Daily Practice, Part 3: Breathe!

OK. So we’ve decided that meditation is something worth trying. We’ve gotten comfortable on a pillow or meditation cushion and realized that “comfortable” is probably just a metaphor for something else entirely. Now what?

First of all, meditation is about concentration. That is its foundation. Without at least some stability in the mind, whether we’re doing beautiful and elaborate visualizations or reciting exotic sounding mantras, our meditation will be unfocused, diffuse and unproductive.

I can tell you from the little experience I have that my ordinary mind is wild and undisciplined. It darts around frantically like a minnow after a shiny lure. It wants to be always entertained and indulged. In my mind, I am always chasing fantasies of the future, trying desperately to rewrite the past, hosting arguments and debates with lovers, friends and enemies who are nowhere to be found. I plan, I connive, I daydream. I am never satisfied with what is happening right now.

At least not until recently. Even though my mind still wanders wherever it wants most of the time, even after the little practice I’ve done, I see at least some improvement. Now and again, I experience brief moments of calm and stability. Not many but enough to be encouraging.

So where do we begin? There are many excellent instructions on the practice of shamatha, or calm abiding. This is the “basic” practice of meditation that will, after much effort, allow us to develop what is called “one-pointed concentration”. From what I hear, great masters of shamatha can hold their attention on a single object (the breath, an image, a mantra) for pretty much as long as they want without ever being distracted!

Here is the basic instruction (in my own words) taken from the little bit of reading I’ve done and the few teachings I’ve received:

  • Settle into your meditation posture (see Daily Practice, Part 2)
  • Set a positive motivation for your session (ie., to help others by learning to calm your mind)
  • Let your breathing fall into its own natural rhythm, don’t force it.
  • Bring your attention to the breath. You can count the breath by saying to yourself “Breathing in, one. Breathing out, one…” Count as high as you can or until you get to ten, then count back down to one.
  • If you find that your attention has drifted, don’t worry, just bring your attention gently back to the breath and start again at “one”.

And that’s it! At first you may find that your attention stays right with the breath. You might even think that it’s easy. Or maybe, like me, you will be looking forward to the time you can get up and “really do something” the second your butt hits the cushion. Either way, this simple sounding instruction is surprisingly difficult. The mind is like an unruly child, always wanting to play.

But we don’t want to beat the child just for acting according to its nature. That would only make the mind run even further out of control. We have to be patient with it and with ourselves. We have to be gentle and loving and just trust that in time the mind will settle down. We have to trust in our potential to improve.

Remember: start out slowly. Don’t feel you have to sit for twelve hours the first time. Sit for three minutes in the morning before work. Do this for a week. This way it will become something you can start to enjoy and look forward to. Gradually, you can build up to longer sessions.

Again, this is just my take on the practice. Always, always, always do your research. Check things out. Never rely on what one person says. Test things out for yourself. I highly recommend looking into the teachings of Thich Nhat Han, Sogyal Rinpoche, Pema Chodron, Sakyong Mipham, Kathleen McDonald and Thubten Chodron. These are truly realized teachers who speak from profound experience and wisdom. Enjoy the journey and may all beings be happy!

About Chris Lemig

In 2007 I finally came out to family and friends as being gay. After twenty-three years of drug and alcohol addiction, I got sober, picked up a book on Buddhism then promptly bought a plane ticket to India. The Narrow Way is the story of how all that came to be.
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