I believe that breath meditation is usually the best way for people to start a regular meditation practice; it can is often understood as the most basic and foundational meditation practice.
Here are some breath meditation instructions for beginners:
First, I suggest that you pick one of two spots in the body where you will feel your breath. You’ll do your best to gather your attention aware there during each inhalation and exhalation, and to bring your mind back every time it wanders away.
Please pick from between:
— The rising and falling in the lower abdomen, three finger widths below navel, and three finger widths into the body. You can imagine a Christmas tree ornament bulb expanding and contracting in the pit of your belly.
— The rings of the opening of the nostrils, just inside the chamber of the nostrils, and the area in the upper lip just below the nostrils.
Please choose one of those two spots, whichever seems to be the easiest for you to focus on, and stick with it as your breath-watching spot for the duration of the meditation.
Some more preparations:
- Settle in a meditative posture. Lift up with the crown of your head and bring your shoulder blades down your back. Having your body be relaxed, loose, and hanging off of an upright and extended spine. Ensure that your belly is uncompressed and able to breathe fully and deeply.
- Take a couple of intentional hard deep breaths, as a way of marking your transition from normal everyday life into arriving in this moment, in this place, with things being exactly as they are.
- Continue to breathe through your nose, with your mouth closed.
- Overtly set your intention for the meditation – make a deal with yourself that for the next period of time you intend to bring your awareness to your breath and to not get lost in thinking.
- Take a moment to enjoy a feeling of open alert repose.
Make contact with the feeling of your respiration. Gently rest your awareness on your breathing – softly yet precisely, with relaxation yet with focus. Bring your entire awareness to the sensations of breathing – knowing, feeling, and experiencing how you are breathing as you are breathing. Let your awareness merge with the breath and let it become the breath.
Let your awareness find itself inside of the sensation of your breathing, just as they are. Let your world simplify down to just breathing and knowing that you are breathing. Give yourself completely over to your breathing.
Allow your breath to flow in and out freely, effortlessly, spontaneously, normally, and naturally. Do your best to gently relax into each breath and to let your breath happen on its own, without any conscious effort. Allow the process go along at its own rhythm. Let your body breathe as if you were in deep sleep but simultaneously fully alert.
Do your best to not try to change, control, regulate, force, impose a rhythm on, or otherwise manipulate the breath in any way. You are invited to let go of a desire for deep, smooth breathing or to try to create something special. This is not a breathing exercise; it is an exercise in awareness. Whether your breathing is fast or slow, shallow or deep, light or heavy, just calmly, gently, and simply notice what is there, as it is.
If your pattern of breathing changes on its own, that is fine – do your best to be aware of that. And if you do notice yourself regulating the breath, do your best to let go and notice the breath as it now is.
Give yourself completely over to your breath. As best you can, let your whole world be reduced to just breathing. Entrust yourself totally to your respiration, trusting that it by itself is enough for now. Let your breathing fill your awareness as if it is the most interesting thing in the universe – or as if it is the only thing in the universe.
Breathing is a present-time process. When we truly settle our awareness on our breath, we become aware only of what is occurring in the present moment, here and now. Let go of both the breath that you’ve just taken and the very next one to come. Without comparison, holding on, or anticipation – we fill our mind with just the breath right in this moment, as it’s happening.
Feel the breath. During each inhalation and exhalation, steady your attention on the sensations that you can feel at that place you picked at the beginning (belly or nostrils). Be aware of each in-breath and out-breath as it passes by, just as a doorman watches each person who comes and goes through a door.
Do your best to let go of imagining, visualizing, or thinking about your breath. Simply have a raw, alive, unmediated experience the sensation of the breath just as it is.
Observe the breath closely. Really study it. See if you can go deeper, and see how up close, intimate, and personal you can get with the experience of breathing. There is more to see here than just an in-breath and an out-breath. Every inhalation goes through a complex process of birth, growth, and death, and every exhalation does the same. You find enormous variations and constant cycle of repeated patterns. With close examination, it comes to appear to like a symphony, with endless levels of minute detail.
Patiently return your wandering mind. Often we become distracted and lose our concentration. Your mind may zone off into thoughts, plans, memories, emotions, images, hearing sounds outside of yourself, physical sensations elsewhere in the body, wondering what you are doing, reactions to the meditation, or other phenomena that are not the simple feeling of your respiration.
If you notice that this has happened, I invite you to let the other sense experiences fall to the background as you bring the awareness of your breathing into the foreground. Gently let the other objects of awareness free to do their thing, while doing your best to bring your attention back to the easy, natural rhythm of your breathing. This act of beginning again, letting go of distractions and gently bringing attention back to the breath, is one of the essential arts of meditation practice; over and over and over, we begin again. Return your attention to the breath again and again, spaciously yet persistently, stringing together one moment of mindfulness after another.
You can think of it as like training a scrappy puppy to sit in its box – be patient, relaxed, and kind, but also be alert, clear, and intentional in picking the puppy/mind up and repeatedly bringing it back. Simply let go, reconnect, and come back to the natural feeling of the breath in the present moment.
Make an effort. Bringing the mind back to the breath takes a certain quality of effort. Just like lifting weights or playing piano scales, as we repeatedly come back to the breath, slowly the mind grows in skill – more stable, more able to let go, and stronger in its ability to concentrate.
Because of a multitude of factors, some days our minds are relatively clear and calm, and other days they are ragged, busy, and stormy. Either way, please give it the best you are able. As you notice any moment that your mind has wandered, rather than a time for self-criticism, it can be a cause to celebrate – that is something that you would not have even noticed if you weren’t meditating. It is a sign that you are actually doing the technique correctly and that you are actually “meditating”.
Practice ‘Labeling’. We can use verbal labels (subvocalized inside our minds) to assist with our meditation. For example, you might label the different parts each breath, silently saying “rising”, “falling”, and “resting” (for the space in between breaths). Labeling like this can be a tool to help us to stay present, because if we have not labelled for a little while, we are probably lost in thought.
You may also want to say some words inside your mind to briefly make note for the type of distractions from the breath that may come up for you:
— “body”, for body sensations other than the breath
— “hear out”, for words and sounds in the outside world that you hear with your actual ears
— “hear in”, for thinking that is internal conversations, analysis, words, evaluations, and music stuck in your head
— “see out”, for actual images that you see in the external world (if you meditate with your eyes open)
— “see in”, for images and movies that you see in your thoughts, in your mind’s eye
Using these five labels can help us to notice what has grabbed at our attention, and to not get caught by it. This can in tern help us to let go of it, of letting it blow away like dry leaves in an autumn wind. Then we can gently bring our awareness back to the breath.
Count the breaths. Another tool that people sometimes make use of when having a difficult time concentrating the mind is to try counting breaths from one to ten. The objective of counting the breath is, like labeling, also to insert brief reminders into the practice – remembering to remember – so that we aware if we have gotten lost in distractions. Attending to these mental markers at regular intervals in the course of the respiration is like taking note of regularly periodic milestones on the side of a country road, letting you know by their presence that you are on the right track, or by their absence that you have wandered off your chosen route.
To make use of this technique:
— Count once per breath, at the end of the exhalation (i.e. count each full inhalation and exhalation as one breath)
— If you reach ten, count the breaths back down to one (nine, eight, seven, etc)
— If you lose count of what number you are on, start again at one.
— Do not make a big deal out reaching ten, or of starting again. Just keep your mind resting on your breath as much as you can, and use counting as a tool to pay attention.
When your practice time ends, emanate the wish “May All Beings Be Happy”.