Learning to Meditate: Strategies from the Buddhist tradition

by Dave Tomlinson, LCSW

A Buddhist meditation tradition called “Shamatha Meditation” is an approach emphasizing “conscious breathing.” The technique is simply to attend to each in and out-breath, knowing that one is breathing in or out, whether the inhalation is long or short, and letting yourself become aware of all the subtle qualities of the breath (smooth or ragged, deep or shallow), while maintaining proper posture and keeping the body still.

This approach to use of the breath helps to reduce excessive (discursive) thinking, settle and still the mind, promote a sense of inner calm, and enhance concentration. The use of normal breathing, which may at first incorporate  breath-counting to help beginners focus their attention on the breath, supports an attitude of non-attainment as an antidote to striving and competitiveness, where ego comes into play judging and evaluating one’s performance.  Judgment, striving, and self-evaluation inhibit the experience of joy in meditation.

Breathing in and out should always be through the nose. The meditator should “locate” the breath somewhere just inside the nose or near the tip, as this helps provide a location for concentration on the in- breath and out- breath. When counting breaths, each breathing cycle (in and out) can count as 1. Try counting up to 5 breathing cycles, and then start again from 1. If you lose count, just start over.

Treat each in-breath and out-breath as you would a fragile robin’s egg; with careful attention and gentle patience. When thoughts intrude, just notice them and then let them go, returning as often as necessary to your breath.

Do not criticize, judge or evaluate. Keep the thought nearby that you have nothing else to do, no place else to go and nothing to achieve. The Buddha directed his students to breath “without attachment or aversion to anything in this world.”

Remember whether sitting cross-legged on the floor or in a chair, maintain an upright posture (don’t slouch), as this makes breathing easier. If using a chair, don’t pick one that is too comfortable-a kitchen type chair is ideal. Sit toward the front of the seat with both feet on the floor about shoulder width apart, head aligned with your spine, shoulders relaxed, your left hand resting in the palm of your right. Your eyes can be open or closed…it doesn’t matter, or half open. If you prefer to keep your eyes open, try to focus your gaze a few feet ahead of you on the floor without really looking at anything.

The Buddha suggested that when practicing conscious breathing one should sit under a tree in the forest or go to an empty room away from busy places and people. This probably isn’t practical for most people today, but any reasonably quiet place where you can practice without interruption will do. Try conscious breathing for short periods of time at first, maybe 10 minutes and gradually increase the time to 30 minutes or more as your concentration grows! Smile!


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