Meditating On The Breath.

November 7, 2018 § 3 Comments

Many meditation instructions focus on the breath, citing it as a convenient meditation object because the breath accompanies us all our lives. The instruction is simple. Sit in a quiet place, keep the back straight and, without trying to control it in any way, focus on the breath and come back to it from each distraction.

Sometimes the instruction includes counting breaths up to ten and then restarting from the number one, especially when the count is lost. Sometimes it tells us to focus on the breath as it enters the nostrils. Most instructions give the initial aim as calming the mind and freeing it of distractions. Notably, none of the instructions include seeking higher states of consciousness or using meditation for self-improvement.

A while ago I had an experience that helped me understand breath meditation, although I did not realize it at the time. I was riding my bicycle in a park frequented by birds and bird watchers. With the sun bright behind me, a shadow suddenly crossed my path. Stopping. I looked up to see an osprey. I watched as the magnificent raptor displayed its aerial talent just meters above the field in front of me. At one point it dove, and I thought, “It’s diving into the ground.” It was only then that I noticed that I hadn’t been thinking. I was just watching, while the thinking part of me hung in the background, waiting to start up again.

As mentioned, it was only later that I realized that my osprey experience was a lesson in meditation. It is possible, I found, to just sit and watch something without thinking about it. This ‘watching’ does not exclude whatever else may be going on in my inner or outer field of attention. Nor does it exclude thought from occasionally popping up. It is only when these other things take me away from the watching that they become distractions. And that’s what meditation on the breath is: watching, returning each time you’re distracted.

Watching may be described in two ways. The first is paying attention.

One of the things you learn through meditation is how seldom you actually pay attention to anything. Instead of remaining focused on the breath, your attention moves and drifts from one thing to another, one thought to another. Very seldom does it stay on the breath for any length of time.

You also discover just how conditioned you are to not look in certain directions. A habit that keeps suffering alive by limiting your ability to see opportunities that may, for example, take you out of an unhealthy relationship or a bad job. Conversely, you also discover your tendency to only look at certain things, such as whether people are approving of you or not. So, though it may seem counterintuitive, learning to pay attention to one thing frees you to look at many things and in new directions.

The second way to describe watching is somewhat subtler. It is the awareness of being aware.

Breathing is an activity that is always in the periphery of your awareness. It is only when you stop and pay attention to it, however, that you become aware that you’ve been aware of it all along. This awareness of being aware is what is cultivated when meditating on the breath.

Awareness of being aware is subtle because we naturally tend to focus on the objects of awareness, rather than the awareness itself. It is like looking in a mirror and seeing the reflections but not the mirror. When we meditate, we are trying to isolate the mirror amid the reflections. We are trying to become aware of being aware and realize that we are that awareness.

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