Mindfulness of Breathing: A Primer
Thirty years ago, you had to be a serious student of Buddhism to be familiar with mindfulness meditation. Today, it’s everywhere: in medical, military, educational, and even corporate settings. Advocates of mindfulness meditation say it can improve just about every aspect of our lives, and science is now backing up their claims. Studies show that mindfulness meditation can reduce stress, improve ability to focus and be flexible, not to mention help thicken the part of our brains responsible for regulating emotions. The beauty of this practice is that you have everything you need right now to hack into these benefits.
Mindfulness is a simple concept: pay attention to what’s happening in the moment, and when your attention moves away, bring it back to your object of focus. Repeat as necessary, which will likely be a lot! The gateway to the present moment can be found right under your nose (and in it) through the practice of breathing meditation—a basic way to come to mindfulness.
Even though the principle is straightforward, people often tell me that it is difficult for them or they can’t do it because their minds can’t get quiet. But the problem isn’t their minds—it’s their expectations. No one’s mind can stay quiet all the time and on demand. Not even the Buddha’s. Let’s examine the expectations that can create roadblocks on the path to mindfulness.
First expectation: The goal of practice is to clear my mind
Forget about that! No Buddhist meditation teacher ever taught the practice of emptying the mind. (Interesting trivia: This idea may have come from the actor and martial arts expert Bruce Lee, who mentioned the empty mind in an interview. The brain is the most complicated object in the known universe, capable of creating trillions upon trillions of nerve connections. The mind is always on. It’s unrealistic to expect it to cease its function, especially when you’re swimming upstream against a lifetime of habitual thinking.
Second expectation: I should be able to keep my mind (and my body) still
When stillness is your goal, frustration is bound to follow. Your mind will not keep still—at least not for long. Your body will have trouble with stillness as well. Your lack of stillness is not a problem; there is nothing wrong with your mind.
Third expectation: Meditation should always make me relaxed
Mindfulness is about paying attention to your life in this moment. Sometimes it will result in relaxation; other times it will not. Relaxation is a reliable by-product of mindful attention. If you aim directly for relaxation, however, that effort can actually get in the way.
All of our minds are active, and this is particularly true for introverts. In fact, an especially active inner life is part of what makes you an introvert. To avoid frustration, the goal of practice should be to return to stillness, to refocus your attention.
You should ask your mind to sit still, much like you would ask a puppy to sit—with calmness, firmness, and gentleness. You don’t scold the puppy for being restless and getting up off her haunches a second after she has sat down. You repeat, “sit.” Each time you return your attention to the present moment, you build your capacity to be mindful. As the puppy matures, she can sit for longer. As your mind matures with practice, it too will be able to sit still for longer.
Your introverted mind can be a wondrous place filled with imagination, creativity, and contemplation. It can also be frightful and filled with worry, self-reproach, and regret. Mindfulness is a way to navigate this interior space with more skill so you don’t get stuck in the ugly parts. In fact, you can learn to navigate all your challenges with an evenness of mind, called equanimity. You achieve equanimity by training your attention.
Choose a focal point: it can be a sound, an image, or something as simple as your breathing. Focusing on the breath has some distinct advantages. It’s always with you; you can’t leave home without it. Breathing is happening right now in your body. Mindfulness also happens in the present moment and is body-based. And each breath you take is colored by how you feel in that moment. By focusing on your breathing, you’re keeping your finger on your emotional pulse.
Get comfortable. You can sit, stand, walk, or lie down. I don’t like to make a big deal about posture, at least not at the beginning. I suggest starting with sitting. Make sure you are sitting as upright as you can so that you can breathe without restriction. You can try this with your eyes open or closed. Do whatever you like with your hands. Your outer posture is not as important as your inner intention. Start with an intention to find your breath moving in the body.
Don’t try to do anything special with your breathing; just let it occur naturally. Follow the physical sensations that arise as the air touches the tip of your nose and moves through the nose into the mouth, throat, chest, and abdomen. You don’t need to do anything with them. Your goal is to observe rather than interfere.
As you observe, see if you can strike an attitude of curiosity, perhaps even fascination. You’ll notice your attention moving away within a few seconds. It might venture off into the future, anticipating an event or obligation; it might reach back to review past events; or it might be here in the present but engaged with opinions, commentary, or questions such as, “Wow, I’ve always wanted to try breathing meditation. Am I doing it right?” All of this mind activity is natural. You are not trying to get rid of this thinking but, rather, are bringing awareness to its occurrence and returning your attention each time it moves away.
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Practice for a designated period of time. If you use a timer, set it for five or ten minutes. Start small, and gradually build up the time.
As you practice, see if you can appreciate that each moment of breathing is different in some way. Notice how no two breaths are exactly the same. When your attention moves away from the breath, return it once again.
This simple practice of breathing trains your mind to reroute attention from internal self-talk, or what neuroscientists call the brain’s default mode network (DMN), to the parts of your brain that are attending to the body and the sensations and perceptions of the present moment. The DMN is responsible for self-referential thinking and the kind of mind activity often associated with the troubling states such as worry, self-reproach, and regret.
Practice, and let me know how it goes! What came up for you as you tried to return your attention to the present moment? Where did your mind like to go? What did you learn about yourself?
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