Like the Just Sitting meditation, this is a mindfulness practice. You may find this meditation easier if you are a beginner because there is more for your mind to ‘do.’
In Just Sitting, we maintain an awareness of the body and our experience in general. It is an open awareness. In Mindfulness of Breath meditation, we use the breath as an anchor. This more defined focus is a concentrated awareness.
The Anchor in Meditation
The anchor is the thing you use to bring your attention back to the meditation. It helps to tether you to your present experience. In the Mindfulness of Breath practice, the anchor is the breath, or more specifically, the counting of the breath. When we go off-piste and get lost in the snowy forests of our thoughts, we can grasp the anchor of the counting and come back to the practice and the present.
With the Metta Bhavana, the anchor is the visualisation. We bring the image back into the mind, grasping on to that to become present again. With Just Sitting, the anchor is the experience.
There are other types of meditation, and they all have an anchor. Trataka, or yogic gazing, is a form of meditation where the practitioner stares at an image, for example, a candle flame. The flame is a powerful anchor as it is an actual physical object. In Japa meditation, we use the mantra itself as the anchor–chanting out loud serves to keep us present.
The anchor helps us to keep our focus on our practice. It is also known as Dharana or concentration, and is the sixth limb of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga. Because of this intense concentration, we can reach the heightened meditative state of Dhyana.
In Dhyana, we are 100% absorbed in the object of the meditation, and begin to gain some insight into its nature. There is an element of contemplation with Dhyana. Not so much logical thinking as an open-minded curiosity about the reality of the object of our focus. It is one step before Samadhi – pure conscious awareness.
This brief outline gives you some insight into the potential of this deceptively simple practice. Though the Mindfulness of Breath meditation is simple, it is not necessarily easy. Like all worthwhile endeavours, it requires practise and patience. But, it is time and effort well spent, and you will soon see the benefits if you bring this practice into your daily routine.
How to Practice the Mindfulness of Breath Meditation
This is the most basic and beginner-friendly form of the Mindfulness of Breath meditation as it utilises the first stage only. To meditate guided by my voice, go to Insight Timer. Otherwise, follow the steps below:
Set a timer for the amount of time you would like to meditate for. Beginners can even start with just 2-5 minutes every day. You can increase as you begin to feel more comfortable with the practice.
Sitting comfortably, (see below for notes on posture), close your eyes and relax your body.
Bring your attention to your breath. Just observe its natural tide and rhythm, its ebb and flow, and how it feels in your body.
When you feel ready, you can begin counting your breaths—an inhalation and an exhalation count as one breath. Count your breaths to ten.
Once you reach the tenth breath, go back to one and start again.
If you lose count or realise you have followed the thought train, simply begin again at one. No judgments. No dramas.
Repeat until the timer sounds.
This outline demonstrates only the first stage, counting the breaths one to ten at the end of the exhalation. Once you are comfortable with this, you can add in the next stage or all of the stages if you feel ready.
The Second Stage of the Mindfulness of Breath Meditation
In the second stage, you are still counting the breaths. But instead of counting at the end of the exhalation, your count comes before the inhalation. So, you count one, then inhale and exhale, count two then inhale ad exhale, and so on up to ten. Like before, once you reach ten, you begin again at one. The placement of the count may sound the same on first meeting, but it is not. There is always a slight pause after you exhale and before you inhale. In the first stage, we count after the exhalation and before the pause. In the second stage, we count after the pause and before the inhalation.
Though the difference may feel slight to you, the placement of the count does make a difference to the practice. Counting at the end of the exhalation brings a feeling of calm and grounding. Counting at the beginning of the inhalation lifts the energy and has a stimulating effect. Plus, the change of focus helps to keep the concentration on the practice.
The Third Stage of the Mindfulness of Breath Meditation
In the third stage, we drop the counting altogether. Now the focus is on the experience of the breath as a whole. You might like to notice the physicality of your breath – feeling the air flowing into your lungs, expanding your belly and your chest, and leaving your body. Can you notice if it provokes any particular sensations or emotions? Or, you might prefer to enjoy the rhythmic passage of the breath – the tidal ebb and flow of the rhythm of life.
This stage can be a little more challenging because you have lost the concrete anchor of the counting. But, like the Just Sitting practice, when you lose focus, you can use the three Rs – Realise that you have followed your thoughts, Remember that you are doing Mindfulness of Breath meditation, and Return your awareness to your experience of your breath. This stage brings a calm refinement to the practice.
The Fourth Stage of the Mindfulness of Breath Meditation
For the fourth and last stage, you will sharpen your focus to the point where the air enters and exits your body. This point is likely to be the tips of your nostrils if you are breathing through your nose, but if that’s not possible and you need to breathe through your mouth, you can focus on the air entering your throat instead.
Be aware of the sensation of the air coming in and out of your nose or throat. Is there a difference between the inhalation and exhalation? In the temperature of the air, or the sensation? Or perhaps there’s a subtle difference in the energy or emotion between the two. Again, when your mind wanders, no problem, realise that it has happened, remember that you are practising mindfulness meditation, and return your awareness to your experience of your breath at the point of entry and exit.
Notes for Beginners
If you are a beginner, please don’t feel like you need to attempt all stages of the Mindfulness of Breath meditation straight away. Start with the first stage, as outlined in the seven steps above. This is an excellent place to start, and you will feel the benefits during and afterwards. When you feel confident with this stage, incorporate the second stage, or try all four stages together in my guided version.
It doesn’t really matter how you start, as long as you do. Even if the first few times seem to go terribly and you can’t keep your focus, you will still benefit from them. Each time you meditate, your brain builds new pathways that make subsequent sessions easier. Plus, even if it doesn’t feel like it, the meditation itself WILL have a positive effect for the rest of the day.
And you know what else is great? The effects are CUMULATIVE. Every day that you meditate, your positive results are compounding and growing. You may not be able to notice them at first, but I promise you, if you keep going, you will start to see the results. That may be something simple like not reacting as explosively to someone who annoys you, not feeling as irritated or anxious during your day, or feeling more joy and peace.
I can’t tell you precisely what you will experience because everyone is different, but I can guarantee that if you meditate daily with a positive attitude (seeing meditation as a gift, not a chore) and an open heart, you WILL enjoy positive results.
My Challenge to You
I hope that article shows you how simple it is to start meditating? Anyone can do that, even a child. I challenge you to commit to a daily Mindfulness of Breath meditation practice for 30 days, and then you can write to me and tell me how it has changed your life. I would absolutely love to hear about your experiences.
I have written this article to help you, and as always, I am here to support your practice and answer your questions. Please enter any comments or questions in the section below, and I will reply. Alternatively, you can contact me if you’d prefer to ask your question privately.