How to meditate...
Updated: May 20, 2020
There are two mutually supportive ways to develop our mindfulness practice: through structured meditation; and in our daily lives. Let's start with meditation.
Meditation is a concerted effort to pay attention to a particular experience, for example, the physical sensations of breathing. With practice, meditation strengthens our capacity to be mindful in daily life and leads to deeper states of concentration and relaxation, which can be transformative in their own right.
This meditation exercise is an adapted version of a mediation exercise described in the original Buddhist scriptures, first committed to memory over two and a half thousand years ago. It has been practiced by Buddhists ever since and in some Buddhist traditions, this is the principle meditation Buddhist monks and nuns will practice their whole lives (when I was a Buddhist monk, I also practiced this meditation exercise more than any other).
You can undertake this meditation exercise in one sitting, although you may very well find difficult to get to the final stages. If you do find this difficult, you are not alone. This is a deceptively challenging meditation that is likely to be disrupted with a host of mental distractions.
Keep practicing the exercise, whether you progress to later stages or not. Meditation is also about staying attentive to whatever quality of mind that is present, even if that is agitation and distraction, meditating when the mind is not calm is part of the process.
With practice, the mind will relax and it will get easier. The effort is to simply breathe again mindfully, relax and enjoy the meditative journey.
Annapannasati: Mindfulness of breathing in and breathing
Step 1 (setting up the meditation): Sit somewhere quiet where you won’t be disturbed and get comfortable. If you can’t get comfortable sitting, then lie down. Close your eyes. Pay attention to the physical sensations of breathing in and out. If you find it difficult to pay attention to the breath, try counting each breath from one to ten a couple of times. An alternative preparation would be to listen to a shorted guided meditation or sweep your attention through your body to establish a baseline of mindfulness before proceeding.
Step 2: Whilst being mindful of the physical sensations of the in breach and the out-breath, slowly start to exaggerate the length of each breath. Keep the in-breath and the out-breath equally long. Initially breathe into your abdomen and belly, feeling the in-breath widen your ribs, expand into the upper back, then into the front and top of the chest cavity. On the out breath, relax the whole of your body, breathing out in a long slow and steady way. Keep going and relax until the breath finds a longer than usual unforced rhythm you can sustain.
Step 3: When breathing in and out with a long breath, relax your attention into the physical sensations in the whole of the body. Feel the totality of the physical feelings associated with each in and out breath. Continue to pay attention to the totality of the physical experience throughout the body, as it’s affected by breathing in and out.
Step 4: Staying attentive, relax the rhythm of the breath, let it slow down and become shallower. Facilitate this slowing down of the breath by continuing to relax and letting the breath find its natural resting pace. Let the body breathe without any interference.
Step 5: When breathing in and out with a short breath, relax your attention into the physical sensations in the whole body, paying attention to the totality of the physical sensations.
Step 6: Still breathing a naturally relaxed and slow breath, locate the physical sensation at which the breath comes in and out of the body, the sensation of the breath coming in and out of the body at the nostrils. Sustain a concentrated awareness of this single sensation whilst at the same time retaining the broader awareness of the total physical experience of breathing in and out.
Step 7: Sustain this balance of concentrated attention and relaxed expansive awareness.