“Bring your awareness to your breath. Do not control your breath. Let it happen by itself. If you drift off into thought, bring your awareness back to your breath.”
Instructions like these are routinely offered to beginning meditators and they certainly seem innocent enough. But, oh, the unintended consequences …
Sit. Remember instruction, “place my awareness on my breath.” Breathe in. Ah, there it is! Breathe out. Found it again!
Breathe in. Breathe out. In. Out.
Wait, I am ‘controlling’ my breath. I am making it happen. I’ve got to stop that. Oh no! I’m thinking. I’ve lost my breath. What a screwup I am. I’ve got to do better…
And so it goes for 10 or 30 minutes. A simple thing like breathing, something that can’t be done right or wrong (ask any baby), becomes the target of one judgment after another.
Is there any way to relax the judging mind when it comes to breath awareness? Must judging be a part of meditation? Is it possible to re-imagine the instructions so that judging plays a less intrusive role?
One way to reduce the number of judgments we make might be to say we don’t care how we breathe. How we breathe is something that doesn’t need to be judged. The original instructions said, “do not control the breath,” but we can take a different point of view and say that breathing can’t be done incorrectly. Sometimes it may feel like a little intent precedes the breath. Or it may feel like the breath happened by itself. Both are okay.
But what about my inevitable thoughts about the breath? Won’t I be thinking, “that’s intentional” or “that’s natural“? Probably I will. So let’s also try to find more neutral words than controlling, intentional, and natural. (Such words might also be useful for other types of experience where we begin to notice, and then judge, our efforts.)
If I find myself thinking about my breath and it feels like “I” somehow started the breath, I might say, “leading.” On the other hand, if my thoughts seem to arise after the physical experience, I might say “following.” Of course, I may not always think about the breath so I don’t have to seek these words out. They are just there for those times when I find myself connecting thoughts and experiences.
Leading. Following. Simple reminders that thoughts can be part of experience and not judgments of thoughts.
So, a revised set of instructions:
“Become aware of your breath. When you find yourself thinking about your breath, notice if your awareness is leading or following your breath. When your awareness leaves your breath, look for the breath again.”