Stage 4 of the Mindfulness of Breathing: Refining Our Attention

In the fourth stage of the four stage mindfulness of breathing meditation practice we work on developing more refinement and vividness in the way we pay attention.

This involves encouraging the mind to move to a more subtle level of perception by deliberately paying attention to very delicate sensations connected with the breathing.

By doing this we help produce a much deeper level of calmness in the mind.

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Paying attention to some rather subtle sensations connected with our breathing requires that we “change” gear and look at our experience at a finer level of detail. It also means that we really have to let go of unnecessary thinking so that we can become absorbed in these subtle physical sensations.

Stage Zero

Prepare for the meditation by setting up your posture, by becoming more aware of the physical sensations of the body, and by relaxing as best you can.

Stages One, Two, and Three

Follow the stages in order, first of all counting after the breath, then before the breath, and then letting go of the counting.

Stage Four

In the fourth and final stage of this practice, begin to notice the sensations where the breath first passes over the rims of the nostrils.

You may even notice the sensations where the breath passes over the upper lip. But if any of these sensations are hard to find, just notice the breath at the first place you can feel it as it enters and leaves the body.

You don’t have to make these sensations be an exclusive focus. They can be a lightly held focal point at the center of a wider field of attention that includes sensations of the breathing from all over the body. When we do this, the vivid sensations we’re now including in our awareness bring a greater sense of clarity to our experience. The sensations at the nostrils can, in a way, “tie everything together.”

It may happen, though, that you become fascinated with the sensations around the nostrils and find yourself being drawn into them more and more. And when this happens you may find that everything else drops away, and you’re in a more “one-pointed” state of awareness.

You can listen to an MP3 guided meditation that will lead you through the full four stages of the practice by clicking on the player below:

More About Stage Four

Congratulations! You’ve now learned the full four-stage practice of the Mindfulness of Breathing meditation. You could spend the rest of your life exploring this practice. Sometimes it’ll seem like, as they say, “the same-old, same-old.” But other times you’ll find shifts happening and discover new dimensions of your experience. From time to time I notice whole new layers of sensation that had obviously been there the whole time abut hadn’t noticed.

So spend some time practicing all four stages of the meditation practice, and reviewing what you already know in order to deepen your experience of them.

And explore the links on this page to deepen your understanding of what this stage is about and how to work effectively within the fourth stage.

I recommend alternating the Mindfulness of Breathing practice and the Metta Bhavana, or lovingkindness, practice. Each of these practices feeds into and deepens the other. They balance each other nicely, with the lovingkindness practice helping us to connect with our inner warmth, while the mindfulness of breathing practice is rather “cooler” in tone.

You can do these two practices on alternate days, or even do one in the morning and one in the evening, if you have enough time.

But before you head off to learn another meditation practice we’d suggest that you spent a bit of time familiarizing yourself with this stage of this meditation. Each stage is in itself a practice for developing skills in working with your mind. Really get to notice what’s going on in each of the four stages, and see if you can find ways to get more out of them. Meditating isn’t just an exercise, it’s an exploration.

Simply sticking with the practice is a form of spiritual practice in itself insofar as it encourages the development of patience and acceptance. The mind tends to have a grasping quality, and it’s this grasping, Buddhism tells us, that leads to suffering. The effort of setting aside our craving for new experiences and simply continuing to explore more deeply those practices we are already familiar with will bring us closer to spiritual awakening.

Review of the Practice

In the first stage we worked on calming the mind through focusing on the out-breath, which is intimately connected with a sense of letting go.

The second stage helps bring more energy and awareness into our relaxed mind by focusing our attention on the in-breath, which is inseparably linked to alertness.

The third stage, in which we pay attention equally to the in- and out-breaths blends these two qualities, of alertness and calmness to help us develop a calm, energetic awareness. When our mind is like this (and you may not have got there yet but it will come with practice) it is very “pliable.” In other words our mind has become a very powerful tool.

What we do with this tool in the fourth stage is to develop one-pointed awareness. This isn’t a forced concentration, but rather a natural absorption that is based on interest and even fascination.

Moving from Stage Three to Stage Four

In the third stage of this meditation practice — the Mindfulness of Breathing — you’re usually aware of quite a large area of the sensation associated with the breathing. You may have been focusing primarily on the belly, or the chest, or the sensations in the head and throat, but you may might been aware of all of that, and might even have been aware of the whole body.

