The practice of meditation is simple.
- Find your seat;
- Place your mind on your object of focus; and
- When your mind strays, gently re-place it back on that object of focus.
It’s simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. In the previous post, I focused on Step 1: Finding Your Seat. In this post I’ll talk about placing your mind.
We meditate to train our brains, much like we work out to train our bodies. If you’re new to meditation, you may be surprised at how busy your mind is, now that you’ve started mindfully noticing it. Placing your mind on your breath in mindfulness meditation offers an intentional rest to that constant chatter, and invites us to become more aware and mindful of it.
Have you ever had a really busy day, and when you finally have a moment to rest, you realize you’re thirsty, you’re hungry, you have to pee, and your neck and shoulders are stiff? We often live in our minds, not fully connected to or aware of our present body – not embodied – until our bodies finally scream for attention. The less embodied we are, the more difficult it can be to connect with our breath. Breathing exercises, or pranayama in yogic terms, can help us to make that connection.
First, try to notice your breathing as it is. What do you notice? Is it fast or slow? Deep or shallow? Where do you feel it the strongest? In your nostrils? The back of your throat? Your chest? Try placing one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Feel how they move as you take several natural breaths. Try moving one hand to the outside of your rib cage for a few breaths. Notice if you’re holding your belly and let it be soft. Many of us have learned from a lifetime of diet culture to “suck it in,” which makes our breath more shallow, and that shallow breathing can make us feel more anxious. Let that go.
Keeping your hands on your chest, belly, and/or rib cage, inhale slowly and deeply into your belly, rib cage, then upper chest. Exhale slowly and fully from your upper chest, rib cage, then belly. Keep breathing like this for as long as you’d like. This three-part breath helps oxygenate the body and prepares you for meditation. You can leave your hands where they are, or let them rest gently on your thighs.
After a few minutes, let your breath return to its natural state. Place your mind on the sensation of the breath as it passes through your nostrils – the coolness of the exhale, the warmth of the inhale.
Sometimes it’s hard to notice the breath at the nostrils. If you don’t sense it there, place your mind where you feel the breath the strongest. Try the nostrils another day.
When we practice placing our minds on our breath, we prepare for placing our minds on the present moment in our lives. We build capacity for focus, and we open up space to fully experience the only moment we have any control over – the present. This means sitting, both in practice and in life, with whatever is, fully experiencing – mentally, emotionally, physically – our joys as well as our pains. We place our mind on our breath, but it’s not our goal to empty our mind. It’s our goal to focus our awareness, to notice the distractions that challenge it.
I’ll focus on Step 3: Re-placing Your Mind, in the next post.