No matter how or why we meditate, the process of meditation is made more effective as our capacity to intentionally attend increases. Many teachers talk about concentration as part of meditation and that is fair enough, however the word “concentration” frequently carries the sense of trying hard and bearing down on whatever we are concentrating on; we may feel invited to put on our frowning concentration face. However, every teacher of meditation that I’ve studied with or whose work I’ve read reminds us that intense “trying hard” is an obstacle in developing the skill of meditation.
I’ll come back to why that is so in a bit but let’s look first at the more helpful, or perhaps more skilful approach to paying attention to the object of meditation. And one of the simplest meditation objects is our own breath. The skilful approach is to do less in meditation than we may have thought we need to do. It’s about cultivating effortless intention while meditating instead of effortful, striving intention.
Simple meditation on the breath (as opposed to pranic breathing (pranayama) or other breath control practices) has only three aspects:
- Feeling the breath or paying attention to the breath
- Being aware that attention has moved away from the breath
- Gently returning attention to the breath.
As we do that, we will have thoughts, some may co-exist with awareness of breathing, others may take our awareness off into their particulararea of focus. This is natural and will happen, in one form or another, even after years of meditation practice. All we have to do is, eventually, notice that we’re not attending to the breath and, without comment, without guilt, without self-chastisement, without annoyance, without regret and even without happiness, just return awareness to the breath. There’s no “trying hard” needed.
This approach of “doing less” is often very foreign to our normal way of living in which we frequentlyseek more and more activity, more and more control and more and more stimulation. As we are often meditating exactly to find a more peaceful way of being, even if only for the duration of the meditation, it makes sense that what we do in meditation should be very different to the way we normally are. If we want more peace, it’s by peacefully returning our awareness to the breath which begets peace. The way we do something breeds that same state in our minds; patience breeds patience; calm breeds calm.
Nevertheless, there’s often a sense that I should be doing more to make this work; that I’m not doing enough to get the benefit; that I’m doing this wrong. It’s exactly these thoughts of I should be/I shouldn’t be/Should I be?… that we’re remembering to avoid while meditating.
Meditating is about how I am now, what I feel in this instant. It is not some onerous obligation to behave in a particular way; to get it right; to excel; to please […fill in the blank as appropriate…]. We may find that that inner voice of Should/Shouldn’t is very noisy and persistent: so be it! That’s what is happening in our meditation. When we see/hear/feel that inner voice, we can practice just lightly letting it go and returning awareness to the breath. This voice may sound like the truth, but it is only a thought; we can drop it in favour of simply attending to the breath. It may…. No! It WILL return, but it’s our persistence in letting go and returning to the breath which trains our mind in directing attention.
When we simplify meditation in this way we give the mind the opportunity to let go of its busyness and by returning to the breath, we give the mind the opportunity to remember the pleasure of that simplicity, even if initially it’s momentary.
By doing so little, we reduce the opportunity to worry about whether we should be doing something differently or whether we’re doing it right. When that worry decreases, our body begins to follow the breathing into a more relaxed state. This is a state which owes more to the calming parasympathetic side of our autonomic nervous system than to the more excitable sympathetic side. The breath is the direct route to the body’s ability to quiet itself and thereby to provide the mind with a quieter, calmer organic medium.
Why then all the talk in meditation about a quiet mind? Does the mind quieten? Well yes it does with persistent practice. It becomes quieter but it is never still, even after the torrent of verbal thinking decreases. Beneath that torrent and hidden by it, we can become aware of finer and finer, and more and more peaceful, levels of mental activity, mental being. But even during the slowest and most peaceful depths of meditation, there is still activity. But it’s important to remember: a relaxed mind generates fewer words; trying to relax the mind by stopping words only stirs up more. So: simplify; do less. Cooperate with the nature of mind to experience more of the peace and relaxation of quiet meditation.
 Some people find that counting exhalations up to 10 and then restarting the count helps them relax into awareness, others (me for instance) find counting an unwelcome complication. Whatever works for you.