In the fourth stage however we’re beginning to narrow our attention down onto a very small area of sensation — the sensations on the rims of the nostrils.

When I first learned this practice I was unsure how to move from one stage to another. I’d simply stop — sometimes abruptly — doing one stage and start — equally abruptly — doing the next. I think that’s a common approach, and I think it’s unhelpful since it brings a dollop of unmindfulness into a mindfulness practice.

Now I like to make a smooth transition from one stage to the other, in order to maintain more of a sense of continuity, and to bring more elegance into my mind.

I do this by narrowing my focus with every breath. Over a series of perhaps seven or eight breaths, I’ll start to narrow down my focus, “homing” in on the sensations on the rims of the nostrils.

In the first breath I might be focused on the whole breath, right down to the belly, on the next perhaps on the whole of the chest, throat, and head. Then just the upper chest, throat, and head. Then the throat and head. Then the head. Then just in the nostrils, and then the tips of the nostrils.

Gradually homing in in this way brings more elegance and smoothness and so helps the stages flow together better.

A Nasal Experiment (Best Performed While Alone)

This might sound weird, but have you ever checked to see just how sensitive the rims of your nostrils are? Well, I didn’t expect you were going to admit it!

Try touching the inner rims of your nostrils as gently as you can (check no-one is watching first!). Use the very tip of your finger, and try to find the lightest touch that you can still feel. You should find that you’re able to feel your fingertip almost before it makes physical contact. The rims of your nostrils are covered with tiny little hairs, just a fraction of a millimeter long. Each hair has a very sensitive nerve at the root, and every time your breath passes through your nostrils, these nerves are triggered.

Of course we don’t usually notice those sensations, but it’s an excellent exercise to try to be aware of the breath passing over your nostrils. Having to pay attention to such a refined sensation encourages your mind to move onto a more subtle level of perception.

And since it’s not possible to remain aware of such a subtle sensation unless your mind is very still, the fourth stage encourages deeper levels of mental and emotional stillness.

Moving On to the Next Activity

Stage “Omega”

We’ve talked about “Stage Zero” as being the important preliminary stage where we set up good conditions for meditating by working with our posture and our inner attitudes. I’ve compared it to the stage of mixing the ingredients for a cake, as well as making sure that the oven is at the right temperature. In other words we’re making sure that the conditions are congruent with the outcomes we want to achieve.

But in baking a cake there are also some things you want to do at the end of the baking process to make sure that the cake comes out right. You want to make sure, for example, that you have oven gloves on so that you don’t burn your hands and drop the cake on the floor. You need to check that the cake is in fact properly baked and that it doesn’t need a few more minutes in the oven. You need to place the cake on a rack so that it doesn’t go soggy.

Similar considerations apply in our meditation practice. It’s possible to ruin a perfectly good meditation by hurrying out of the practice. So here are a few tips so help ensure that you are able to carry the effects of the practice into the world, rather than jarring yourself by making an abrupt transition. I call this process of ending the meditation “Stage Omega” because it’s the final stage of the meditation, but isn’t usually enumerated. (You probably know this already, but Omega is the last letter in the Greek alphabet and is often used to represent the last thing in a series.)

Stage Omega is important because you need to give yourself time to absorb the effects of the practice.

I used to talk about “ending the meditation practice,” or “bringing the practice to a close.” (In older recordings you’ll still hear me saying things like that.) But eventually I realized that there was something unhelpful in that language, because it suggests that first we practice, and then we stop practicing. But meditation is about nurturing into existence a certain quality of awareness (mindful, present, centered, kind, and so on). And the entire point of doing this is that it will have a beneficial effect on the rest of our lives. So it’s more helpful to think in terms of “bringing our practice into the world,” or “carrying our mindfulness and kindness into our next activity,” and so on.

One excellent way to approach this is to notice what your experience is like at the end of the period of guidance, when the last bell has rung, or however it is that you know that your chosen meditation time is over. What effect has meditating had on you? How do you feel? How does your body feel? What is your mind doing? How do those things compare to when you first sat down to meditate?

