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An excerpt from Buddha's Book of Sleep by Joseph Emet

Some people think that the purpose of meditation is to stop the mind. They sit, and they try. Soon they get into a fight with their mind, a fight that they lose. Frustrated, they give up. Do you recognize yourself in this scenario?

Calming the mind is a more appropriate goal, and a good way to do it is by paying attention to the breath. When we are daydreaming, the breath follows the rhythm of our thoughts. That rhythm can be irregular, because we are going from thought to thought, from one thing to another. As we continue to follow the breath instead of our thoughts, the breath gets into a steady, regular rhythm.

Usually we follow our thoughts without any attention to the breath. Here, we reverse that — we follow our breath. At the beginning, we treat our thoughts a little bit like the way we treat the radio in the background. As we do other things, we are aware that the radio is playing, but we do not follow it actively. For example, when the announcer says, “Go and buy that car right now, because it is so amazing,” we do not drop everything and rush out to buy it. We have learned to take an attitude of sophisticated detachment with regard to the radio. Now we cultivate the same detached attitude toward our thoughts.

Our work in meditation right now is concentrating on the breath. This means staying with the breath and the sensations of the breath continuously. I don’t know if you have ever followed a single breath from end to end and paid attention to all the sensations that occur. One single breath can make you aware of your posture, of how tight your belt is, and of any tension in your abdominal muscles.

The breath is like a swing on the playground. As you breathe in, first it accelerates. Then it slows down near the end. Then it comes to an unstable stop and starts going again in the other direction. The speed is always changing. To notice all this, you need not only awareness, but also concentration. You need to concentrate so that you are not only aware during brief moments of this cycle, but you are continuously aware of it during the whole cycle, cycle after cycle.

I Can Feel My Breath in a Number of Ways:

  • I can feel it in my diaphragm.
  • I can feel my clothes adjusting as my diaphragm changes shape.
  • I can feel the rush of air in my nostrils.
  • I can also feel a coolness around my nostrils as I breathe in.

If you have trouble noticing that last item, put your finger horizontally against your nostrils for a few seconds. You will feel the change of temperature as you breathe in and out.

By concentrating on the breath, we are offering the mind something other than thoughts to chew on. This works better than fighting with it to get it to slow down.

Within a few minutes, something different starts to happen: the breath finds its natural rhythm. In normal wakefulness, thoughts are zipping through the mind, and the breath is irregular and staccato. Now the breath follows a more regular rhythm, like that of the waves on the beach. Like the waves, the breath comes from somewhere we don’t know. Then it goes inside, and gets lost, like the waves that get absorbed into the sand. Some of the water gets returned back to the ocean, but it is not exactly the same. Now it has cleaned the beach and is carrying back some debris and also the warmth of the sand with it. The breath has also just cleaned the body, and the out breath is warm and full of carbon dioxide. You can let yourself be guided by this mental imagery. Involve all your senses and now bask in the sunshine on that beach for a few minutes and enjoy the whish of the waves.

Another metaphor: What is happening in the mind at this point is also a little bit like the difference between city driving and long- distance driving. In city driving, there is much stopping and starting and emotions like impatience or irritation. When you settle into long-distance driving, all those calm down. The rhythm changes.

During this breathing exercise, you may find that, after a while, concentration comes naturally. At the beginning, concentration required effort. Now this natural rhythm of the breath takes over. Thoughts lose their urgency at this stage.