This meditation practice develops three qualities:
- Steadiness of attention
- Increasing the depth of self‑awareness
- Increasing self‑discipline
It is very easy to practice and, because it is so psychological in nature, it can be applied to the benefit of any religious practice, as well as for personal stress management and development.
To begin, sit comfortably erect, with both feet on the floor, and with your hands in your lap or resting on your thighs. Pick a chair that allows your spine to be straight, and that won’t interfere with the flow of blood to your lower legs. If you want to sit in a yoga posture, you certainly can, but it is not necessary. Once the posture is settled, make a commitment to not move for the duration of the sitting, regardless of any urgency to scratch an itch, shift posture to ease an aching muscle, or due to impatience. This accepting and non-reactive part of the practice is very important for learning how to accept and tolerate urgency, whether it is pleasant or unpleasant.
Before actually starting to monitor the breath, methodically scan for prominent body sensations, using a non‑analytical sensing strategy called bare attention, which is the ability to simply monitor experience as a neutral, non‑reactive observer, without labeling the experience. The body can be monitored in three ways: (1) The variations between hardness and softness. This registers as touch sensations, feelings of heaviness/compression, texture of cloth, etc. (2) Variations of warmth and coolness, particularly if the air is slightly cooler, or a breeze is blowing. (3) Sensations of movement. The most obvious movements are of the torso as breathing occurs. However, as the attention gets sharper, you can notice how the body as a whole moves with the breath. The heartbeat and blood moving through the body can be noted as well. Powerful, sustained attention will reveal subtle vibrations, pulsations, and energy flows throughout the body, particularly in the hands and face.
This body sensing exercise is a great way to break your attention away from obsessive thinking or dominant moods, to anchor back into the here and now, not yesterday and tomorrow.
Steadiness of Attention
Training your attention is like training a puppy ‑‑ it requires patience and gentle persistence. Your “puppy mind” tends to wander unceasingly from one object of focus to another, with little ability to sustain focus intentionally. The first task is to teach your attention to seek out and maintain a steady focus on an object, called the primary object. Using the puppy-mind metaphor, this means teaching the puppy to listen to the master, to bring its attention to the command “sit!” and actually follow through consistently.
In this system of practice, the primary object is the changing nature of the sensation of breathing, during the natural rhythm of the breathing cycle. There are two major areas of focus recommended, either the sensing of the breath in the area around the nostrils, or the sensing of the expanding and contracting of the abdomen. In the nostrils, the attention is focused on the touch sensation of the air, either at the upper lip, the rim of the nostrils, inside the sinuses, or the soft palate at the roof of the mouth. Using bare attention, the meditator can note sensations of coolness or warmth, rubbing, vibrating, etc. If the primary object is the abdomen, bare attention reveals sensations of stretching and contracting, tensing and relaxing, rubbing, etc.
It is suggested that only one area of sensation be selected for the primary object, like establishing a “home base”, either at the abdomen or the nose. When your attention wanders, return to the same home base. Train your attention using a technique called aiming and sustaining. Aim your attention at the beginning of the in-breath, as if turning a powerful inner spotlight onto a target. Sustain that awareness in a relaxed but precise way, to track all the changes that are apparent during the normal in-breath. Note the pause, then aim at the beginning of the out-breath and sustain that awareness during the out-breath. Note the pause before the next in-breath begins. See what changes can be noted from breath to breath ‑‑ are the breaths longer or shorter in duration? Have the sensations changed in any way? Are they easier to notice or more subtle? Does there seem to be a forced tension to the breath, or is it relaxed and natural? Has the area of sensation gotten larger or smaller in area, or moved slightly in its location? If the breath has gotten very quiet, don’t shift to another area of breath sensation‑‑look more closely, more carefully, while staying relaxed. This extra effort to notice the subtleties of the breath will actually increase your calmness, and, after a period of consistent practice, feelings of joy will arise.
Depth of Awareness
The aiming and sustaining process develops and deepens an important factor of this practice, that of investigation. This is the ability to notice the nature of experiences more thoroughly and precisely. By looking more and more closely at the sensation of breathing, several things occur simultaneously: Because the attention is focused on a neutral sensation, i.e., the breath, then the body naturally becomes more relaxed, thoughts become less persistent, and the emotions become calmer. As this occurs, the breathing becomes quieter, which encourages looking even more closely. This naturally increases the depth of self‑awareness, so that when the attention comes to a distraction you notice the nature of the distracting object and its effect on your mind more quickly and more thoroughly.
