Day 1 Meditation
Today we will begin our exploration of CONCENTRATION with something you’ve known how to do all of your life: breathe. This practice entails paying attention to each in-and-out breath, and when your mind wanders (and it will, that’s natural), noticing whatever has captured your attention, then letting go of the thoughts or feelings without berating yourself for it. You then return to focusing on your breathing. In this way, the meditation trains us to stay in the moment before us instead of reliving the past or worrying about the future. It also teaches us how to be gentle with ourselves and others, to forgive our lapses and move on.
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It can be very supportive to establish a physical space that you can use every day for your practice. This meditation corner could be in your bedroom or office; in the basement or on the porch. Wherever you practice, pick a place where you can be relatively undisturbed during your meditation sessions.
Question & Answer
Q: When I try to meditate, I become so conscious of the breath that I almost feel like I’m going to hyperventilate. How do I just breathe normally?
A: When I was a beginner, I found that every time I began one breath, I would already be anticipating the next. Leaning forward was the habit of my mind; I was very wary and concerned about what would happen next in life, and I brought that hyper vigilance into meditation practice. I had so much performance anxiety that I couldn’t concentrate on my breath. What I needed was to settle back in my mind and let the breath come.
But sometimes we settle back too far, get too relaxed, and that’s when we get sleepy or bored or distracted. When that happens, we need to rev up our energy – take more of an interest in the process of breathing, refocus, reconnect. One way to do that might be to give yourself a little challenge: see if you can feel the end of one breath and the beginning of the next. Losing and restoring balance is part of the practice. The trick always is to begin again – to realize that nothing is ruined when we lose track of our breath.
My name is Sharon Salzberg. I’ve been practicing meditation since 1971 and teaching since 1974. Over the next four weeks, I’ll be guiding you through practices to deepen concentration, mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of emotions, and the heart practices of loving kindness and compassion. These are adapted from my book Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program, which I wrote to help anyone begin or strengthen a regular meditation practice. These meditation exercises are ancient techniques expressed in a modern way. Together, we will explore meditation as a skills training, beginning with concentration.
A classic foundational exercise in meditation is focusing on the feeling of the in and out breath. The breath is chosen, they say, for many reasons. For one thing, you don’t have to believe anything in order to feel your breath. You don’t have to call yourself a Buddhist or a Hindu or reject anything else. If you’re breathing, you can be meditating. It’s also said that the breath is very portable. If we can practice being connected, being aware, when we’re sitting formally, when we say, “Oh, now I’m going to be meditating,” we can also be practicing standing in line impatiently at the grocery store, sitting anxiously in a doctor’s waiting room. Anywhere we are breathing, we can be meditating. In this system, the breath that we focus on is the normal flow of the in and out breath. We don’t try to make the breath deeper or different, just however it’s appearing and however it’s changing.
This classic meditation practice is designed to deepen the force of concentration. If you consider how scattered, how distracted, how out of the moment we may ordinarily be, you can see the benefit of gathering that energy, gathering our attention. To have a sense of reclaiming all of that energy, which could be available to us, but usually isn’t because we throw it away into the past, into the future. We gather all of that attention and energy to become integrated, to have a center, to not be so fragmented, so torn apart. So even though we take a very simple object, an ordinary object, like the feeling of the breath, it has the effect of really bringing us to a sense of wholeness, a sense of empowerment.
To begin with, you can sit comfortably and relax. You don’t have to feel self-conscious, as though you’re about to do something special or weird. Just be at ease. It helps if your back can be straight without being strained or over-arched. You can close your eyes or not, however you feel comfortable. And notice where the feeling of the breath is most predominant. At the nostrils, at the chest, or at the abdomen. Rest your attention lightly in just that area. See if you can feel just one breath from the beginning, through the middle, to the end. If you’re with a breath at the nostrils, it may be tingling, vibration, warmth, coolness. If at the abdomen, it may be movement, pressure, stretching, release. You don’t have to name these sensations, but feel them. It’s just one breath. If images or sounds, emotions, or sensations should arise, but they’re not strong enough to actually take you away from the feeling of the breath, just let them flow on by. You don’t have to follow after them, you don’t have to attack them. You’re breathing, it’s just one breath. It’s like seeing a friend in a crowd. You don’t have to shove everyone else aside or make them go away, but your enthusiasm, your interest is going toward your friend. “Well, there’s my friend!” There’s the breath, there’s the breath. If something arises, sensations, emotions, thoughts, whatever it might be that’s strong enough to take your attention away from the feeling of the breath, or if you fall asleep, if you get lost in some incredible fantasy, see if you can let go and begin again, bringing your attention back to the breath. If you have to let go and begin again thousands of times, it’s fine, that’s the practice. It’s just one breath.
You may notice the rhythm of your breath changing in the course of this meditation session. You can just allow it to be however it is. And if you see your attention jumping to the past, jumping to the future, judgment, speculation, that’s alright. Our practice is to gently let go and simply return. You can shepherd your attention back to the feeling of the breath. Remember that in letting go of distraction, the important word is gentle. We can gently let go. We can forgive ourselves for having wandered, and with great kindness to ourselves, we can begin again. And when you feel ready, you can open your eyes. Sometimes we feel energized and exhilarated after this kind of practice. Sometimes calm and rested, and sometimes too rested, as though we were waking up from a nap a little groggy. All of that is normal.
See if you can bring an awareness of your breath several times throughout your day.