Salzberg explains the ins and outs of a core technique—meditating on the
This classic meditation practice is designed to deepen concentration by teaching us to focus on the in-breath and out-breath.
comfortably on a cushion or a chair. Keep your back erect, but without
straining or overarching. (If you can’t sit, lie on your back, on a yoga
mat or folded blanket, with your arms at your sides.)
your eyes, if you’re comfortable with that. If not, gaze gently a few
feet in front of you. Aim for a state of alert relaxation.
take three or four deep breaths, feeling the air as it enters your
nostrils, fills your chest and abdomen, and flows out again. Then let
your breathing settle into its natural rhythm, without forcing or
controlling it. Just feel the breath as it happens, without trying to
change it or improve it. You’re breathing anyway. All you have to do is
where you feel your breath most vividly. Perhaps it’s predominant at
the nostrils, perhaps at the chest or abdomen. Then rest your attention
lightly—as lightly as a butterfly rests on a flower—on just that area.
aware of sensations there. If you’re focusing on the breath at the
nostrils, for example, you may experience tingling, vibration, or
warmth, itchiness. You may observe that the breath is cooler when it
comes in through the nostrils and warmer when it goes out. If you’re
focusing on the breath at the abdomen, you may feel movement, pressure,
stretching, release. You don’t need to name these sensations—simply feel
your attention rest on the feeling of the natural breath, one breath at
a time. (Notice how often the word “rest” comes up in this instruction?
This is a very restful practice.) You don’t need to change it, force
it, or “do it right”: just feel it. You don’t need to make the breath
deeper or longer or different from the way it is. Simply be aware of it,
one breath at a time.
may find that the rhythm of your breathing changes. Just allow it to be
however it is. Sometimes people get a little self-conscious, almost
panicky, about watching themselves breathe—they start hyperventilating a
little, or holding their breath without fully realizing what they’re
doing. If that happens, just breathe more gently. To help support your
awareness of the breath, you might want to experiment with silently
saying to yourself “in” with each inhalation and “out” with each
exhalation, or perhaps “rising” and “falling.” But make this mental note
very quietly within, so that you don’t disrupt your concentration on
the sensations of the breath.
distractions will arise—thoughts, images, emotions, aches, pains,
plans. Just be with your breath and let them go. You don’t need to chase
after them, you don’t need to hang onto them, you don’t need to analyze
them. You’re just breathing. Connecting to your breath when thoughts or
images arise is like spotting a friend in a crowd: You don’t have to
shove everyone else aside or order them to go away; you just direct your
attention, your enthusiasm, your interest toward your friend. “Oh,” you
think, “there’s my friend in that crowd. Oh, there’s my breath, among
those thoughts and feelings and sensations.”
If distractions arise that are strong enough to take your attention
away from the feeling of the breath—physical sensations, emotions,
memories, plans, an incredible fantasy, a pressing list of chores,
whatever it might be—or if you find that you’ve dozed off, don’t be
concerned. See if you can let go of any distractions and return your
attention to the feeling of the breath.
you’ve noticed whatever has captured your attention, you don’t have to
do anything about it. Just be aware of it without adding anything to
it—without tacking on judgment (“I fell asleep! What an idiot!”);
without interpretation (“I’m terrible at meditation!”); without
comparisons (“Probably everyone can stay with the breath longer than I
can!” or “I should be thinking better thoughts!”); without projections
into the future (“What if this thought irritates me so much I can’t get
back to concentrating on my breath? I’m going to be annoyed for the rest
of my life! I’m never going to learn how to meditate!”).
don’t have to get mad at yourself for having a thought. You don’t have
to evaluate its content, just acknowledge it. You’re not elaborating on
the thought or feeling. You’re not judging it. You’re neither struggling
against it nor falling into its embrace and getting swept away by it.
When you notice your mind is not on your breath, notice what is on your
mind. And then, no matter what it is, let go of it. Come back to
focusing on your nostrils or your abdomen or wherever you feel your
moment you realize you’ve been distracted is the magic moment. It’s a
chance to be really different, to try a new response. Rather than tell
yourself you’re weak or undisciplined, or give up in frustration, simply
let go and begin again. In fact, instead of chastising yourself, you
might thank yourself for recognizing that you’ve been distracted, and
for returning to your breath. This act of beginning again is the
essential art of the meditation practice.
time you find yourself speculating about the future, replaying the
past, or getting wrapped up in self-criticism, shepherd your attention
back to the actual sensations of the breath. If it helps restore
concentration, mentally say “in” and “out” with each breath, as
suggested earlier.) Our practice is to let go gently and return to
focusing on the breath. Note the word “gently.” We gently acknowledge
and release distractions, and gently forgive ourselves for having
wandered. With great kindness to ourselves, we once more return our
attention to the breath.
If you have to let go of distractions and begin again thousands of times, fine. That’s not a roadblock to the practice—that is the practice. That’s life: starting over, one breath at a time.
you feel sleepy, sit up straighter, open your eyes if they’re closed,
take a few deep breaths, and then return to breathing naturally. You
don’t need to control the breath or make it different from the way it
is. Simply be with it. Feel the beginning of the in-breath and the end
of it; the beginning of the out-breath and the end of it. Feel the
little pause at the beginning and end of each breath.
following your breath—and starting over when you’re distracted—until
you’ve come to the end of the time period you’ve set aside for
meditation. When you’re ready, open your eyes or lift your gaze.
to bring some of the qualities of concentration you just
experienced—presence, calm observation, willingness to start over, and
gentleness—to the next activity that you perform at home, at work, among
friends, or among strangers.
Excerpted from Real Happiness: The
Power of Meditation—A 28-Day Program by Sharon Salzberg. © Sharon
Salzberg, 2011. Used by permission of Workman Publishing Co., Inc., New
York. All rights reserved.