When beginning the practice, it is suggested that you spend as much time as possible focused on the breath. This is to calm and relax the body/mind, to steady your attention on one object, and to develop the habit of referring all experiences back to the breath. After some practice, you will develop what is called access or neighborhood concentration. This means that the sensations of the breath are almost always in the background of awareness, or “in the neighborhood”. This creates and maintains a quiet, receptive calmness and mental alertness. This steady, non-reactive awareness and curiosity is called mindfulness. Cultivating mindfulness is a major goal of this meditation practice. By learning how to “wake up” your attention through watching the sensation of each breath carefully and with some continuity, you can also “wake up” your attention to whatever effect that distracting thoughts and feelings are having on your moods and behaviors.
After access concentration is achieved, then you can practice consciously directing the attention to anything that arises that is not the sensation of breathing; these are called secondary objects of concentration. In this manner, you can examine in depth and at length the various experiences of body sensations, moods/states of consciousness, urgencies and mental objects as they arise and pass away.
The third gain from the practice is the ability to notice and detach from feelings of urgency that arise out of greed/desire, hatred /fear and ignorance/self-delusion. Using mindfulness, you can notice the craving and clinging that arise in every experience, and practice not identifying with the urgency or acting it out. This craving and clinging can have a pleasant or unpleasant focus. The easiest way to notice this urgency is through sensing the body, particularly unpleasant feelings, such as itches or aches. The strategy is to examine any urgency, for example a prominent itch, intentionally and in detail, especially the urge to scratch the itch, without actually scratching it, or to notice strong feelings of restlessness without fidgeting. As this is practiced, you develop the factor of equanimity, which is the ability to pay attention openly to whatever arises without craving or clinging, without desire or fear. It is a process of letting go, over and over again, while releasing the energy of the urgency, instead of tensing up or acting it out.
As the ability to notice physical urgency increases, you can practice noting mindfully the craving and clinging that are associated with emotions or states of consciousness, which are more mental than physical. Learning to sit with and observe the swell of anger without acting out, and to note the urgency of boredom with tranquility and acceptance is an important skill to master.
The most subtle but powerful pulls are associated with thoughts and perceptions. People are “addicted” to thinking and can become very uncomfortable when there is no chattering going on in the mind. The goal of the practice is not to stop thinking, but rather to become more skillful at noticing which thoughts seem to produce harm, avoiding them, and noticing which thoughts produce good, and nurturing them.
Ideally, you will develop and maintain the skill to monitor experiences on a moment‑to‑moment basis, i.e., the interactions between environmental stimulation, consciousness and behavior. As a result, you will be more skillful at controlling your behavior. Sometimes the dominant awareness will be physical, with accompanying thoughts and emotions. Sometimes a particular belief will generate a mood and physical tension. The goal is to relate to all experience with openness, love and generosity, to be liberated from the patterns of conditioning from the past which inherently produce suffering in the world–to respond rather than react.
There are particular mental states that are encountered in life, called hindrances. You will encounter them frequently while meditating. The meditation practice doesn’t cause the hindrances, it just makes them more obvious and more dramatic. There are five categories:
- Sense desires: These are recurring preoccupations or fantasies that are pleasant and seductive. The fantasies could be about food, sex, wealth, plans for shopping, etc. When they arise, simply stop feeding them with your attention and go back to the breath sensations, with great persistence. Remind yourself of how much time you have wasted with pleasant daydreams, and be determined to not be seduced by pleasant feelings.
- Unpleasant sensations or fantasies: These are opposite of the first hindrance. You may become very preoccupied with an uncomfortable physical sensation, or trapped into rehearsing a grudge you have against someone. In any case, go back to the breath sensation repeatedly, perhaps with the same recollection of how often you have wasted long periods of time focused on some discomfort or resentment unnecessarily.
- Dullness and sleepiness: This is not the fatigue you feel when you have worked very hard and your body needs rest. It is the kind of mind-numbing trance you feel when you are in a dull meeting in the middle of the afternoon. To handle this disturbance, make an extra effort to be curious about each breath, or sweep your attention through your body, trying to notice as many different body sensations as you can. This will activate parts of your brain that give your mind more energy. If that doesn’t work, do the walking meditation, described below.
