Meditation: Returning to the Breath

Our first meditation involves returning to the breath whenever the mind wanders. We can learn much from this simple practice, not least how gentle or how harsh we tend to be with ourselves.

Meditation: Returning to the Breath


We're going to do a meditation together now. If you can, sit comfortably, see if your back can be straight without being strained or overarched. Your eyes can be open or closed. If they're open, see if they could be open just a little bit. You can find a spot to rest your gaze, let it go. And if in the course of this sitting, you become very sleepy, you can just open your eyes and continue on in that way. 

Finding the breath and resting

As we begin, see if you can find the place in your body where the breath is strongest for you, or clearest for you. You may feel the movement of air at the nostrils, the rising, falling movement of the chest or the abdomen as the most intense, whichever. You can find that spot, bring your attention there, and just rest. The operative word really is rest. Sometimes people feel that if they get a stranglehold on the breath their minds won't wander. And actually, they will wander more. 

So we're relaxed, and at ease, just resting our attention on something that's happening anyway. In this practice we're just with a normal, natural breath. We're not trying to make it deeper or different. It's just however the breath is appearing and however it's changing. 

Feeling the breath

And we want to feel it. Sometimes you may get an image associated with the breath, or you may hear the sound of the breath, but what we're aiming toward is actually feeling the sensations of the breath. If you're with the breath at the nostrils, it may be tingling, vibration, warmth, coolness. At the chest or the abdomen, it may be movement, stretching, pressure, release. You don't want to be naming these sensations, but feel them. This is where we aim our attention.

It's just one breath. You don't have to be concerned with what's already gone by. You don't have to lean forward for even the very next breath: just this one right now. It's just one breath. And if images, or sounds, or sensations, or emotions should arise, but they're not strong enough to take your attention away from the breath, just let them flow on by—you're breathing. You don't have to follow after them. You don't have to fight them. Allowing things to arise and pass away, you aim your attention toward just one breath, right here and now.

Let go gently

But if something should arise—thought, fantasy, sleepiness—that is strong enough to take you away from the breath, that's okay. The most important moment in the whole practice is the next moment, after we've been gone, after we've been disconnected, because that's the moment where we have the chance to be really different. Instead of berating ourselves and judging ourselves, in the very strong spirit of self-compassion, we learn to let go gently, and we come back. We let go, and we begin again. We let go, and we begin again. You realize you've been gone, lost in thought, or spun out in a fantasy, or you've fallen asleep, whatever, it's okay. See if you can let go, shepherd your attention back to the feeling of the breath. We say the healing is in the return, not in never having wandered to begin with. Our minds are just trained to be somewhat scattered, or distracted. We'll leave the chosen object, but we can always return. 

How do you speak to yourself?

I'd like you to notice how you speak to yourself when you realize your attention has wandered. You're off somewhere. You don't have to figure out how in the world you ended up thinking what you ended up thinking, or how you're going to rectify this terrible problem, but notice how you let go, how you speak to yourself. Is it harsh? Is it punitive? Are your thoughts more along the line of, "I'm the worst meditator who ever lived, no one else ever thinks, it's just me."

If you notice there's a harshness in that voice, see if you can make it more gentle. Remember the force, the power, the essential nature of self compassion, that's the way to make progress. That's the way to keep growing: to be able to let go gently. And with kindness towards yourself, return your attention to the feeling of the breath. If your mind wanders a million times in the next few minutes, that's fine. The training is letting go and beginning again. Just one breath right here, now. 

And when you feel ready you can open your eyes or lift your gaze, and end the session.

Complete and Continue