If you don’t pay attention to the effects that the meditation practice has had on your mind and emotions, then you might not realize that any changes have taken place. This can be rather dispiriting, to say the least. Often we develop much more of a sense of calmness than we are consciously aware of, and if we don’t give ourselves time to appreciate this we might immediately undo the positive states that we’ve created by smothering them with despondent or frustrated thoughts and feelings.

Taking your practice into the world

In a way, Stage Omega is not really the end of your meditation, it’s just a transition from being aware with our eyes closed, sitting on a cushion, to being aware, with our eyes open, in the midst of everyday activity. Our meditation practice will hopefully have a beneficial effect on our lives generally, and it’s more likely to do that if we make the transition from sitting meditation to everyday activity as smooth and elegant as possible.

I suggest that you go recall the guidance I offer toward the end of the recordings. Notice how I suggest that you gradually broaden your awareness. At the end of the fourth stage you’re focusing mainly on the subtle sensations at the rims of your nostrils. You can broaden your awareness from that narrow focus to become aware of the whole breathing process. Then you can become aware of the whole of your body, and then you can include other dimensions of awareness such as feeling, emotion, and your mind. And lastly, you can broaden your awareness right out into the world around you, becoming aware of your external sensations of space, sound, touch, and light.

You’re giving yourself time to reconnect with the world in which you will soon be moving around, using computers, interacting with other people, and so on. You’re doing this slowly and gradually, not abruptly.

Actually, it’s very beneficial to go further this and to maintain your mindfulness as you get off your cushion, bow to your shrine (if that’s the sort of thing you do), blow out the candles, straighten up your meditation equipment, and leave the room. And even then you should try to maintain your awareness as you go onto the next activity.

When I’m leading group meditations, I can often tell how someone has been working in their meditation by the way they get up and move around. If they make a lot of noise and the drop their cushions with a loud “whump” at the back of the meditation room then it’s a fair bet that they either haven’t been making much effort or that their effort has been pretty crude and mechanical. If their movements are elegant and they lay their cushions down carefully and quietly, then I have a good idea that they have been working internally with the same kind of grace, balance, and care.

Take your time moving onto the next activity

One very good reason for taking your time coming out of the practice and moving onto your next activity is that it’s possible to become emotionally “jarred” by rushing into the first item on your “to do” list. It’s often the case, as I’ve mentioned above, that you can develop more calmness that you at first realize.

Another quality that you can develop is a greater degree of emotional sensitivity, and if you do not respect this then the first encounter that you have (which is likely to be with someone who has not been meditating and who is in a very different mental state from you) may be very unpleasant. Somehow this is less of a problem when you take just a few minutes to allow the effects of the meditation to sink in.

I don’t know what happens in this process of assimilation, but I suspect that in some way your subconscious mind makes some subtle internal readjustments which allow you to deal more effectively with encounters with others.

If you do give yourself a few minutes at the end of your practice to assimilate your experience, and take your time elegantly making a smooth transition from the cushion to the world, then you will often have the experience of finding that you can meet others who may even be in a very antagonistic state of mind, and be able to calmly absorb the other person’s emotions without even a ripple appearing on the surface of your mind.

If your calmness is like a great lake, then an elephant can jump in and the waters simply close over it. But if your calmness is like a small pool, then when an elephant jumps in there will be such a splash that there will be no water left!

Four Dimensions of Mindfulness

In Buddhism, there are several terms that are translated as mindfulness or are closely related to the concept of mindfulness, and each of them has a different flavor. It’s useful to get to know the different dimensions of mindfulness.

1. Sati

Sati most simply means “recollection”, both in the sense of memory (“I recollect that you said you wanted to meditate”) and in the sense of “having gathered together once more” (“I had to recollect myself after a busy day”).

Sati is the aspect of mindfulness that knows what is going on at any particular time. For example, when we’re aware of our posture, and that we’re in a certain mood, and that our mind is alert or dull, then this is sati. Sati is a state of watchfulness in which we’re paying attention to what’s going on right here and now. When we’re being mindful in this way we’re aware of the sensations of the body, of our feelings, and of our thoughts.

The opposite of sati is distraction (asati), which can involve the mind flitting from thought to thought without any internal monitoring. This is one of the most common forms of distractedness, and one that every meditator experiences. The mind goes wandering, and often it’s hard afterward to say where it’s been and what it’s been doing. Asati can also involve a fixation on one task — but a fixation that ignores our general experience. When we’re working hard on some project and find that our neck is tense, our shoulders are aching, and we’re in a bad mood, this is usually a sign that we’ve been focused in a rather driven and unmindful way on what we’ve been doing.

