Meditation is a way of exploring your experience. We can do this by focusing on different aspects of our experience such as sounds, or our body, or our thoughts and emotions. But there is also a rich world of experience waiting to be discovered simply by focusing on and exploring our breathing. Here are six simple exercises that can help you to uncover the subtlety of the breath.
Before doing any of these exercises it is good to prepare yourself by sitting comfortably, finding a position in which you are relaxed but alert, and gently closing your eyes. Bring your awareness into the present moment, spending a little time becoming aware of your body, feeling its shape and weight, its temperature, and the energy within your body. Then turn your attention to your breathing, making sure you are breathing through your nose.
And when you ready to finish the meditation exercise, take your attention into your body, and then gently let your awareness spread outwards into your surroundings, opening your eyes in your own time. Don’t rush, but keep a sense of spaciousness and calm as you prepare to move on to whatever you are going to do next.
Exercise one: exploring your experience of the breath
After spending a little time being aware of your body, bring your attention to your breathing. Take time to explore the sensations of the breath in any way you like. Just tune in to the experience of breathing. Keep a sense of lightness, even playfulness, as you find out how it feels to be breathing right now. Enjoy the sensation of breathing. Feel the life in your body as you take in air and give it back to the world around you.
Explore your breathing as you would a painting at an art gallery that appeals to you. Keep on looking, noticing more and more details, delving right into the breath, going beyond your usual level of awareness. And when you are ready to finish, bring yourself out of the meditation as already suggested.
Exercise two: following the breath into the lungs
As with the first exercise sit in a relaxed but alert position, and bring yourself into the present moment, and then bring your attention and interest to your breathing. Follow each breath from beginning to end. Feel the sensation of the in-breath in your nostrils; let your awareness flow down with your breath into your lungs. Be the lungs as they expand and fill with air. Experience the point at which the in-breath is complete, and then sense the first signs that the out-breath is under way. Flow upwards with the air, from the lungs to the upper chest, to the throat, and then to the nostrils. Rest your awareness at the nostrils until the next in-breath begins to flow inwards. Keep following the breath in this way for as long as you like, then end the session as before.
Exercise three: following the breath to the abdomen
Although air only fills our lungs, the process of breathing involves movement lower down in the body. The powerful action of your diaphragm causes movement in your belly, as air first flows into the body and then flows out. Physically, it can feel as if the breath is a wave that goes all the way down to your lower abdomen.
Prepare as usual, and as you bring your attention to the breath, you may find it helpful to start by taking two or three deeper breaths before allowing the breath to find its own rhythm. Now follow the breath by tracking the wave of movement it causes in your body. Follow the movements and sensations of each in-breath, from your nostrils all the way down to your abdomen. If you wish, you could place your hands over your abdomen so that you sense the movement more easily. Then follow the out-breath back to the nostrils again.
Meditate in this way until you feel it is time to stop. Then come out of the meditation gradually.
Exercise four: letting go of the breath
This exercise focuses on relaxation and letting go. Prepare yourself to meditate then follow your breath to your abdomen as before. As you focus on your breathing, pay particular attention to letting go and relaxing. Let go of any tendency to want to control your breathing. When you turn your attention to your breathing you may find that it is fast, shallow or uneven; and you might not like it like that, thinking it ought to be slow, deep and steady. Try to let go of any such judgements about your breath, just accept the way it is. Let the wisdom of your breath and your body guide you. Simply follow it with awareness wherever it leads.
Exercise five: being the breath
One of the aims of meditation is to help you to be in your experience, to be in the flow of your life, the flow of your breath. This has very positive benefits in terms of releasing energy. Follow the breath once again as it goes from your nostrils to your abdomen and back. But don’t follow your breath like a flight controller tracking a plane on a radar monitor. The aim is to reduce the distance between yourself and your breath, to be the breath. Be the flow of air that cascades into your lungs. Be the movement of your rib cage. Be the diaphragm as it expands downwards with the in-breath, and releases upwards with the out-breath. If you merge your awareness with your experience in this way, it will have a tremendous effect. Through this meditation you learn to become one with what is happening, to be in the flow of your life in an aware way.
Exercise six: keeping beginner’s mind
With this exercise continue to follow your breath down into your abdomen. As you do so, do your best to approach each breath in as fresh a way as you can. Often we can take the breath for granted. But in meditation we aim to experience everything with what Zen Buddhism calls ‘beginner’s mind’. When you are new to something you don’t know what to expect, so you are open to all kinds of possibilities and potentials. After all, life is new every second. The breath is constantly changing and no two breaths are ever exactly the same. Let yourself revel in your experience of the breath. Explore your experience as if you were having it for the very first time.