Have you ever tutored a young child, perhaps your own or someone you babysat? If the child is continuously distracted, it’s hard for him to get through even one sentence or math problem. “Oh, I have a hangnail; look, the cat just rolled over; I hear an airplane.” In order for a child to learn, he needs to be able to pay attention to the material for a sustained period of time. The same is true for learning about ourselves, our mind, and our life: we need to be able to pay attention to what’s happening. However, our minds are actually quite distractible, and our attention is further fractured by our technology use and online connectivity. It’s as if our mind were a puppy, chasing after sticks, butterflies, and bones, unable to sit still in one spot. Meditation begins with training our puppy mind.
What spot can we have our puppy mind return to? Our own breathing is always with us and, though constant, moves continuously and changes. It is a source of life, the connection between the outside world and our bodies, and a bridge between our body and our mind. It is a beautiful object for concentration, and many meditative traditions, Buddhist and otherwise, begin with following the in- and out-breath.
Take a moment to meditate for five minutes, letting your attention settle on your breathing.
Allow the breathing to be natural rather than regulate or control it. Notice how many times you get distracted by sounds and thoughts.
After five minutes, come back to reading.
If you’re like 99.99 percent of us, you probably didn’t stay with the breath for more than a few cycles at most. Don’t despair! This is a completely natural result. Here are further instructions for how to do this simple yet challenging practice.
• Sit in a comfortable, relaxed, but upright way so that your breath can move freely.
• Begin by taking several long, gentle, deep breaths. Start way down in the belly, filling the abdomen, up through the ribs to the top of the chest, and to the very top of the throat. Then slowly and gently exhale in reverse, letting your body relax.
• Allow your breathing to return to its natural rhythm. Sometimes the breath will be long, sometimes short, sometimes deep, and sometimes shallow. Let it be as it is.
• At first, feel how the breath moves throughout the body: the way the abdomen expands and contracts; how the ribs expand and contract; where the flow of air touches the back of the throat and nose; how the air moves at the rim of the nostrils and across the upper lip.
• As your attention settles and becomes more refined, bring awareness to the place in your body where the breath is most distinct, where you feel it the most clearly. That may be in the abdomen, in the chest, in the nose, or at the tip of the nose. Feel the physical sensations and movements.
• Use a quiet mental note to help connect with what’s happening as well as to keep track of where your attention is. With the in-breath, note “in,” and with the out-breath, note “out.” If attending to the belly or the chest, use the notes “rising” or “falling.”
• When you get lost in thought, simply let the thoughts go and, with a gentle and non- judgmental attitude, return to the breath. This may happen dozens or even hundreds of times throughout the meditation. If judgmental thoughts come up, just notice that there’s judgment; let that go as well, and return to the breath.
• If there are sounds that call your attention, listen to them mindfully. Use the mental note “hearing, hearing” for the moments you are mindful of sounds. Notice any inter- nal dialogue or judgment that comes with hearing sounds. When the sound is no longer drawing your attention away, then come back to the breath.
• When the bell rings, notice where your attention is at that particular moment. Lost in thought? On the in-breath? On the out-breath?
• To close the meditation, bring your palms together before your heart and bow slowly. Maintain mindfulness as you transition from the cushion to your next activity.
Each time that you notice you are distracted is the key accomplishment of meditation. Following the breath continuously is not the goal; rather, noticing that you were distracted is. Instead of striving to get good at staying with the breath, aim for increasing the number of times you become aware of distraction.
Once you become aware that you are distracted, let go of the distraction quickly. Don’t linger. You might be remembering something pleasant when you notice that you’re not watching the breath, and at that point be tempted to continue with the reminiscence. Instead, make the decision to let go of those thoughts and return to the breath.
Responding Gently and Nonjudgmentally
Very typically, once people notice they are distracted and have yet again “failed” to follow their breath, strong judgments or other mental commentaries come up. We might think, “Aaargh!” or “I’m sure everyone else can do this except me.” These thoughts are actually quite important and we will get into them later. But for now, be aware of that judgment, let go of the judgment, and shift to a gentler, kinder, nonjudgmental response: “Oh, I’m distracted again; back to the breath.”
Do these skills—becoming aware, practicing letting go, and cultivating nonjudgment—seem like they could apply elsewhere in our lives? The answer is yes! Many of us could stand to have greater ability to notice when we are so lost in thought that we’ve lost touch with the situation around us, or to let go of being rigidly attached to our point of view, or to be less judgmental about our performance.
Meditation is to real life what basketball practice is to a basketball game. In order to play a game, we have to get out on the court and practice dribbling, passing, and shooting. We do it over and over again until these skills become automatic and natural. Then we play the game, which is uid, dynamic, and more complex, using the basketball skills we’ve practiced. Likewise, our practice on the meditation cushion helps us play the game of life more skill- fully and gracefully.
Taking a Deep Breath
Although we primarily work with the natural, unregulated flow of our breath in meditation, an intentional, deep, and long breath can help calm us down. Such a breath taps into the parasympathetic nervous system, that part of the nervous system that manages “rest and digest” functions (versus the sympathetic nervous system, which deals with “fight, freeze, or flight”). In moments when you are overwhelmed, distressed, or confused, take a long and deep breath in and slowly exhale before you go on to do the next thing. You might even take three deep breaths, if time allows. You can also take a deep breath, long and slow, any time during a formal meditation to help reset your attention and bring greater ease and calm to the mind.
The above is excerpted from Sitting Together: A Family-Centered Curriculum on Mindfulness, Meditation, and Buddhist Teachings.
Sumi Loundon Kim is the founder of and teacher for the Buddhist Families of Durham, and is the Buddhist chaplain at Duke University. Following a master’s in Buddhist studies from Harvard Divinity School, she was the associate director for the Barre Center for Buddhist Stud- ies. She has published two books, Blue Jean Buddha (2001) and The Buddha’s Apprentices (2005). Sumi and her husband, a native of South Korea and associate professor at Duke University, live in Durham, North Carolina, with their two children.
For more information, please see mindfulfamilies.net.