Concentration and Watching the Breath

Watching the breath is one of the primary traditional means of developing and exercising concentrative power. This exercise has scores of variations, the differences between them being mainly in the degree of difficulty – or more precisely, the intensity of focus needed – to correctly perform the exercise. Given these varying degrees of difficulty, it's best to build up this practice through different stages such as those described below.

Before starting the exercise, meditate for 5 to 10 minutes until you are experiencing mainly surface distractions (as described in the article on obstacles). At this point you are relaxed enough to begin concentrating without becoming tense and thereby undermining your concentration.

One important note: don't attempt to control the breath in any way. You may have heard of various feats of slow-breathing that yogis are able to accomplish: one breath per minute, complete cessation, etc. This is not at all what we are trying to do here. We want our breathing to remain as natural as possible. If we have a short breath, it's just because it's a short breath – if we have a long breath, it's just because it's a long breath. But we aren't trying to make it long or anything else.

It may happen that our breath slows down or becomes very subtle, but this should only happen on its own, not through any conscious control or direction on our part. One reason for this is that if we are trying to control the breath, then we can't be fully present to the watching of the breath. Part of our mind is busy controlling while another is watching, and we end up divided within ourselves. Another reason is that we can undermine our body's natural ability to adjust the breath to maintain a proper oxygen/carbon dioxide balance.

Counting Breaths

The first stage of watching the breath is simply to count it silently to ourselves. The easiest is to count inhalation and exhalation separately. Once you have mastered this after a week or so, you can begin to count the full breath (inhalation plus exhalation).

You can count the breath in any manner you wish. You can count from 1 to 10 and then start over again at 1 (the traditional and easiest method). Or you can count down from 10, or down from 100. Or you can keep on counting starting from 1 and stopping only when you wish to finish the exercise.

As you count, be sure to keep your concentration centered on the number you are currently counting. If you find your mind wandering, bring it back to the counting, while maintaining a relaxed state of mind. If you lose count, then start over either at the last number you remember counting or at the very beginning again.

Observing the Body of the Breath

In counting breaths, we aren't really watching the breath per se. Rather, we are concentrating on counting one number after another. This is easier than actually watching the breath itself since counting is such an ingrained habit that we don't have to be particularly present in order to do it. But this can also, ironically, make the exercise harder, if our minds are wanting to wander, since we can just keep on counting mechanically while thinking about other things. Of course, that's not the point, and if we find ourselves doing so, we should return to counting consciously and with full attention to the silent recital of each number.

Watching the breath itself, however, requires a conscious effort – though if we are relaxed enough, the effort will be almost minimal. There are various levels of watching; naturally we begin with the easiest. The most difficult level, unceasing observation, requires considerable effort if we have not worked our way up to it. Therefore, we begin with just observing the "body" of each inhalation and exhalation.

By "body" we mean the principal portion between the two end points – the end points being the dividing line between inhalation and exhalation and likewise between exhalation and inhalation. It's the part during which air is coming in or going out.

By "watching" the breath we mean fully experiencing the sensations of the air flowing inside our bodies. The place at which to watch these sensations is up to you. There are six possibilities:

  • the nostrils, specifically the edge where the incoming air first touches them
  • the nasal cavity inside the head
  • the area around and including the uvula (if your jaw and tongue are relaxed downward)
  • the portion of trachea below the larynx
  • the center of the sternum
  • the area midway between the base of the sternum and the navel

The two principal points traditionally used are the first and the last, but if you feel more comfortable with a different point that is fine. However, another traditional recommendation is that if you suffer from nervous problems or are prone to headaches, it's best to use a point below those located within the head.

Once you've decided upon a point at which to watch the breath's sensations, stay with that point for at least a month. You can later experience the other points, but each time you change points, stay with it for a month or so. This will better ensure stability of the mind.

In fact, if you are principally interested in cultivating concentration, it's just as well not to change points at all since there is no real need to do so. If on the other hand you are pursuing a deeper self knowledge, you will eventually want to experience the breath at different points in order to gain full insight into its effects within your body and mind.

So, when you're ready to start watching the breath as opposed to counting it, begin by bringing yourself into a relaxed meditative state of mind using the basic form of meditation. Then proceed to fully experience and observe the sensations associated with the inhalation and the exhalation at the point at which you've chosen.

To fully experience those sensations involves a degree of intensity which will vary during your session, with the "valleys" of low intensity being the times during which we are most likely to become distracted. Ideally, we try to maintain the same level of intensity for all of the breaths throughout the duration of the sitting. This is a high standard which may take years to reach, but it is possible with diligent practice and relaxed effort.

Intensity can also increase with practice, making the experience even fuller.

Hence we can see that concentration has these two dimensions: firstly, intensity of focus and secondly, duration or length of time during which the intensity is maintained.

Including the Pause between Full Breaths

After a few weeks of practice, our concentration should start becoming such that we can "stretch it out" to include the pause between each full breath – that is to say, between the exhalation that ends one breath and the inhalation that begins the next.

What this means is that we are able to maintain the same level of intensity of concentration throughout the entire portion of the breath that includes the body and the pause, without feeling that intensity diminish. Also, we are able to maintain that intensity for many breaths at a time, if not for the entire duration of our sitting.

Observing the Full Breath

All that remains is to include the more minor pause at the middle of the full breath between the inhalation and exhalation. This means that we are maintaining the same level of intensity of concentration throughout the entire breath, with no loss of intensity either during or between breaths. Intensity has become fully stabilized and we fully experience all aspects of the breath. We'll likely find until we become quite expert at concentration that we experience variations in intensity, but gradually even these can diminish until we are intensely focused throughout the entire sitting.

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