Mindfulness of Breathing:A Meditation on the Breath

Mindfulness of Breathing:A Meditation on The Breath

We all like the illusion that we're in control of our own minds. To have to admit otherwise would seem a great failure. The truth however is quite different from what we might tell ourselves. Pause for a moment and observe your mind. How long is it before the internal dialogue starts up, and your mind starts chattering ? It's easy to not realise that this is the way we spend most of our time.

This mental chatter is a state of distractedness. The mind drifts along on the winds of it's whims. It makes it hard to concentrate on one thing for any length of time. It also masks what really goes on in the depths of our mind and soul. Meditation is a practice that can reveal the extent of the problem, and offers a solution.

Mind Your Mind

Do you recognize the feeling of being totally absorbed in something ? You're so wrapped up in it that you are barely aware of your surroundings, and time seems to stand still. You can look up from your book, or your painting, or your programming (or whatever) and realise that several hours have passed without you even noticing it.

This is one of the most effective states of mind to be in. When you focus on one thing, you can completely push distractions out of the way. Your mind comes alive and you can be at your most creative.

A state of unfocused distraction prevents your mind from functioning properly. Most of what happens in the soul goes on below the level of the conscious mind. The soul turns over and over the things that worry it, and that we are only dimly aware of. Naturally we block these things and push them back as they rise up. This leads to nervous tension and the constant worry that things aren't as they should be. As we focus and let go of the things in our mind, it is able to work freely - and naturally bring things to a resolution.


The sort of meditation I'm talking about is a breathing exercise called Mindfulness of Breathing. It is practising and developing a focussed awareness. It can bring about a real peace and a stilling of the mind. It also gives you an opportunity to experience the working of your mind - particularly what goes on beneath the surface.

I learned the techniques described here with the FWBO, but they are independent of religious beliefs. It is a breathing and concentration exercise which develops mental strength and the ability to focus and concentrate. Creating a single point of concentration frees up mental processes and will feed into every aspect of your normal life [1].

Anyway enough of the preliminaries and onto what this meditation actually is.

Mindfulness of Breathing

The point of this meditation is to be aware (mindful) of your breath - the air coming into the body. This is neither as easy, nor as dull, as it sounds.

Meditation can be incredibly relaxing - but it's not about relaxation. Nor is it about emptying your mind as some people fear. By meditating effectively on anything you cultivate a keen alertness, a sharp and healthy mind. This meditation is about the breath.

Mindulness is not a forced concentration - but holding an awareness of something in your mind. You will be able to apply this kind of awareness to other things - like ideas - to great effect.


The first thing to address is the place you will do it, and your physical position. The meditation can take 20 minutes or 40 minutes - so you need to find somewhere where you will be comfortable and undisturbed for this time [2].


Your posture doesn't matter too much - any position in which you can remain comfortable. Many meditation manuals recommend kneeling, with a big cushion under your bum and your hands folded. They usually warn against lying down, because meditating can easily send you to sleep [3].

You might want a clock easily visible from your position, so you can tell how long you've been with minimum of disruption.


Before starting I usually do a relaxation exercise. This helps me to focus and clears my mind.

Having settled on a comfortable position let your awareness move from the bottom of your body upwards.

Start by being aware of the soles of your feet and your toes. If you can, try and feel each toe individually. Next move your awareness to the whole of your feet and your ankles.

Travel slowly up through your body, dwelling for a few seconds on each part. As you do this try to consciously relax your body, letting tension drain away.

Move up from your calves to the back of your legs, thighs and up. As you get to your stomach, back, and then shoulders you can move to the arms. When you've gone through the elbows down to your fingers you can move to the neck, face, and head.

This whole process shouldn't take more than a few minutes and can be amazingly calming.

The Technique

The actual meditation is divided into four phases. You should decide at the start whether you will do a twenty minute meditation (five minutes per phase) or a forty minute meditation (ten minutes per phase).

Phase 1

This is a meditation on the breath. It is not a meditation on the process of breathing, or the feeling of the body moving - but on the breath itself.