Usually when people talk about “being in the moment” they’re talking about sati.

Sati is knowing what is going on in our experience right now, and we need to know this in order to be able to make any meaningful changes. If you don’t know where you are, how can you get to where you want to go?

2. Sampajañña

Sampajañña is the aspect of mindfulness that extends over a period of time. It includes an awareness of purpose (where we want to go), and an awareness of where we’ve already been. So you may sit down to meditate and be aware that you need to cultivate lovingkindness. When you do that you’re developing a sense of where you want to go. This is rather different from what people think of when they think of mindfulness as “being in the moment” and “letting go of the past and future.” Sampajañña allows us to mindfully think about the future. Having decided where we want to go, we then check in with ourselves from time to time during the meditation. This is employing sati to see what’s going on. Sampajañña compares where we are with where we want to go — in this case evaluating “am I making progress in cultivating lovingkindness?”

Sampajañña also looks backwards in time. When you’re recalling your day and thinking about how things went, it’s possible to do this in a mindful way. Rather than the mind simply getting lost in thoughts about the past we’re consciously and mindfully recalling events. We can remind ourselves of our successes and analyze our lapses. Again, this is very different from what a crude understanding of “being in the moment” might suggest. With sampajañña we can bring the past — mindfully — into the moment. We can be in the moment and thinking about the past.

Often in Buddhist texts, the terms sati and sampajañña are joined together into one compound term, sati-sampajañña, and it’s this compound term that’s often translated as “mindfulness”. Sampajañña is necessary so that we can periodically compare where we are going with where we want to be. Sampajañña is like the compass that gives us our bearings.

3. Dhamma-vicaya

Dhamma-vicaya is the aspect of mindfulness that categorizes our experience in terms of some model or another. An important aspect of meditation is learning ways to categorize our distractions (the hindrances) as well as positive qualities that we can develop in meditation (the dhyana factors). Dhamma-vicaya is the act of comparing our inner experience to a mental map, so that we can navigate more effectively towards our goal.

The simplest kind of map you can have is something like a division of your emotional states into “positive” (those states that are constructive and helpful, like love, empathy, confidence) and “negative” (those that tend to be destructive, like hatred, addictive craving, cynicism).

This can be developed, however, into a much more sophisticated way to work with our mental states. There are, for example, traditional lists of “hindrances” that we can experience in meditation. These are distracted mental states that cause us suffering: states that include restlessness and anxiety, laziness and sleepiness, doubt, sensual craving, and ill will. Dhammavicaya can be a form of diagnosis, allowing us to evaluate more precisely what’s going on. There are also of course lists of positive mental states that arise in meditation, like the dhyana factors of initial thought, sustained thought, rapture, joy, and one-pointed concentration. Again Dhammavicaya can be indispensable in evaluating our current state.

Perhaps the simplest form of dhamma-vicaya is the insight meditation technique of “noting,” in which we internally “name” to ourselves the most prominent aspect of our experience. We might say “in, out” as we observe the breathing, or we might saying “throbbing” as we observe an area of pain.

To fully develop our dhamma-vicaya into an effective tool we need to have an effective inner map, which involves learning from study and from experience the different mental states that can arise, and also learnng to recognize these in our experience. If you don’t know what the five hindrances are or can’t recognize them when they arise, then you won’t be able to use them as a diagnostic tool, for example.

4. Appamada

Appamada is mindfulness in the sense of watchfulness or vigilance. It’s mindfulness imbued with a sense of the importance of the task in hand. Some texts say that if you lose your mindfulness you should grab it up again like a soldier in the heat of battle who has dropped his sword. Another interesting analogy is that we should act as swiftly as someone who has discovered that his or her hat is on fire. Appamada is the dynamic aspect of mindfulness.

All of these aspects of mindfulness work together synergistically. To some extent we may have to develop them separately, but in order to develop one fully we have to develop the others.

