Thursday, November 13, 2008

Focusing on your breath

Compared to surfing the Net or catching a movie on HBO, watching your breath may seem like a boring way to spend your spare time. The fact is, the media have conditioned us to be stimulation junkies by flooding our senses with computerized images and synthesized sounds that change at laserlike speed. Recently, I heard the head of an ad agency brag about how his latest TV spot bombarded the viewer with six images per second — far faster than the conscious mind could possibly register them. By contrast, paying attention to the coming and going of your breath slows your mind to match the speed and rhythms of your body. Instead of 6 images per second, you breathe an average of 12 to 16 times per minute. And the sensations are far subtler than anything you’ll see or hear on TV — more like the sights and sounds of nature, which is, after all, where you and your body came from.
Besides, the great thing about your breath as a focus of meditation is that it’s always available, always changing yet always more or less the same. If your breath were totally different each time, it wouldn’t provide the stability necessary for you to cultivate concentration; if it never changed in any way, you’d quickly fall asleep and never have an opportunity to develop the curiosity and alertness that are so essential to the practice of mindfulness. As a preliminary to the practice of following your breath, you may want to spend a few weeks or months just counting your breaths. It’s a great way to build concentration — and it provides a preestablished structure that constantly reminds you when you’re wandering off. If you were a neophyte Zen student, you might spend years counting your breaths before you graduated to a more challenging practice. But if you’re feeling adventurous or already have some confidence in your concentration, by all means start with following your breath. Trust your intuition to tell you which method is right for you.

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