Even if we find some time in our busy schedule to sit down and meditate, it can be hard to concentrate. We may try to relax and follow our breath but instead find ourselves trying to control it. In addition to that, our minds refuse to stay quiet and act like noisy little kids. After sitting like that for a few minutes we may also notice that our bodies start acting out too by letting us know that our backs hurt or legs about to go numb. And then the timer goes off and we’re not sure if we meditated at all. “What was that all about?” we ask ourselves.
If that sounds familiar, then I can relate. I remember my first meditation like it was yesterday. At first, it was easy to follow the breath, but then something went wrong. Suddenly, I found myself thinking about all the things I had to do that day. What’s worse, I forgot what to do next: was I supposed to notice the rhythm of my breath or areas of tension in my body? It all got mixed up. In this post I would like to share four steps of breathing meditation that might help you improve concentration and make the whole process a little bit easier.
Before You Begin
Before starting any formal sitting meditation, it’s important to take 1-2 minutes to sit down and relax a bit.
Set your timer for 10-15 minutes: the first interval of 1-2 minutes and next four intervals of 3-4 minutes (for steps 1-4). For this purpose, I recommend using the app called Enso.
Take a few deep breaths and close your eyes.
Get in touch with your body: notice any areas of tension by doing a very brief body scan. Move your attention slowly from head to toe. Pay attention to your eyes, jaw, tongue, shoulders, lower back, hands, and legs.
Now activate your senses. Pay attention to the sounds all around you, notice any subtle smells in the room, feel the taste in your mouth.
Once you feel calm, you’re ready for the first stage of breathing meditation.
How to Practice Breathing Meditation
The principle behind breathing meditation is very simple: we use breath as an object of concentration.
The popular western version of this meditation is based on the ancient text The Path of Purification by 5th-century Indian scholar Buddhaghoṣa and practiced in 4 steps.
After you’ve taken a few minutes to get in touch with your body and calm down, you should point your attention to the breath.
Feel the natural flow of the air coming in and out of your nose. Do not try to alter the breath in any way.
Notice the rhythm of the breath: is it quick and shallow or deep and slow? Notice the subtle movements of the body as you breathe.
Next, mark each breath with a count. In the first stage, we do this at the out-breath and count from 1 to 10. Repeat this cycle of counting for 3 or 4 minutes (the first interval in your timer app).
Schematically it looks like this: breath in – breathe out – count “1,”
breath in – breath out – count “2, ” (…) breath in – breath out – count “10.” Repeat.
Whenever you get distracted by random thoughts, gently bring your attention back to the breath.
“By repeatedly bringing your attention back to the breath each time it wanders off, concentration builds and deepens, much as muscles develop by repetitively lifting weights.” ― Jon Kabat-Zinn
Start counting just before each in-breath.
This subtle shift will change your experience considerably.
First of all, you’ll notice that you are more focused because anticipation of each breath gives you a more active role.
You’ll also feel that this type of counting makes you feel more energized because you give more attention to the in-breath. Just like in the first stage count from 1 to 10 and repeat the cycle for 3 or 4 minutes.
Schematically it looks like this: count “1” – breathe in – breathe out,
count “2” – breathe in – breathe out, (…) count “10” – breathe in – breathe out. Repeat.
Keep bringing your attention back to the breath each time you lose concentration. While doing that it’s important not to analyze distracting thoughts, just let them come and go.
“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
As you reach this stage, you should feel fully aligned with your natural breathing. You’ll also notice that your concentration level has increased.
It’s time to stop counting and follow the natural flow of your breathing as you inhale and exhale.
Feel the air filling your lungs, subtle movements of your shoulders going up and down or your belly expanding and contracting.
The key to this stage is to notice the turning point between each in-breath and out-breath. This slight change will help you maintain your concentration without counting. Continue doing this for 3 or 4 minutes.
Schematically it looks like this: breathe in – (notice) – breathe out –
(notice) – breath in – (notice) – breathe out – (notice).
“As you breathe in, cherish yourself. As you breathe out, cherish all Beings.” —Dalai Lama
During this final stage, you’ll be focusing on the point where air enters and leaves your body.
Usually, it’s the area around your nostrils. If you have difficulty breathing through the nose, it could be your mouth or the area further in towards your throat.
As you feel your breath passing that point, try to notice how cool it is flowing in and warm as it flows out.
Remain with the soft brushing sensation of your breathing as continuously as you can. Be receptive to it rather than trying to force your attention on it.
After 3 or 4 minutes gently open your eyes.
“Be aware of your breathing. Notice how this takes attention away from your thinking and creates space.” — Eckhart Tolle
Start Meditating Today
It might seem strange in the beginning but every time we meditate we gain a little glimpse of what it’s like to be completely still and present. If only for a brief moment, we start to notice a tiny space between us and the mental noise in our heads. In other words, we become an awareness in the background of our thoughts. And with each meditation session, that awareness grows little by little. Until one day we can see clearly how a thought tries to sweep us away and provoke a negative reaction. At that moment we will be ready, we will not give in. To help, I’ve made this free worksheet that you can download by clicking the button below.