It’s not always easy to separate out these different kinds of mindfulness, and that’s not really the point of my letting you know about them. If you’re aware of yourself and of your thoughts, emotions, and sensations, and at the same time you’re automatically aware of whether you’re in a hindrance or whether positive factors are present, and if you’re vigilantly coming back to awareness every time your experience wanders, then probably sati, sampajañña, dhamma-vicaya, and appamada are all present. There’s not much to be gained by trying to work out where one dimension of mindfulness ends and another starts. But if one of these is lacking then it’s important to be able to recognize that. If you’re aware of where you are but don’t have a sense of purpose, then it’s probably worthwhile cultivating sampajañña. If your mindfulness is bit vague then perhaps you need to start noting exactly what’s going on by naming it — am I in a hindrance and if so which one? Am I lacking some positive factor in my experience, and if so which one do I need to cultivate? If the mind is tending to go adrift a lot, then perhaps we need the vigilance of appamada.

Knowing about these four different dimensions of mindfulness can help make our practice much more effective. Sometimes when people have a crude understanding of what “being in the moment” means they assume that you must never have goals in meditation, not realizing that it’s the way you relate to your goals that’s important. And lacking the ability to name our mental states means that we can’t work with them effectively. Developing skill in meditation, and in inner work generally, requires a familiarity with of all of the dimensions of mindfulness.

Keeping Subtlety in the Practice

Because the sensations at the rims of the nostrils are so subtle, there can be a tendency in meditation to breathe more forcefully in order to heighten the sensations. Try to resist this tendency, and instead allow your breath to be very light and delicate. Ideally you shouldn’t be able to hear your breathing.

(Sometimes you’ll find that you think you’re hearing the breath, but that it’s actually a purely internal sound – one that only exists in your mind. This is fine, and you shouldn’t try to get rid of that kind of sound. Instead you should be aware of it as well as the physical sensations of your breathing).

Instead of breathing more heavily, try to find the subtle sensations by allowing your mind itself to become more receptive and subtle – this is the point of this fourth stage of the practice. Making your breath coarser by snorting (yes, it can get that bad!) can make it easier to feel the breath, but rather undermines the development of a more refined perception of the breath. If you don’t manage at first to find the sensations on the rims of the nostrils, then you can be aware of the breath in your nostrils; cool on the in breath and warm on the out breath.

And sometimes people find it easier to notice the sensation on the upper lip, and that’s OK as well. Over time, try to refine your awareness so that you become aware of the most delicate sensations that you can detect – these are the true focus of this stage.

If you can find the sensations of the air flowing over the rims of your nostrils, then congratulations; now it’s time for you to refine the practice even more. For example, you can notice whether the sensations are more pronounced in the left or right nostril, and you can try to take more awareness into any “dead spots” where the sensations are lacking. Or you can become more aware of the sensations just at the fronts of the rims of your nostrils, rather than all around; just to stretch your ability to detect very subtle sensations indeed.

There are always greater degrees of refinement to which we can take our mindfulness.

Why the Emphasis on Refining Our Attention?

Mindful attention enriches life, while distraction dilutes life.

Have you ever had the experience of talking with a friend while you’re distracted, and then you realize you haven’t been listening to them because you’ve drifted off on some train of thought? I’m sure you have, because we all have.

How can we develop deep and meaningful relationships with others if we can’t stay focused? How can we deepen our understanding of ourselves if we don’t experience anything but our surface distraction?

Mindful attention allows us to go more deeply into our experiences. It allows us to experience more intensely, so that we are with other people more intensely, with ourselves more intensely.

Mindful attention allows us to really enjoy what we’re doing: whether it’s being in the country, or reading a book, writing, or talking, or thinking.

Mindful attention allows us to think more clearly and deeply. When we can stay with a train of thought without wandering off, we can ask more penetrating questions of ourselves and, crucially, be able to hear the deep, considered, and wise answers that come from our depths.

Refining our mindful attention allows us to pick up on subtler sensations and perceptions. For example, if you’ve trained yourself to be aware of subtler sensations in the body. One study I read showed that regular meditators had more awareness of their bodies than professional dancers did. Isn’t that interesting? Dancers use their bodies every day, while meditators are just sitting still. Being more aware of the body helps you to be more aware of your feelings. This in turn helps you to be more aware of intuitions and hunches, which present themselves as feelings in the body.

