In the mindfulness of breathing meditation no matter how many times we become distracted we come back to the breath over and over again, and that has a number of important benefits, which are detailed below. This isn’t by any means an exhaustive list of the benefits of this practice, which also include improved immune function, the development of greater amounts of brain tissue, delayed aging, etc. Here we’re talking mainly about the changes in your experience that will take place if you regularly practice this meditation.
And we’re also training ourselves to stay out of “the hindrances,” which are distracted states of mind that cause us to suffer. Becoming distracted is a bit like falling over when you’re a little kid. When we try to follow the breath it’s like we’ve decided to walk. But then after a few steps we stumble and get distracted. But we keep picking ourselves up by going back to the breath. The way kids learn to walk is by taking a few steps, falling over, and picking themselves up over and over again. The way we learn to be more aware is by following the breath, getting distracted, and then going back to the breath — over and over and over again.
I’ve mentioned that the hindrances are not very satisfying states of mind. Being annoyed, or fantasizing, or undermining ourselves, all involve a lot of mental disharmony. They cause turbulence in our minds, and so we find that we’re not very calm. Learning to spend less time in the hindrances means that we develop a calmer mind.
The hindrances are also not states in which we’re very happy. If we’re fantasizing, for example — either about things we’d rather be doing, or about things we’re not happy about — then there’s emotional disharmony since we’re not happy what we’re doing. Spending less time in distracted states of mind means that we become more content.
And when we’re distracted then we’re not very concentrated — our mind is jumping from one topic to another like a butterfly. This means we don’t experience anything very deeply — like when we’re talking to someone and we’re also preoccupied and realize they’ve been talking but we don’t know what they’ve said. Or when we’re eating handfuls of raisins but not really tasting them because we’re reading and the radio is on. That kind of thing doesn’t help us connect very deeply with our experience. And how can we reflect if we can’t keep up a focused train of thought? And if we can’t reflect then how do we learn? Practicing mindfulness helps us to be more concentrated so that we can live more deeply, and appreciate life more fully.
Later, we’ll also be looking more closely at calm, contentment, and concentration and looking at ways we can cultivate those qualities more directly, as part of the tool-kit of methods we’re developing to work with our mind.