It’s that time of the year when we begin to shift into more focused attention. If you are finding it hard to come up with an idea, solve a problem, or work through a difficult situation then you are not alone. It may sound counter-intuitive, but sitting quietly for a few minutes can get you back on track. Trust me when I tell you, my mind can be scattered all over the place at times. Learning the power of meditation to focus and relax works to help steady the mind and soothe the soul.
Meditation, in a nutshell, is a technique in which we develop skills to focus our attention inward moving into a state of deep relaxation, giving our minds a break from overthinking. It’s in that “quiet meditation time” where we get in touch with our compassionate side and begin to notice that inner voice – which sometimes isn’t very nice and can be over-critical of our actions and thoughts. We learn to be in the present moment and see patterns of thoughts as they arise.
There are many meditation practices that can help us turn our attention away from distracting thoughts. Today, I will guide you through a Breath Awareness Practice where we sit and focus on the breath.
Quick & Easy Instruction for Breath Awareness Meditation
Find a comfortable position. In a chair – sit upright, not leaning back. Or sit on a cushion – with your hips higher than your knees to keep your circulation flowing. Place your hands on your thighs. Begin to shift your attention to your breath. Breathing in & breathing out.
If a thought pops into your mind, notice it. Then let that thought drift away like a cloud in the sky or imagine blowing the thoughts away like the fluff of a dandelion. Bring your attention back to the breath, over and over again. It’s really that simple. Set a timer to help keep track of the time. 10 to 20 minutes a day sitting in meditation, four times a week can do wonders for your focus. Want to try it? Let’s dig a little deeper.
10 to Zen in 4 easy steps
1. Taking your seat
We will begin by finding a good seated meditation position. Experiment with these three options; Cross-legged sitting position on a cushion on the floor, a Kneeling position with knees straddling the cushion, or sitting on a chair with your feet planted firmly on the ground, spine erect, sitting upright, not leaning against the back of the chair.
You’ll want to settle yourself into your preferred posture, feeling stability between your body and the cushion – think comfort and grounding. Place your hands on your thighs or rest them on your knees.
Square your head over your shoulder, and square shoulders over your hips. Make sure your hips are higher than your knees, so blood flow is not restricted. Gently tuck your chin in a little bit, sending your gaze downward to the floor about four to six feet in front of your cushion or chair. You can always close your eyes too if that is helpful. Your posture should feel dignified and uplifted, like a queen or a king sitting on a throne, not stiff or tense, “not too tight, not too loose,” as my teacher, David Nichtern likes to say.
Relax your jaw. Let your mouth gently close. Your tongue can rest in your mouth with the tip of the tongue just touching the back of your teeth. You’re not shutting down your senses, but you can relax your focus somewhat by slightly closing your eyes or closing your eyes altogether.
2. Do a body scan
Having settled your body into position begin to pay attention to your body on your cushion or the chair. Taking a deep breath in, and a deep breath out, begin to scan your body from top to bottom. Breathing in and out gently, noticing any areas in your body that feel tight, or even achy. Try to relax those areas by sending your breath in that direction. As the breath goes, so does the attention. Notice if any body parts or joints are uncomfortable. Focus on it for a moment then let it go.
Say to yourself, “I’m here on my cushion for meditation time. I’m allowing my mind to rest for this short little while as I begin to settle into my breath.”
3. Place your attention on your breath
Begin to bring awareness to your breath – breathing in and out naturally. This is not a breathing technique – just settle into normal breathing. Your attention becomes connected to your breath. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “I breathe in, I breathe out, I smile.” Keep a nice relaxed focus on your breath going in and out of your body.
When you notice thoughts coming in, and your attention becoming distracted from your breath – gently bring your attention back to your breath. Maybe you’re thinking of your to-do list, or your week ahead, or how good that movie was last night. Perhaps you’re thinking of strawberry ice cream and the trip you are going to take to get some today, whatever your thoughts are, when you notice that your mind is somewhere else, bring your attention back to your breath. Use your power of meditation to focus and relax.
Imagine your thoughts as clouds drifting in and drifting out, without any judgment or evaluation. Just bring yourself back to your breath over and over again. And by all means, be gentle with yourself. Don’t scold yourself for following a thought. In the words of Jack Kornfield, “laugh and say hello friend, I see you are here again,” and simply let it go.
4. Label thoughts as they arise
When you notice that you’re thinking, say to yourself, “Oh yes, thinking, my mind has wandered again.” Just label it with the word, “thinking,” and then bring your attention back once again to your breath. Or, maybe you are planning or remembering, just return to the breath.
It’s helpful to take a “gentle” approach toward your thoughts. They are all equal in a way, some will be good, and some will be bad and want to take you down a path. Emotions may come into play as well; you may feel sad, or happy during your meditation. Emotions have a way of bubbling up during meditation. Notice and bring your attention back to your breath. Remember your mind wants to be active; it doesn’t want to rest. Resting is not the mind’s job.
As David Nichtern says, “It is important to note that we are not repressing our thoughts, and neither are we following them. We are simply letting them be as they are, noticing them, and then returning our attention to our breath.”
If you feel uncomfortable during your time sitting, you may need to move or shift a bit to restore your circulation. The instruction is to move slowly and mindfully. If you experience real discomfort, bring your legs up in front of your chest, wrapping your hands around your knees and continue your practice. Once this feeling passes, reset yourself and take a fresh start. Tap into the power of meditation to focus and relax.
Creating and maintaining a meditation practice
Start developing a consistent meditation practice by sitting once every other day for 10-15 minutes. From there you can build up to a daily sitting practice of 20 minutes 5-7 days a week. Use apps like Insight Timer or 10% Happier to help time your meditations and track progress. Meditating in a group setting can be especially rewarding in addition to your home sitting practice. A group can help you fine tune the power of meditation to focus and relax.
Take about 10 minutes to journal after your practice, then take a look at what came up. Were your thoughts scattered or very focused? Did you experience strong emotions? Did you notice any repeating thoughts? Was there a mental movie playing in your head with a lead character? Contemplate what this could mean for you? Then let it go! Allow yourself some space to develop peace in your practice.
For many of us, finding comfort in meditation will not happen overnight — and can even be slightly annoying as we acclimate ourselves to the idea of just sitting. But remember, this is a lifelong journey. It’s ok to stop and start on the path to inner knowledge. A shift will occur but it takes finding your cushion again, and again. Mindfulness is a gift that keeps giving. Simply, give it time.
Let me know in the comments – how this feels in your body? Were you able to relax? Did your focus seem better after quieting your mind? Do you want to start a journey toward optimal health and happiness?