Being able to see the richness in ordinary experiences makes ordinary activities more fulfilling. Instead of drinking a cup of coffee while also thinking about a dozen other things, we can simply drink the cup of coffee, appreciating the flavor, the odor, the warmth of the mug in our hands, the movements of the body as we lift the drink to our mouths, the contact the mug makes with our lips, the warmth of the liquid as it enters our mouths, the act of swallowing, and so on. This kind of presence is deeply satisfying and nourishing, while distractedness? Not so much!

How Long Should I Meditate Each Day?

I often get asked variants on the question, “How long should I spend meditating each day, and is there any benefit to meditation if you can’t manage forty minutes?”

Some people notice distinct psychological benefits in the forms of reduced stress and greater happiness with only ten minutes of meditation daily, although most people seem to require around twenty minutes to experience benefits.

When I was taught to meditate the meditations in the class were usually 40 or 50 minutes long. I picked up the idea that anything shorter than that wasn’t a “real” meditation and didn’t really count. That was a most unfortunate idea to pick up, because there were many days I couldn’t do that amount of meditation and so I ended up not sitting — even though I did have time to do 15 or 20 minutes.

One well-known study trained people in meditation for eight weeks. The participants, who were new to meditation, ended up meditating for an average of 23 minutes a day. At the end of eight weeks their brain activity had measurably changed, and they showed much higher activation of parts of the brain that are associated with feelings of well-being and less activation of parts of the brain associated with stress. And they were found to have an improved immune response as well. That’s after just 23 minutes a day, on average.

Through my own experience I’ve found that any amount of meditation is better than none. One those days where, for whatever reason, I’ve only been able to meditate for five or ten minutes, I’ve found that my mental states can change perceptibly over that period of time, and that the benefits persist throughout the day.

So my advice is, just do it. If you can only manage twenty minutes a day, do twenty minutes. If you can only manage ten, do that. If three minutes is all you have, then spending three minutes is much, much better than not doing anything.

And just do it every day, and have a minimum commitment for yourself of something like five minutes a day..

The amount of time you’ll have will vary. You might meditate on a regular basis for 20 or 40 minutes, but then have one of those days where you just don’t get a chance to sit until last thing at night, when you’re so tired you think you’re going to fall off your cushion. So sit for at least five minutes. You’ll maintain a sense of being committed to your practice no matter what, and you’ll feel better about yourself. And even five minutes makes a difference.

What about a maximum? Obviously for most people time available for meditation is a limiting factor. On retreat we might meditate for five, or six, or ten hours a day. That’s hardly feasible for most of us in our daily lives, but it’s worth experimenting with doing more practice and seeing what effect it has. I find that if I meditate for more than 90 minutes over the course of a day, there’s an extra “kick” from the practice, and a deep sense of joy comes into my life. I don’t expect that this length of time will apply for everyone, but I expect that there are “tipping points” past which meditation has extra benefits, and that that’s true for most people, even if the magic number isn’t always the same.

What’s Next?

Meditation is a training, not an experience. It isn’t something that you do once and see lasting benefits from. It’s something you do regularly in order to bring about the development of positive new habits. Regular practice changes the brain in very helpful ways, slowing aging, thickening the cortex, and bulking up the brain areas that are responsible for feelings of well-being and emotional regulation

I’ve also suggested that it’s a good idea to alternate the Mindfulness of Breathing meditation with the Metta Bhavana (or development of lovingkindness) practice. The two practices complement each other beautifully.

The four stages you’ve learned — (1) Counting after the out-breath, (2) Counting before the in-breath, (3) Dropping the counting and following the sensations of the breathing as a continuous, unbroken process, and (4) Focusing on the sensations at the rims of the nostrils — can be regarded as tools. As with any tools, they have to be used intelligently. At first, as an exercise in learning to develop familiarity with the tools, I’d suggest that you stick to doing all four of the stages in order, giving equal time to each stage. You might want to keep this up for several months of practice, or maybe longer.

Thereafter, you can play around with applying these tools as you need them. The first stage (counting after the out-breath) helps calm the mind. So if your mind is already calm, or if you’re sleepy, then you might want to skip this stage. The second stage stimulates alertness, so if your mind is already over-stimulated you might want to skip that stage, and stick with the first stage in order to slow your mind down.

If you find that your mind settles quickly and that you’re already alert and mindful, you might want to skip both of the first two stages, forgetting about the counting and going straight into the third, or even four stage. If you find, during one of the later stages, that you’re all over the place, then you might want to go back to one of the earlier stages.

