The magic moment in meditation

Sharon Salzberg explains how to practice basic breathing meditation.

A butterfly sits on a flower.

“Rest your attention slightly, as lightly as a butterfly resting on a flower.” Photo by Aaron Burden.

This classical meditation practice is designed to deepen concentration by teaching us to focus on inspiration and expiration.

Sit comfortably in a pillow or chair. Keep your back straight, but without straining or overlapping. (If you can’t sit, lie on your back on a yoga mat or blanket with your arms at your sides.)

Close your eyes, if you are comfortable with this. If not, gently look a few feet in front of you. Aim for a state of relaxation alertness.

Deliberately take three or four deep breaths, feeling the air enter your nostrils, fill your chest and abdomen, and come out again. Then let your breathing settle into its natural rhythm, without forcing or controlling it. Just feel the breath as it happens, without trying to change or improve it. You’re breathing anyway. All you have to do is feel it.

Observe where you feel your breath most intensely. It may be predominant in the nostrils, perhaps in the chest or abdomen. Then rest your attention slightly, as lightly as a butterfly resting on a flower, only in this area.

Be aware of the sensations that exist. If you are focusing on breathing in the nostrils, for example, you may experience tingling, vibration, or heat, itching. You can see that the breath is cooler when it enters the nostrils and warmer when it leaves. If you are focusing on abdominal breathing, you may feel movement, pressure, stretching, release. There is no need to name these sensations, just feel them.

Let your attention rest on the sensation of natural breathing, one breath at a time. (Notice how often the word “rest” appears in this instruction? This is a very quiet practice.) You don’t need to change, force, or “do it right” – just listen to it. Breathing does not need to be deeper, longer, or different from how it is. Just keep in mind, one breath at a time.

You may find that the rhythm of your breathing changes. Just let it be anyway. Sometimes people have a bit of a conscience, almost in a panic, to see how they breathe: they start to hyperventilate a little or hold their breath without fully realizing what they are doing. If this happens, just breathe more gently. To help support your breathing awareness, you may want to experiment with saying “in” with each inhalation and “outside” with each exhalation in silence, or perhaps “going up” and “going down.” But make this mental note very calm inside, so that you do not interrupt your concentration on the sensations of breathing.

Connecting to your breathing when thoughts or images arise is like seeing a friend in a crowd: you don’t have to push others away or order them to leave; you only direct your attention, your enthusiasm, your interest towards your friend.

Many distractions will arise: thoughts, images, emotions, pains, pains, plans. Just hold your breath and let them go. No need to chase them, no need to hold on, no need to analyze them. You’re just breathing. Connecting to your breathing when thoughts or images arise is like seeing a friend in a crowd: you don’t have to push others away or order them to leave; you only direct your attention, your enthusiasm, your interest towards your friend. “Oh,” you think, “there’s my friend in this crowd. Oh, there’s my breath, between those thoughts, feelings, and sensations. If distractions arise that are strong enough to distract your attention from the feeling of breathing (physical sensations, emotions, memories, plans, an amazing fantasy, an urgent to-do list, whatever) or if you find that “I’ve fallen asleep, don’t worry. See if you can let go of distractions and turn your attention back to the sensation of breathing.

Once you’ve noticed what’s catching your eye, you don’t have to do anything. Just be aware of it without adding anything, without judging (“I fell asleep! What an idiot!”); without interpretation (“I am terrible at meditation!”); without comparisons (“Probably everyone can hold their breath longer than I can!” or “I should be thinking better thoughts!”); without projections into the future (“What if this thought irritates me so much that I can’t concentrate on breathing? I’ll be upset all my life! I’ll never learn to meditate!”).

You don’t have to be angry with yourself to have a thought. There is no need to evaluate its content, just recognize it. You are not delving into the thought or feeling. You are not judging it. You’re not fighting him or falling into his hug and you’re letting yourself be dragged along by her. When you notice that your mind is not in your breath, look at what is in your mind. And then whatever it is, let it go. Refocus on your nostrils or abdomen or where you feel your breath.

Instead of telling yourself that you are weak or unruly, or giving up frustration, let go and start all over again.

The moment you realize you’re distracted is the magic moment. It’s an opportunity to be really different, to try a new answer. Instead of telling yourself that you are weak or unruly, or giving up frustration, let go and start all over again. In fact, instead of punishing yourself, you can thank yourself for acknowledging that you have been distracted and for breathing again. This act of starting over is the essential art of meditation practice.

Whenever you find yourself speculating about the future, reproducing the past, or engaging in self-criticism, turn your attention back to the real sensations of breathing. If it helps to restore concentration, mentally say “in” and “out” with each breath, as we suggested earlier.) Our practice is to let go gently and refocus on breathing. Notice the word “softly.” We gently acknowledge and release distractions, and gently forgive ourselves for wandering. Very kindly to ourselves, we turn our attention back to breathing.

If you have to let go of your distractions and start over thousands of times, that’s fine. This is not an obstacle to practice, this is practice. This is life: to start again, one breath at a time.

If you are sleepy, sit up straight, open your eyes if they are closed, take a few deep breaths, and breathe naturally again. There is no need to control your breathing or make it different from how it is. Just be with him. Feeling the beginning of the breath and the end of it; the beginning of the expiration and the end of it. Feel the small pause at the beginning and end of each breath.

Keep following your breathing, and start again when you are distracted, until you reach the end of the time period you have set aside for meditation. When you are ready, open your eyes or look up.

Try to add some of the qualities of concentration that you have just experienced (presence, calm observation, desire to start again and kindness) to the next activity that you do at home, at work, with friends or with strangers.

Excerpt from Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program by Sharon Salzberg © Sharon Salzberg, 2011. Used with permission from Workman Publishing Co., Inc., New York. All rights reserved.

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