Developing a deep quality of desire and interest in your spiritual practice is one of the keys to the whole art of concentration. Steadiness is nourished by the degree of desire with which we focus our meditation. Yet, to the beginning student, many meditation subjects appear plain and uninteresting. There is a traditional story about a student who complained to his master that following the breath was boring. The master grabbed this student and held his head under water for quite a long time while the student struggled to come up. When he finally let the student up, the master asked him whether he had found breath boring in those moments under water.
Concentration combines full interest with attention. This attention should not be confused with being removed or detached. Awareness does not mean separating ourselves from experience; it means allowing it and sensing it fully. Awareness can vary like a zoom lens. The focusing of attention on the breath is perhaps the most universal of the many hundreds of meditation subjects used worldwide and I start all of my students here. Steadying attention on the movement of the life breath is central to yoga, to Buddhist and Hindu practices, to Sufi, Christian, and Jewish traditions. While other meditation subjects are also beneficial, and each has its unique qualities, we will continue to elaborate on the practice of breath meditation as an illustration for developing any of these practices.
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Breathing meditation can quiet the mind, open the body, and develop a great power of concentration. The breath is available to us at any time of day and in any circumstance. When we have learned to use it, the breath becomes a support for awareness throughout our life.
But awareness of breathing does not come right away. At first we must sit quietly, letting our body be relaxed and alert, and simply practice finding the breath in the body. Where do we actually feel it—as coolness in the nose, a tingling in the back of the throat, as a movement in the chest, as a rise and fall of the belly? The place of strongest feeling is the first place to establish our attention. If the breath is apparent in several places, we can feel its whole movement of the body. If the breath is too soft and difficult to find, we can place our palm on our belly and feel the expansion and contraction in our hand. Or if you are on the floor, flip over onto the belly in crocodile pose (hold your elbows, rest your forehead on your arms, legs back and relaxed) so you can feel the diaphragm move with the breath. It is the most amazing thing to experience one of the few things you actually have control over…your breath …via your vagus nerve, the only cranial nerve that you can willingly control. The breath can become a great teacher because it is always moving and changing. In this simple breathing, we can learn about contraction and resistance, about opening and letting go.
When you start your initial meditation practice, you will begin to recognize that certain external conditions are particularly helpful in developing concentration. Finding or creating a quiet and un-distracting place is necessary. Select regular and suitable times that best fit your temperament and schedule. You may wish to begin with a short period of inspiring reading before sitting, or do some stretching or yoga before sitting. I find it the easiest after my yoga and breathing practices, as my mind is the most quiet at that time. Experiment with these external factors until you find what works for you. Then make them a regular part of your life. By creating this space and this time just for you, you are also creating suitable conditions to living wisely, providing the best soil for your spiritual heart to be nourished and to grow.
As you develop the art of concentration over the weeks and months, you will discover that your concentration will slowly begin to settle by itself. Initially you may struggle to focus, trying to hold on to the object of your meditation. Then gradually the mind and the heart become eased from distractions. You will feel your breath more often and more clearly, or you may recite your prayers or mantra with greater wholeness. This is like beginning to read a book; we will often be interrupted by any distractions around us. But if it is a good book, by the last chapter we will be so absorbed in the plot that people can walk right by us and we will not notice them. In meditation, at first, thoughts carry us away and we think them for a long time. Then, as concentration grows, we remember our breath in the middle of a thought. Later we can notice thoughts just as they arise or allow them to pass in the background, so focused on the breath that we are undisturbed by their movement.
J. Renée DeTar earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Wichita State University in communicative disorders and sciences and liberal studies. She is the founder and director of Yoga Teacher Training of the Institute of Interdisciplinary Yoga Studies, a subsidiary of ReneeYoga since 1991. She offers yoga teacher trainings and spiritual events in Kansas City, MO. She has two children, David and Jamie, and lives with her significant other, David Schafer in north central Missouri on a sustainable farm.