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How to Develop Awareness of the Here and Now for Meditation

There is an approach to meditation known as mindfulness, which is moment-to-moment awareness of your experience as it unfolds. Mindfulness combines concentration (highly focused awareness) and a more receptive awareness that simply welcomes whatever arises.

Ultimately, the goal of mindfulness meditation is to develop the capacity to be fully present for whatever is occurring right here and now. When you’ve stabilized your concentration by focusing on your breath, you can expand your awareness to include the full range of bodily sensations, and eventually you can just welcome whatever presents itself in your field of experience.

Though supremely simple, this advanced technique can take years of patient practice to master, but you may have glimpses of a more expanded awareness after only a few weeks of regular meditation.

Focus on your breath during meditation

The mundane, repetitive, seemingly inconsequential activity of attending to your breath can eventually lead to all the glamorous benefits meditation promises to provide, including reduced stress, enhanced performance, increased appreciation and enjoyment of life, deeper connection with your essential being — even advanced meditative states, such as unconditional love or transformative insights into the nature of existence.

Paying attention to the coming and going of your breath slows your mind to match the speed and rhythms of your body. You breathe an average of 12 to 16 times per minute. And the sensations are far subtler than anything you’ll see or hear on TV — more like the sights and sounds of nature, which is, after all, where you and your body came from.

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.

Count 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, inhale and count “one,” exhale and count “two,” inhale again and count “three,” and so on up to ten. If you lose track, return to one and start again.

When you get the knack of counting each in-breath and out-breath, 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.

Follow your breaths

Begin by sitting and breathing exactly as you did for counting your breaths. When 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.

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, allow your attention to rest on a predetermined touchpoint, such as your navel or your hands, before returning to your breath when it resumes.

Use meditation to expand to sensations

As soon as you’ve developed a certain ease in following your breath, you can expand your awareness as you meditate to include the range of sensations inside and outside your body — feeling, smelling, hearing, and seeing. Imagine that your awareness is like the zoom lens on a camera. Until now, you’ve been focused exclusively on your breath; now you can back away to include the sensations that surround your breath.

If you find it difficult to expand your awareness all at once, you can begin by exploring a sensation when it calls attention to itself. For example, you’re following your breath when a pain in your back occurs. Instead of staying focused on your breath, turn your attention to the pain and explore it until it no longer predominates your experience. Then come back to your breath.

Welcome whatever arises during meditation

When you become accustomed to including sensations in your meditation, you can open your awareness gates wide and welcome any and every experience — even thoughts and emotions — without judgment or discrimination. Just like sensations, thoughts and feelings come and go in your awareness like clouds in the sky without pulling you off center.

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