This is easiest done by breathing through the nose and feeling the breath as it enters or leaves the body.

In the first phase we count after the breath. Count (silently in the mind) in the pause between breaths, from one to ten. Breath then count, breath then count. When you get to ten, start again at one.

I find in a five minute phase,mon average I count to ten five times.

The counting helps centre the mind. It makes it easier to maintain concentration on the breathing.

Phase 2

When you guesstimate that the phase is over, move onto the next phase. Checking a clock will disrupt your meditation slightly. The first few times you do it - five minutes will feel like an awfully long time. When you are able to let go of distractions and get drawn into concentration - you'll wonder where the time went.

In phase two, you change to counting before the breath. Count then breath, count then breath.

This change helps break the rut and refocuses the mind.

Phase 3

In phase 3 you stop counting altogether.

This frees you up more to focus on the breath. Just the breath, the air, all your awareness in the breath.

Phase 4

In this final phase you focus on the breath at the point where it actually enters the body. This will usually be inside the nose.

This phase is quite a bit harder than the other phases. It can be one of the most effective though, because it draws your attention into a single point.

Battle With the Body

So that's it ? Well, that's the mechanics of it yes. It sounds easy enough, but actually doing it is another matter.

When you start meditating - each time, but particularly the first few times - you will start to fight the battle with distraction. The first battleground is the body.

Your body will take great measures to prevent you relaxing. You will feel uncomfortable, and have itches and aches. Try not to give into them [5] and move or scratch. They will fade if you are able to ignore them.

Battle With the Mind

Having basically won the battle with the body, the struggle shifts to a far more difficult one - the battle with the mind.

When you start to meditate you will realise how distracted your mind is. After a minute your mind will drift off and start thinking about something else - the internal mental chatter will start again.

The first thing to say is - don’t worry, this is entirely normal. We're all like this, we all start from the same place, and it does get easier.

When I started to meditate it seemed like I spent very little time focused on what I was supposed to be doing. I would breathe for a few seconds, the next thing I would realise that I'd been thinking about something else.

Every thought and worry in your mind will rise up as you meditate. Don't feel frustrated or discouraged by this. Just let the distraction go and return to the meditation.

It was about my third or fourth meditation when I felt like it was getting noticeably easier to let the distractions go, and the periods between them were getting longer. Don't be surprised if the first few are like this - it's worth persevering and pushing through.


Don't worry if you lose count in the earlier phases (or even count beyond ten). Just start again - or from the last number you can remember.

Levels of Concentration

The FWBO categorised concentration in three basic levels. I think this is useful.

The first is the basic state of the mind before meditation. This is distraction or "monkey mind", jumping from one thing to the next.

Once you have started to meditate, and started to concentrate, you have entered access concentration.

This stage is a whole spectrum really, rather than a distinct level.

In the early stages you are still getting distractions and thoughts every few seconds. As soon as you realise you're distracted you let it go.

As you concentrate further you will notice the distractions come less often and you notice them quicker. This is still access concentration.

The next level is a distinct level. The FWBO called it dhyana. If you read this article on gnosticism you'll see an alternative spelling jhana.

There comes a certain degree of focus when you are able to brush off distractions easily. Thoughts may rise like smoke - but they have no hold on you and are soon blown away. It is like you have swatted the buzzing distractions far enough away that they don't return.

In this frame of mind the meditation becomes effortless. You are delightfully aware of the cool wind of the breath - and feel totally alert but totally relaxed. I've heard it described as 'stepping back into the garden of the mind' - and it's not a bad description.


You will get the best from meditation when you do it regularly. If you fight through the difficulties you will gain a sharper mind and a greater ability to concentrate. More importantly you will appreciate peace of mind - a mind uncluttered by needless empty thoughts.

Buddhist saying - all thought is bad karma.


[1] Note that concentration is not the only mental skill worth developing. For a balanced spiritual life you need to develop your ability to love.

[2] Next, turn off your mobile phone.

[3] This is advice I often ignore.

[4] Unless you are actually in pain of course.

Written in 2006 and originally hosted on voidspace.org.uk

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