Most of us take up meditation because we want something from it. Maybe we’ve read about the supposed benefits, and we’d like them for ourselves. It’s good to have a sense of intention—without it, we can easily lose our motivation, especially when nothing seems to be happening, or when something we don’t like is on the horizon.
However, striving for success usually gets in the way. As soon as we try to get something else, or be somewhere else, we move into desire or aversion, rather than accepting the reality of how and where we are. This creates trouble. We try to work out how to get calm, or get rid of negativity, or force insight to come. We start pushing for results. Peace can come with practice, but only when we stop trying to hold on to, avoid, or resist what’s already happening. Peace comes only if we practice it as the method. That means letting go of struggle, and making friends with reality.
As soon as we try to get something else, or be somewhere else, we move into desire or aversion, rather than accepting the reality of how and where we are. This creates trouble. We try to work out how to get calm, or get rid of negativity, or force insight to come.
This is why I love the reminder “Abandon all hope of fruition,” which comes from a set of mind-training instructions developed by Atisha, an eleventh century Tibetan meditation teacher. I find its message of seeming doom funny—the joke in meditation is that we get somewhere by not trying to get anywhere. It invites us to set no targets, and to let go of judging ourselves constantly against some invented measure from the past or the future. If you’re seeking peace, it will come when you stop measuring everything, including meditation, against an arbitrary yardstick.
The joke in meditation is that we get somewhere by not trying to get anywhere.
This letting go of judging our practice is precisely what’s trained in mindfulness of breathing. It’s wonderfully simple. Just notice and follow the breath as it’s happening right now. Let everything be as it is, and when you notice that the mind has wandered, gently come back to the breath. Just keep practicing this, and let the results take care of themselves.
Practice: Mindfulness of Breathing
- Find a quiet place, and sit on either a chair or cushion. Choose a chair with a firm, flat seat, and hold your back upright (although not stiffly so). Let the soles of your feet meet the ground, and bring your hands on to your lap. If you sit on a cushion, you can be cross-legged. Let your body be untensed, inviting openness and confidence.
- Decide how long to practice for. Your session can be as short as five minutes, or longer. You may find it useful to set an alarm to tell you when to stop, so you don’t have to think about it.
- Bring attention to the sensations of breath in your belly. Let go of thinking about or analyzing the breath. Just feel it. Follow its natural rhythms gently with attention: in and out, rising and falling. Let thoughts, emotions, body sensations, and sounds be as they are—you don’t need to follow them or push them away. Just allow them to happen, without interference, as you direct gentle attention to the breath.
- When you notice that your mind has wandered, as it likely will often, acknowledge that this has happened, with kindness. Remember, as soon as you’re aware of the wandering, you have a choice about what to do next. You can bring your attention back to the breath, and continue to follow it, in and out, moment by moment, with friendly interest.
- Continue with steps three and four until it’s time to stop.