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Figuring Out How to Breathe Meditatively

Traditional cultures identified the breath with the life force that animates all things. For example, the Latin word spiritus (the root of both "spirited" and "spiritual"), the Greek word anima (from which we derive the word "animated"), the Hebrew word ruach, and the Sanskrit word brahman may sound quite different, but they have one thing in common — they all mean both breath and spirit or soul. When you follow your breath with awareness, you're not only harmonizing your body and mind, which gives you a sense of inner harmony and wholeness, you're also exploring the living frontier where body, mind, and spirit meet — and attuning yourself to a spiritual dimension of being.

The great thing about your breath as a focus of meditation is that it's always available, always changing yet always more or less the same. If your breath were totally different each time, it wouldn't provide the stability necessary for you to cultivate concentration; if it never changed in any way, you'd quickly fall asleep and never have an opportunity to develop the curiosity and alertness that are so essential to the practice of mindfulness.

Paying attention to the coming and going of your breath slows your mind down to match the speed and rhythms of your body. Instead of 6 images per second, you breathe an average of 12 to 16 times per minute. As a preliminary to the practice of following your breath, you may want to spend a few weeks or months just counting your breaths. It's a great way to build concentration — and it provides a pre-established structure that constantly reminds you when you're wandering off. If you were a neophyte Zen student, you might spend years counting your breaths before you graduated to a more challenging practice. But if you're feeling adventurous or already have some confidence in your concentration, by all means start with following your breath. Trust your intuition to tell you which method is right for you.

Counting your breaths

Begin by finding a comfortable sitting position that you can hold for 10 or 15 minutes. Then take a few deep breaths and exhale slowly. Without trying to control your breath in any way, allow it to find its own natural depth and rhythm. Always breathe through your nose unless you can't for some reason.

Now, begin counting each inhalation and exhalation until you reach ten; then return to one. In other words, when you inhale, count "one," when you exhale, count "two," when you inhale again, count "three," and so on up to ten. If you lose track, return to one and start again.

You may find it helpful to begin by exploring your breathing, without necessarily trying to track it from breath to breath. Begin by noticing what happens when you breathe — how your rib cage rises and falls, how your belly moves, how the air passes in and out of your nostrils. You may find that some breaths are longer and deeper, while others are shorter and shallower. Some may go all the way down into your belly, while others barely reach the upper part of your lungs before exiting again. Some may be rough or strong, others smooth or weak.

To help you concentrate, you may find it useful to extend the number in your mind for the full duration of the inhalation or exhalation, instead of thinking the number quickly once and then dropping it. For example, allow "o-o-o-n-n-n-e" to last as long as the inhalation, "t-w-o-o-o-o" to last as long as the exhalation, and so on. You may also find it helpful to subvocalize the numbers, especially at first, saying "one" ever so softly to yourself as you inhale, "two" as you exhale, and so on.

As simple as this exercise may seem at first, you may be surprised to discover that you never manage to reach ten without losing count. You don't have to stop your mind chatter in any way. But if you get distracted by your thoughts and lose track of your breath, come back to one and start again.

When you get the knack of counting each in-breath and out-breath — say, after a month or two of regular practice — you can shift to counting only the exhalations. If your mind starts wandering on the inhalations, though, just go back to the first method until you feel ready to move on again. Eventually, you may want to simplify the practice even further by simply noting "in" on the inhalation and "out" on the exhalation.

Following your breaths

Begin by sitting and breathing exactly as you did for counting your breaths. After you feel settled, allow your attention to focus either on the sensation of your breath coming and going through your nostrils or on the rising and falling of your belly as you breathe. (Although you're welcome to alternate your focus from one session to the next, it's best to stick with a single focus for the entire meditation — and eventually you're better off using the same focus each time you meditate.)

Give your full attention to the coming and going of your breath the way a mother tracks the movements of her young child — lovingly yet persistently, softly yet precisely, with relaxed yet focused awareness. When you realize that your mind has wandered off and you're engrossed in planning or thinking or daydreaming, gently but firmly bring it back to your breath.

At the end of your exhalation (and before you inhale again), there's often a gap or a pause when your breath is no longer perceptible. At this point, you can allow your attention to rest on a predetermined touchpoint, such as your navel or your hands, before returning to your breath when it resumes.

Thoughts and images will definitely continue to skitter and swirl through your mind as you meditate, but don't worry. Just patiently and persistently keep coming back to your breath. Gradually, you may even develop a fascination with all the little sensations — of your belly and ribcage shifting and opening and changing shape as you breathe or of your breath caressing the tip of your nose, tickling your nostrils, and cooling your nasal passages as it enters and leaves. You may also notice that your mind tends to quiet down or your thinking tends to change on either the exhalation or the inhalation. By attuning to a subtler level of experience while you meditate, you can open yourself to a subtler appreciation of each moment of life as it unfolds.

Set your watch or clock to signal the beginning of every hour. When the alarm sounds, stop whatever you're doing and follow your breath with full attention for 60 seconds. If you're doing something that can't be stopped, like driving a car in traffic or talking to your boss, follow your breath as attentively as you can while engaging in the activity.

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