The first meditation I ever learned was also the most powerful. It consisted of just sitting with the breath. I was six years old. My parents are Buddhist and I had heard the meditation instruction at the local meditation center in passing. It really was so simple, even as a six-year-old I could do it. I just had to sit cross-legged, sit up straight, and pay attention to the basic cycle of breathing. I loved it. My mind went clear. I felt free. In fact, I bet I was better at it then than I am now.
I have been meditating for 26 years. In that time my life has gotten busier. I wake up and the thoughts around everything I have to do that day immediately begin to creep in. There are jobs and people who desire my attention and presentations to be given. All sorts of things are swirling around in my mind on a moment-by-moment basis. Yet I know that at any time I can come back to the breath. That simple reminder at the beginning of the day soothes me, because the breath is the perfect object of meditation.
The breath is the perfect object of meditation because it is always with us. The breath is the truest of friends because it does not leave us until the very moment we die. Whether you are having a bad day, the time of your life, or just sitting on the couch watching television, the breath will be there. Because it is always available to us, we may as well take the time to get to know it.
The simplest way to get to know the breath is to meditate for a bit. Begin by taking a moment to feel your body connecting to earth. If you’re standing, bend your knees a bit. If you’re sitting in a chair, place both feet firmly on the ground. If you’re on a cushion on the floor, loosely cross your legs. Feel your sitz bones digging into the seat beneath you.
Now, extend upward through your spine. You don’t need to force the muscles in your back or shoulders. Just relax with your natural skeletal curvature. Place your palms on your thighs. Tuck in your chin slightly. Relax the muscles in your face, leaving your jaw hanging open a bit. Your tongue can rest up against the roof of your mouth, which prevents too much saliva from flowing and becoming a distraction. You can close your eyes or leave them open, resting your gaze slightly below the horizon, approximately two to four feet ahead of you on the ground.
Having taken a dignified yet relaxed posture, bring your full attention to the breath, feeling as it moves in and out of your body. Allow it to flow naturally. Don’t manipulate the breath. Relax with it. When you get distracted (and you will, it’s natural), return your attention to the breath. Come back to it, over and over again. Whatever you are doing right now, stop. Read this sentence then close your laptop or put your phone in your pocket and try that practice for a minute or two.
Even just a few minutes here and there can prove quite helpful in becoming more calm and centered. That’s the beauty of this technique—it brings us out of our head with its myriad story lines and to-do lists—and into the present moment, what is happening right here, right now.
The more you get to know the breath you more you realize its potency. When you start to freak out about approaching deadlines, the family drama playing out before your eyes, or the fight you’re having with your boyfriend, you can just drop the mental chatter around that scenario and return to the breath. When you pay attention to the physical act of breathing you become more peaceful and grounded. Your heart slows and your muscles relax. Your blood pressure decreases. All this occurs as a result of simply interrupting the flow of your day and coming back to this natural part of who we are.
While it’s helpful to do this practice for at least 10 minutes in a row daily, it can be done on the spot anywhere at anytime. One thing I recommend in my most recent book, The Buddha Walks into the Office, is to set a timer on your phone or computer for each hour. When the timer dings, stop what you are doing. Close your laptop. Push your chair away from your desk. Raise your gaze slightly below the horizon. Focus your attention on your breath. Just feel the breath. Don’t try to change it at all. Just rest with its natural rhythm. At a certain point, after 30 seconds or a minute, your mind may get distracted to the point where you want to return to your work. In this informal meditation practice that’s okay—go back to work. Set the timer again for an hour and return to the task ahead of you feeling more steady and calm. The more you do this practice the more profound it becomes. If you give this meditation technique a try, you may find that it can change your life.