How to Meditate on Your Breath
It’s very common, in mindfulness meditation, to be invited to “rest the attention on the breath” or even “focus on the breath.” But particularly if you’re new to meditation, you may have wondered: What does this actually mean?
Here are three elements to consider.
1. You don’t need to breathe a special way
First, in most forms of mindfulness meditation, resting the attention on the breath doesn’t mean changing the breath.
Now, in some meditative and yogic practices – pranayama, for example – you do breathe in a special way, perhaps modulating the length of inhales and exhales. There are even forms of mindfulness meditation that involve lengthening the breath to increase calm. These are very helpful!
But most basic mindfulness practices involve the unregulated, natural breath, just as you find it. Attending to the ordinary breath teaches us to be mindful of things as they are. We learn not to try to control our experience, but to let it unfold, exactly as it is, so that we can learn to recognize it, accept it as what it is, and investigate it. If the breath is deep, let it be deep. If it’s shallow, let it be shallow. In this way, you gain skills in observation and acceptance rather than control.
In general, mindfulness is essentially receptive rather than active. You’re not forcing the breath, not changing it, not manipulating it. You’re noticing what’s there.
2. Notice, not imagine
Second, becoming aware of the breath means noticing it directly.
Sometimes when people try to be aware of their breath, they visualize or imagine their breath. Sometimes they even talk to themselves: “Hey, I’m breathing in and breathing out.”
But the key to mindfulness is feeling the physical sensations of breath directly, without getting lost in the concept of the experience. This allows your thinking mind to relax and lets you learn on a less conceptual level.
Now, there are times in mindfulness when it is helpful to make mental notes about the breath. But that should be an intentional “add-on” to noticing the breath, not instead of it.
Let’s explore this right now. If it’s possible, take a moment to feel your breath at a specific point in your body. For example, try focusing your attention on your abdomen: you might feel your belly moving up and down, or a sense of expanding and contracting. Perhaps a little stillness before the next breath. This is what we’re aiming for: the felt sense.
3. It’s not actually that easy
Finally, focusing on the breath can be hard!
My meditation students often report how challenging it is to do something that seems deceptively simple. The fact is, paying attention to your breathing is not an easy task. Most of us have spent decades practicing being distracted. Being able to focus on your breath for an extended period of time is not going to happen overnight. So, be gentle with yourself. Try not to yank the attention back to the breath or focus too intensely. Rest the attention on the breath. Let it settle.
Over time, trust me, your mindfulness “muscle” will build. Jackson, a school teacher who I worked with, once described it this way:
I was hopeless at meditating. I think I was probably the worst meditator in the class. I don’t think I could stay with even one breath before my mind wandered. I wanted to give up so many times, I have lots of other things to do, yet I knew this would be good for me, and it also felt relaxing. I also found that I stopped yelling at people so much, so I knew something was working (not sure what). So I kept at it, over weeks, months, and believe it or not, over time it started to get easier! I was able to be with a few breaths before wandering, and then longer periods of time. I could sense a very real difference in my mind by the end of the year.
This can be true for you as well! Stay with it, gently but with resolve, and your mindfulness will grow over time.
Diana Winston is the Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center and the author of several books including her new book, The Little Book of Being: Practices and Guidance for Uncovering your Natural Awareness.