at this stage. Notice stress and tension leaving your body on the exhale. Notice how your mind feels in this quieter state. After sitting here for several minutes, you can move on to stage 2.
Stage 2 – Reversing the Count
Here we will switch from counting on the out-breath to emphasizing the inhalation. Pay special attention to how this changes your state of being. (1) in, out. (2) in, out, again counting up to 10 and then beginning at 1. On the inhale, feel yourself filling up with goodness, with kindness and calm. Focus on the in-breath sensations, perhaps you feel you are growing more alert and clear-headed. Sit with this stage for several minutes, and then move on to stage 3.
Stage 3 – Remove the Count
At this stage we will drop the counting and simply follow our breaths, feeling the in and out sensations as they cycle through out body. Distractions will probably amp up at this stage. If you feel like too many distractions are coming in for you to simply breath them out, return to the counting. You can build up to this stage by staying at 1 and 2 until you feel more control over dismissing the distractions.
Stage 4 – Immersion
In stage 4 we will immerse ourselves totally in the breath. Find the minute sensations your breath cycles produce. This is meant to tighten your concentration, to pin-point it and develop deep levels of awareness. You should feel very calm during this stage. Your thinking should be mostly cleared away and your senses heightened so that you can notice subtle differences in your breathing. Perhaps you can start to feel the air caress your nostrils as it enters your nose, or the puff of warmth as you expel each breath.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Move through these stages in a timing that feels right to you. You can also use the tools you’ve learned about breath focus during moments of stress, to calm down after a busy day, or at any time you want to clear you heard or regain focus on a task you’ve lost interest in. Practicing these stages will help you better dismiss those distractions when you reenter your meditative state.