As a rule, mindfulness meditation practice involves 3 steps:
- choosing something to be aware of (breath, sounds, touch, feelings)
- paying attention to this phenomenon
- returning one’s attention to it once we detect that our attention has wandered
The first step, choosing, often strikes people as a bit odd because nearly every set of instructions says, “pay attention to the sensations of breathing.” But why? My breath isn’t that interesting: I do it all the time without thinking about it. Worse, it seems to change whenever I pay close attention to it, and it just doesn’t seem that interesting compared to all of the other things I might focus on. So why pay attention to breathing?
A useful object of meditation should be one that promotes mindfulness. It should be portable, easily available, and cheap. It should also be something that will not embroil us in those states of mind from which we are trying to free ourselves, such as greed, anger, and delusion.
Breathing satisfies all these criteria and more. It is common to every human being. We all carry it with us wherever we go. It is always there, constantly available, never ceasing from birth till death, and it costs nothing.
Breathing is a non-conceptual process, a thing that can be experienced directly without a need for thought. Furthermore, it is a very living process, an aspect of life that is in constant change. The breath moves in cycles-inhalation, exhalation, breathing in, and breathing out. Thus, it is a miniature model of life itself.
Breath is a phenomenon common to all living things. A true experiential understanding of the process moves you closer to other living beings. It shows you your inherent connectedness with all of life. Finally, breathing is a present-time process.
Bhante Guratana is a Buddhist monk in the Theravada tradition, an author of several books (the most widely read is probably “Mindfulness in Plain English”), and the founder and abbot of the Bhavana Society in West Virginia.