Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Following the Breath

Breath awareness is the foundation technique for mindfulness practice. It is the first technique we learn and, no matter where our path leads, we continue to come back to the breath regularly.

I use different guided imaginings to teach the concept of mindfully paying attention to the breath so I'll provide a sampling here for discussion. These meditation principles may be practiced just as they are to receive the physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness but be aware that I leave out several details taught in my classes--only for the sake of brevity.

Sit with posture erect and hands resting comfortable in the lap. Hold the head erect and close the eyes. Breathe normally and pay close attention to what it feels like to breath. You may notice the rush of air past the nostrils or the expanding chest cavity or the movement of the abdomen. Movement in the abdomen is very important since abdominal breathing (noted by the slight expansion of the belly when breathing in) is the most efficient method of breathing. If your breathing causes a lot of movement in the upper chest and very little movement in the abdomen, you should practice breathing into the belly.

That's it. We're done.

Well, not exactly done. Paying attention to breathing is all we're doing with this meditation technique but we find that our minds are constantly busy thinking up very interesting ideas that tend to grab our attention. The thoughts may be pleasurable, although studies show that most often they are not, but no matter what the thought (or emotion) our minds get carried away with the story the thoughts are telling. At some point we realize we are 'thinking' and we intentionally let the thought go and bring our attention back to breathing.

You might think of thoughts as soap bubbles that come floating into view from the dark recesses of the mind. The bubbles shimmer with attractive colors and we begin paying attention to them instead of our breath. When we become aware of the distraction, we allow the bubble to pop and concentrate on our breath once more. The process repeats. Eventually, we find that we have fewer distracting thoughts and longer periods of time between them.

It takes practice. But don't be discouraged. Mindfulness is described as paying close attention, without judgement and without striving. That means we don't criticize ourselves for being distracted and we don't try really, really hard to stop thinking. We can't stop thinking anyway, no more than we can stop breathing.

Here's another piece of visual imagery that is popular with my students. A pebble falls into a still pool of water. Ripples disturb the surface of the water. The pebble falls straight to the bottom of the pool where it nestles snugly into the wet sand. Here the pebble is supported, stable and it abides for a while, for a long while in fact. The ripples on the surface of the water break up the light and patterns of shadow move across the surface of the pebble. Debris from the bottom of the pool is thrown up at impact and swirl around the pebble. Yet, through all this, the pebble is not distracted from the act of being a pebble. The pebble remains a pebble.

When you seat yourself and close your eyes, you become the pebble falling into the water. At first, the mind disperses debris in the form of thoughts into the pool of your mind. The thoughts swirl around but you pay no attention to them and just like that pool of water, the debris will settle down again and all will become still and quiet.

Just be you. Just be the pebble. Don't be the bubble.


  • Don't try to stop your thoughts, simply notice your thoughts and bring attention back to breathing
  • Don't criticize yourself for not "doing it properly"
  • Don't try to stop thinking
  • Determine how long you will meditate and stay seated in practice for that specific time
  • Eventually your mind will get the message and remain relatively quiet until you open your eyes


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