One of the most common mindfulness-based meditation techniques is the practice of bringing all of your attention to the sensation of your breath. But as simple as it sounds, it can be a challenge. Disruptions like thoughts, sensations in the body, and sounds seem to become more apparent as soon as you pay attention to your breath. And if you haven’t tried it before, the concept of doing so may seem boring, pointless, daunting, or all of the above. After all, there are plenty of other things you can do with your time, so why spend it paying attention to the thing you do all day every day?
What’s the point of meditating on your breath?
Easier Said Than Done
I’ve attended yoga classes where the teacher has said something like “now close your eyes, clear your head of all thoughts, and focus on your breath.” This is the general idea, but for those who aren’t familiar with meditation, it can mislead and even cause frustration—namely the part about clearing the head of thoughts.
It’s the natural tendency of the mind to wander. The simplicity of breath awareness meditation becomes over-complicated upon realizing how often the mind wanders. More instruction is typically needed to grasp the concept of this basic practice and understand the benefits of taking a few moments to focus on each inhale and exhale.
I’m a believer that meditation is best learned when taught in person. Having live guidance and access to subtle and minute details and corrections can help someone understand a technique on a deeper level.
By only writing out instructions, while the general concept is there, the real-time experience is not. That’s why I’ve recorded the following audio clip as a happy medium between written instructions and a live class to better guide you through three-and-a-half minutes of breath awareness:
Now that you’ve practiced, here are a few of many benefits of meditating on your breath:
It’s Easily Accessible
The breath is one of the most accessible and portable guides we have to lead our overall awareness and perception into a state of meditation and presence. Except for a basic understanding of how to practice, you need nothing else. You breathe every day. The breath is with you every moment, and you can tune into it whenever you want.
It Reestablishes You in the Present
When you bring your attention to your breath, you bring your attention to what’s happening right now. Each inhale and each exhale is not an object of the past or the future, but of—and only of—the present. But again, this sense of presence often gets interrupted by the mind’s natural tendency to wander and cycle between things that have and have yet to happen. While this process of mind-wandering often leads to doubts about the ability to meditate, know that it’s a normal occurrence. Repeat: Mind wandering during meditation is normal. And no matter how many times a distraction enters your awareness, you can always return your attention to your breath—to what’s happening right now. As long as you bring your attention back, you’ve done it right.
When your mind is more present, you become calmer, more relaxed, and focused within the moment.
It Slows You Down
We spend most of our day jumping from place to place, meeting to meeting, message to message, task to task, show to show, app to app, and post to post. Taking a pause from all of that and spending a few moments settling into the sensation of the breath temporarily breaks the always-on mentality. While everything may seem like it moves in fast forward through a fractured lens of attention, the accessibility of and the awareness on your breath reestablishes you in the present, slows the pace, and puts the pieces back together.
It Changes Your Brain
In your brain, there’s a group of regions that collectively function as the Default Mode Network (DMN). This is where mind wandering, rumination, concepts of the self, and other similar processes occur. When your mind wanders, jumps between the past and future, and gets overly tied up in self-talk, it can lead your attention away from what’s happening right now and into a place of unhappiness, stress, and anxiety.
Studies have found that by training your attention to focus on an object such as your breath reduces activity in the DMN—that “the repeated process of refocusing the attention leads to increases in attentional control and reduced distractibility of the practitioner in everyday life.”*
*Simon, Rozalyn, and Engström, Maria. “The default mode network as a biomarker for monitoring the therapeutic effects of meditation” frontiers in Psychology, 09 Jun. 2015, (Link).
So as your attention rests on the breath, wanders, and returns then rests, wanders, and returns, with consistent practice, those reps help you strengthen your focus and attention and break the cycle of rumination. As you progress in your practice and further reduce activity in the DMN, it becomes easier to keep your attention on your breath for longer periods of time and you become fully cognizant within the moment—which can ultimately lead to more joy.
Putting it to Practice
This week, take mini-breaks throughout each day—just a few moments—to bring your attention to your breath. Don’t try to change it. Just be aware of it. Allow yourself to feel the natural rhythm of each inhale and exhale. You might find that your mind wanders when you try to do it, but that’s okay. Each time you practice will be different and more or less focused than the last. It’s a constant state of flux. Also, remember to take it easy on yourself. Do your best to approach each distraction from a place of non-judgment. When a distraction comes into your awareness, acknowledge that the distraction happened, let it pass, and gently bring your attention back to the breath.
While breath awareness might seem questionable at first, know that deeper work is happening behind the scenes. This practice requires a little patience and consistency, but it’s something that everyone can do and benefit from—no matter who you are.
The reason meditation is important today is that just like our body needs exercise, our brain needs conditioning. Our brain is responsible for every action we take and every decision we make. If we neglect it, our decisions will cast a shadow over our day-to-day lives. But if we strengthen it, our decisions and actions will follow suit. And we have the choice to decide whether we want to spend each day distracted and overwhelmed or clear-headed and calm.
If anything, taking a few moments to pay attention to the sensation of your breath instead of filling free time with mindless activities to curb boredom will give you a much-needed break and some stillness in a fast-paced and crazy world.