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Techniques For Meditating On The Breath

April 24, 2012

“Meditating on the breath is effective, inexpensive and convenient: you always carry your breath with you wherever you go, and you don’t need a password to access it.”  – The Bad Lama

In our last post, we noted that our intention to sit is often thwarted by our hyperactive monkey mind. So if we want to sit, we need to learn to calm our monkey mind and induce it to stay in the present moment. Taming the monkey mind is like taming a rambunctious puppy – it’s not enough to have the intention to tame the puppy; you have to apply a consistent method or discipline as well. There are many different methods for taming the monkey mind. These practices are grouped together under the heading of shamatha (pronounced SHA ma ta) a Sanskrit word that means “abiding peacefully” (which is what we’d like the monkey mind to do.) The Tibetan term for this set of practices is usually transliterated as shine (pronounced SHEE nay).

Our fundamental taming method is to keep bringing the monkey mind back to the experience of the body in the present moment —  to synchronize mind and body. When we bring our awareness to our bodily experience, we may notice many different physical sensations.  Some sensations persist for a long time and others are very fleeting.  But there is one set of sensations that we always have present with us: the sensations associated with breathing. For this reason (among others) meditation on breathing is recommended by many different traditions.

Basic technique for meditation on the breath

Basic instructionsHere is the basic technique for meditation on the breath: Bring your awareness to your breath  — the outgoing breath as well as the incoming breath. Don’t expect to experience some special kind of breathing; don’t make this technique into a breathing exercise; don’t manipulate your breath. Just sit with whatever breathing you are currently experiencing. Appreciate it. Remember that breath only happens here and now – if you find yourself thinking about a past or future breath, or if you lose the breath entirely, just come back to this present breath. Appreciate this nowness; appreciate this present moment of breathing.

You can notice the movement of the breath as it flows in and out of your nostrils.  If you find that awareness of the breath at the nostrils doesn’t help your monkey mind to calm down, then try bringing your awareness to the expansion and contraction of your abdomen in the area of your navel. For some people, it’s difficult to locate the breath.  If this is the case for you, you can breathe a little harder until you notice your breath, or you can put your hands on your abdomen so that you can feel the expansion and contraction associated with breathing.  Once you’ve found your breath, let it follow its own natural rhythm.

Lengthening and slowing the breath

Our breathing is a mirror of our mental state.  How we breathe affects our mental state and our mental state affects how we breathe. For instance, it has been observed that hyperventilation can bring on panic attacks and that controlled breathing can be an effective tool for curtailing panic attacks.  So if you find if you want to help someone in mental distress (that person could be you), guide that person’s attention back to their body and breath. If you notice that your mind is very scattered and panicky, you can lengthen and slow your breath in order to help your mind calm down. Once your mind has settled, let your breath follow its own natural rhythm again.  Remember that meditation on the breath is a method to bring the monkey mind into the here and now.  If your breathing feels like it’s happening someplace far away, then you might not be putting your awareness on the actual sensations of the breath – perhaps you’re imagining the breath or visualizing it.  Keep bringing the monkey mind back to the physical sensations of breathing.

Counting breaths

You may find that although you can locate your breath, you have a hard time staying with it. If this is the case, you can use the technique of counting breaths. This technique introduces a conceptual activity (counting) into the meditation.  Since it gives the monkey mind something to do, it can help convince it to stay with the breath.

When you start your session, decide on the number of breaths you’d like to count up to.  If you’re new to the technique, start with a small number, such as seven or eleven. Each time you breathe out, count that as one breath.  (For example: breathing in…breathing out one; breathing in…breathing out two; breathing in…breathing out three and so on) Count each exhalation until you reach the number of breaths you decided on at the beginning. Count just before the inbreath occurs.  Don’t hurry the count.

When you reach the number of breaths on which you decided, stop counting and just rest for a little while. See if the monkey mind is settled and willing to sit.  If that’s the case, you can just rest without the technique.  Once the monkey mind begins to become active again, you can start counting again at one. If in the process of counting, you find that your mind has wandered and you’ve lost track of the number that you’re on, go back to one again. If thoughts come up while your counting, don’t fight with them and don’t entertain them.  Just let them go. Remember that awareness of breathing is meant to be your primary activity; counting is not.   Don’t get lost in the counting; don’t let counting become like a mantra; don’t let counting become the main event.: let it remain in the background as a natural expression of your awareness of your breath.

After several sessions of practicing counting breaths, if you find that you can stay with the breath relatively easily, you might increase the number you count up to. But remember, the primary goal is to be here now, not to achieve a high breath count.

Variation on counting breaths

The Bad Lama has a variation (of his own invention!) on the technique of counting breaths.  In this variation, you count up to your chosen number and then count back down to zero. If you lose track, start at 1 again.

Counting the breath can be useful in a number of circumstances. It can help settle a hyperactive mind that won’t stay on the breath. If you have the habit of breathing rapidly, counting can help slow the breath, and can therefore help you to release habitual tension and enter into natural relaxation. It can also serve to perk you up a little if you’re feeling pleasantly drowsy and prone to sleep.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that these techniques seem to be giving us a lot to do during meditation.  Why are we doing so much? Aren’t we supposed to just sit? Yes, of course, oh clever reader, you are right! We are doing something when we employ a meditation technique. The reason we employ meditation techniques is that we find that when we try to just sit, we can’t.  We have habits that drive us out of our sitting into some other activity. Meditation techniques are antidotes that are meant to help us release those habits of mind that prevent us from just sitting. Once we’ve released that habit, we must let go of the technique, otherwise we can become addicted to the technique, just as a patient can become addicted to medicine.

For this reason, the Bad Lama recommends that when you sit to meditate, you should first notice your state of mind.  If it’s already calm and settled, there’s no need to apply a meditation technique.  If you decide to apply a technique, drop it after a while and see how your mind is.  If it’s become calm and settled, there’s no need to continue the technique. Becoming good at a technique is actually a great danger for a meditator.  Beware of becoming proud of your technical ability; if you become proud, you may not wish to just sit, but rather to enjoy your technical skill. Then the rather than helping you to just sit, the technique will prevent you from just sitting.  It will be like golden chains: although those chains keep you from freedom, you do not want to rid yourself of them, because you consider them valuable.

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