On its face, the simplest of things - follow the flow of the breath as it enters and leaves the body - is actually very challenging. Our fast-paced lives are usually characterised by short periods of partial attention then moving onto the next thing – much of it unfocussed. We really struggle to do more.
Try an experiment – set an alarm and spend 10 minutes giving your whole attention to only your breathing. Did you have any problems, intruding thoughts, bodily sensations, or emotions? The point is that we cannot really know something until we give it our complete attention.
There is nothing magical in choosing the breath, as there are many other possibilities. It’s simply that it is always available in any place, and it has no particular religious connotation. While it seems a simple process, breathing is actually very complex. Our job is to watch the normal breath as it naturally comes and goes for a set period of time. Any counting or other aid we use is only a tool to help us focus more strongly on the breath.
Choose a time which you can stick to each day. Find a quiet place where you will not be distracted. Until you get a sense for the length of each session, either set an alarm or have a clock in view. Sit comfortably with your back straight and hands in your lap so that you can maintain your position, remain alert and keep your air passages unobstructed for 20 to 30 minutes without stress. You can use a traditional posture, kneel or sit in a chair. At first, relax your face and muscles, gently close your eyes and stop thinking about your day.
In the first section, focus on your natural, gentle breathing and counting mentally after each breath, up to 10, and then starting over. If thoughts or distractions come up, let them gently subside without getting irritated and return to the breath, counting again from one.
In the second section, (another quarter of the full session) continue focussing on the breath, but mentally count before each inhalation up to 10, and then starting over.
In the third section, stop counting and simply observe the breath as it moves in a regular, unforced way into and out of the body. After three-quarters of the session has been completed, move onto the final section.
In the final section, focus precisely on the point the breath touches as it first enters the body. It will usually be the tip of the nostrils if we breathe through the nose, and it will remain constant. We notice the sensations here, not worrying about following the breath further into the body. Patiently and gently return to the breath when you become distracted, simply letting the thought go. Keep the face and eyes relaxed throughout.
At the end of the session, open the eyes gently and remain seated for a few moments. Try to keep some of the calm and concentration throughout the rest of the day. If you miss a session, just begin again at the next available time and avoid feeling guilty about it. You should take time to progress, understanding that developing calmness and concentration will require consistent effort.