“I learned that you should focus on your breath in meditation. But when I try to do that, I feel less mindful, more distracted and more anxious than when I just sit and watch my thoughts go by. What should I do?” ~ Question from a reader.
There are two parts to this question. The first one has to do with breathing, and the second, with the act of focusing the mind.
Let’s talk about breathing first.
Breath can be a great trigger of self-change. Good breathing makes us calm, energized, focused, and ultimately, fully integrates all levels of our being. There is broad agreement about what constitutes good breathing, among scientists as well as meditation teachers. Good breathing is where we breathe so that our belly expands and contracts (also called diaphragmatic breathing); the breath should be rhythmic, and there should be no interruptions or pauses in the breathing rhythm.
Bad breathing has the quite opposite effect, making us upset and anxious. By breathing high up in the chest (thoracic breathing), breathing arrythmically, with pauses and interruptions in the breathing cycle, we trigger the sympathetic nervous system. We are put in a subconscious state of the fight-or-flight response. Bad breathing leads to hypocapnia, a state of reduced carbon dioxide in the blood. The result is low oxygenation in the brain and other organs and tissues of the body.
Breathing well—that is, smoothly, rhythmically, and deep in the belly—not only helps us avoid hypocapnia, but creates a healthy pattern of heart rate variability. Our heart rate gently speeds up and slows down in a coherent rhythm with the breath. Good breathing also triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, producing a host of calming physiological effects termed the Relaxation Response by pioneering meditation researcher Dr. Herbert Benson.
Meditation teachers differ on how to attain this good pattern of breathing. Some meditation approaches fall more on the passive side, believing that the steady, consistent practice of meditation will eventually settle one down so that the breath falls into this good pattern. It is, after all, more natural to breathe in this manner, and the body has its own wisdom. Such teachers include Jack Kornfield, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (the creator of Transcendental Meditation). Other teachers favor an active approach, believing that patterns of bad breathing are such an impediment that they are best changed as quickly as possible. Such teachers include Andrew Weil, Yogi Bhajan, and BKS Iyengar encourage students to consciously retrain the breath.
The second issue here is about the experience of focusing the mind. It sounds like you expect meditation to be easy, to feel relaxing, and not be too much work. You could take a nap instead. Meditation is work. In order to reach the deep experiences in meditation, we must focus the mind. Without focus, meditation is no different from a daydream.
Practicing a breathing technique is a great way of focusing the mind. As we become more familiar with our own breathing and gain more control over the breathing process, we can use it as a tool to affect our consciousness. As we practice good breathing, it becomes second nature to us. Even when we are not paying attention to it, it becomes optimal. Our bodies and minds know when we are breathing well. We have a built-in way of knowing if we get distracted. Our technique will falter.
What is causing anxiety and aggravation is realizing how often the mind wanders. When we don’t have the breath as a point of reference, we’re not as aware of our mind wandering. Trying to meet a standard throws our lack of focus into sharp relief.
If you feel drawn toward the passive approach, I recommend the following practice. As you sit, try to relax and breathe naturally. Then consider the question, “Who is thinking?” Whenever your mind wanders, come back to the question. This will give you a mental metric, and will help you go deeper. Accept that your mind will wander, and keep asking the question.
If you feel drawn toward a more active approach, try this practice. Place your hand on your belly and breathe so that your hand rises and falls. Slow down your breathing so that you breathe in for a count of eight, and out for a count of eight. Notice everything you can about the breathing process: observe the beginning, middle, and end of your inhalation, and the same for your exhalation. Don’t trouble yourself with a question, just breathe.
See how you feel afterward. All authentic meditation methods ultimately lead to the same place: realizing your true nature. Still confused? I suggest you seek out the advice of your teacher. If you don’t have a teacher, try a number of approaches to see what seems to suit you best. Different temperaments are more responsive to one method or another.
Author: Dr. Asatar Bair
Apprentice Editor: Pat Steele Nielsen/Editor: Travis May