- Restlessness and worry: This is the opposite of number 3. Your body is too activated, and your attention is bouncing all over the place. It is also possible that you may feel a strong urge to move about, or believe that you just have to move. In any case, relax your muscles as much as possible, and accept the urgency with as much stillness as you can manage. Try to acknowledge to yourself that worrying at this time will do you no good, and practice going back to the breath over and over again, for the entire meditation period, if necessary. After practice, it becomes increasingly easy to not be controlled by anxiety or worry, and you will feel delightfully calm and relaxed.
- Skeptical doubt: This hindrance involves being indecisive about your attention, or your purpose. It will seem that everything you are doing is wrong, and there may be a lot of arguing with yourself internally, or with some imaginary person inside you. You may feel very defensive. When this happens, go back to observing just the breath and other sensations in the body, with determination not to let your doubts stop you from relaxing and calming your body and mind.
Learning how to identify and overcome these mental states is very important for your meditation practice. The hindrances will come and go, and one may lead into another with no obvious connection. Your job is to simply notice them and not feed them with your attention. When dealing with any of the hindrances, paying close and persistent attention to the sensation of breathing is the best choice. Persistence is key; no matter how many times you are distracted, go back to the breath and you will get good results.
You can meditate in every posture. Walking meditation helps to generalize mindfulness beyond the sitting practice; to have more presence of mind and self‑discipline in the daily routine of life. It’s also a great remedy for restlessness and sleepiness. The following describes how to meditate while walking:
Slow walking meditation: Choose a quiet spot on level ground where interruption is unlikely, indoors or outside. It’s best to have about 30 feet of a clear path, but any place works once the technique is mastered. Walking barefooted or with socks on allows you to notice more sensations, but it’s still acceptable to walk with shoes on. Stand in an erect, yet relaxed and balanced way, with your eyes focused about six feet ahead on the ground. Your hands can be clasped in front or behind, tucked in pockets or hanging free. Sweep your attention though your body to investigate how your body senses the standing posture. Notice how your weight shifts subtly from one foot to the other, and from the balls of the feet to the heels.
The primary object of attention during the walking meditation is not the breath, but the changing sensations in the soles of the feet. Begin walking very slowly and intentionally, carefully noting the changing flow of sensations when the heel of a foot lifts from the ground, then the tension in the arch of the foot, the lifting of the ball of the foot, then the toes. Note carefully the release of tension in the foot as it swings through the air, then the strike of the heel, the tension of the arch, the strike of the ball and toes, etc. Notice the touch awareness, temperature, movement sensations, and feeling of volume in the foot.
When your attention wanders, come back to the foot again, to generate and monitor mindfulness, one step at a time. You can focus on one foot, then the other, or one foot can be chosen as the primary object and tracked through all the processes of walking. Sometimes it’s good to notice the whole leg as the sensations come and go, or to note the shifting tensions and balance of the entire body.
At the end of the path, notice the change in sensation from walking to standing. Stand meditatively, then notice the intention arising to turn to the right or the left. Maintain mindfulness while turning, and then notice the intention to begin moving again. Try not to predict which foot will move first.
As mindfulness, concentration and investigation grow, the movements of each step will become slower and be noted more precisely. This progression is facilitated through a careful examination of the flow of experiential events, e.g., which part of the heel strikes first, which toe leaves the ground last, etc. The increased sensing awareness will quiet and calm the mind. Distractions will be more easily noted: When do eyeblinks occur? Does a sound or thought begin when the ball of the foot strikes or when the toes touch down? Is there more awareness of the right foot or the left?
Normal walking meditation: Pay more attention to the normal rhythms of walking, especially the relationships between stepping and breathing. Are there 1, 2, or 3 steps on the in-breath? Are there more or fewer steps on the out-breath? Notice the physical sensations of the swing of the arms, the shifting balance of the body. How does the rhythm of breathing change when going up or down stairs? Notice how your body feels when twisting or reaching out to open or close a door. Do eye blinks occur on the right stride or the left? When standing in line, notice shifting weight from one leg to the other. Notice sensations while sitting down or standing up. Have fun with it!