By learning to allow distractions—thoughts, feelings, impulses and sensations—to come and go in the mind, we cultivate a way of releasing ourselves from the grip of any older, more adhesive mind states that occur from time to time. Distractions are seen most clearly when the mind is given just one thing to do, and placing the attention on the breath is a skillful way to anchor the mind, so the “tug” on the anchor may be felt.
Try this mindfulness of breath practice.
1. Settle into a comfortable sitting position, either on a straight-backed chair or a soft surface on the floor, with your buttocks supported by cushions or a low stool. If you use a chair, it is very helpful to sit away from the back of the chair, so that your spine is self-supporting. If you sit on the floor, it is helpful if your knees actually touch the floor; experiment with the height of the cushions or stool until you feel comfortably and firmly supported. Whatever you sit on, arrange things so that your knees are lower than your hips.
2. Assume a composed posture. Allow your back to adopt an erect, dignified, and comfortable posture. If sitting on a chair, place your feet at on the floor, with your legs uncrossed. Gently close your eyes.
There is nothing to be fixed, no particular state to be achieved.
3. Feel your body. Bring your awareness to the level of physical sensations by focusing your attention on the sensations of touch and pressure in your body where it makes contact with the floor and whatever you are sitting on. Spend a minute or two exploring these sensations.
4. Notice your belly. Now bring your awareness to the changing patterns of physical sensations in the lower abdomen as the breath moves in and out of your body. (When you first try this practice, it may be helpful to place your hand on your lower abdomen and become aware of the changing pattern of sensations where your hand makes contact with your abdomen. Having “tuned in” to the physical sensations in this area in this way, you can remove your hand and continue to focus on the sensations in the abdominal wall.)
5. Attend to your breath. Focus your awareness on the sensations of slight stretching as the abdominal wall rises with each inbreath, and of gentle deflation as it falls with each outbreath. As best you can, follow with your awareness the changing physical sensations in the lower abdomen all the way through as the breath enters your body on the inbreath, and all the way through as the breath leaves your body on the outbreath, perhaps noticing the slight pauses between one inbreath and the following out-breath, and between one outbreath and the following inbreath.
Sooner or later (usually sooner), your mind will wander away from the focus on the breath in the lower abdomen to thoughts, planning, daydreams, drifting along—whatever. This is perfectly okay—it’s simply what minds do.
6. Don’t try to change or “fix” your breath. There is no need to try to control the breathing in any way—simply let the breath breathe itself. As best you can, also bring this attitude of “allowing” to the rest of your experience. There is nothing to be fixed, no particular state to be achieved. As best you can, simply allow your experience to be your experience, without needing it to be other than it is.
7. Let your mind do what it does. Sooner or later (usually sooner), your mind will wander away from the focus on the breath in the lower abdomen to thoughts, planning, daydreams, drifting along—whatever. This is perfectly okay—it’s simply what minds do. It is not a mistake or a failure. When you notice that your awareness is no longer on the breath, gently congratulate yourself—you have come back and are once more aware of your experience! You may want to acknowledge briefly where the mind has been (“Ah, there’s thinking”). Then, gently escort the awareness back to a focus on the changing pattern of physical sensations in the lower abdomen, renewing the intention to pay attention to the ongoing inbreath or outbreath, whichever you find.
8. Acknowledge when you catch your mind wandering. However often you notice that the mind has wandered (and this will quite likely happen over and over and over again), as best you can, congratulate yourself each time on reconnecting with your experience in the moment, gently escorting the attention back to the breath, and simply resume following in awareness the changing pattern of physical sensations that come with each inbreath and out- breath.
9. Be gentle and kind with your wandering mind. As best you can, bring a quality of kindliness to your awareness, perhaps seeing the repeated wanderings of the mind as opportunities to bring patience and gentle curiosity to your experience.
10. Keep going. Continue with the practice for 10–15 minutes, or longer if you wish, perhaps reminding yourself from time to time that the intention is simply to be aware of your experience in each moment, as best you can, using the breath as an anchor to gently reconnect with the here and now each time you notice that your mind has wandered and is no longer down in the abdomen, following the breath.
To explore mindfulness of breath further, try this 5-minute breathing meditation.
This article was adapted from Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression, by Zindel V. Segal, Ph.D., C.Psych.