I’ve been meditating for 40 years, and I still use the counting on certain days when my mind is unruly, although these days I’m more likely to start with the third stage of the practice, or even the fourth. But the tools are there, and I’m happy to use them as seems appropriate. We call this, making the practice your own.

We also run online guided meditation courses, which you can access by becoming a sponsor. You can sign up for our monthly meditation newsletter, and we’ll be happy to let you know about our classes and other developments on this site (we will never pass your e-mail address on to third parties).

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Lastly, the approach we take here is only one amongst many, and the tools we teach are just a few of those available. So feel free to explore other approaches.

112 Comments. Leave new

  • I just accidently fell into meditation. I have done it before in the past but did not realize what I was doing. At night to relax and go to sleep I would deep breath and focus, usually on my forehead. I would get strange sensation in my forehead area and I felt like I was sinking into my head, if that makes sense. my body would go numb. I cant move but I can hear everything that is going on. I actually heard my own snoring. I finally decided to stop but it took me while to be able to actually move. I spoke to a masseuse and she told me it was meditation. how can I build on this? I am just trying to gain some idea of what I am doing and how to move forward.

    Reply
    • Hi, David.

      It certainly sounds like you’ve been doing something akin to meditation, but I’d certainly suggest learning a tried and tested technique rather than continuing to take the kind of free-form approach you’ve previously adopted, since it doesn’t sound like it’s founded on the principle of mindful awareness.

      So if you want to build on what you’ve done, take up meditation practices such at those I teach here. If you learn to sit in an effective meditation posture and meditate at times other than when you’re just about to fall asleep you’ll find it much more rewarding.

      All the best,
      Bodhipaksa

      Reply
  • I am trying to do mindfulness meditation using the breath. Many instructions say to focus on the region between the nostrils and the upper lip to find the breath. I can feel the breath mostly inside the nostrils, and also more higher up in the nose root area. I tried along time to get more sensitive and feel it lower (upper lip, below nostril) but did never succeed. The description of the point of exact location, and various locations in nose area is a great weakness in all meditation tutorials (and teachers), could you elaborate more precisely about that??

    Reply
    • Hi, Ben.

      Since I wrote this I’ve radically changed my view of this practice. I now see it as starting with an awareness of the breathing rather than the breath, the breathing being any and all sensations connected, however indirectly, with the process of inhaling and exhaling.

      I suggest starting there because that practice has the effect of radically calming the mind. Only then do I recommend trying to narrow the field of our awareness, and when we do I’d suggest gradually moving towards the rims of the nostrils, or anywhere close to that where you can feel relatively sharp and clear sensations. There’s nothing magical about the exact location you focus on. It’s not a question of finding the “right” place, but of maintaining a sense of curiosity and openness.

      Reply
      • So my personal “spot”, awareness of breath related sensations, higher up in the nasal cavity would be ok for long time practice, to get the chance of reaching higher states like jhanas?
        By the way, thx for really quick answer, you definitly care for your community, thats absolutely great and amazing!

        Reply
        • Well, in terms of getting to jhana, I’d definitely recommend starting with an awareness of the breathing in the full body — as full as you possibly can, allowing the whole body into awareness. This is a process of exploration and receptivity, and takes some practice. This does two things: it calms the mind quite quickly, and it also sensitizes us to the body so that we can experience it in terms of piti. As calmness (with vitakka-vicara) and piti are arising, or after they’ve arisen, bring some metta and appreciation into the mix. And only then start to look for a vivid focus around the nostrils, which helps bring in a degree of clarity that allows you to settle into an experience of jhana.

          I wrote about this a few years ago, and while that basic framework is still valid and still what I teach, I’ve refined the way I approach each of the factors. I intend to produce a new version of this article when I have the time. Unfortunately I have a lot of commitments at the moment.

          Reply
  • I’ve gone through several sites about meditation and I love how your page explains it all, when I was a teenager my mom and I meditated for 5 minutes and I still consider myself a beginner due to not fully concentrating I guess and didn’t really connect with myself as I should have, not compare to any of these experience s that other people have had just some lights. I have gone through so much in my life to where I opened my life to drugs and have gone through a deep depression, anxiety, and paranoia. The experience that I go from all got me to the point where I don’t feel secure, I live in fear, when I saw things I didn’t want to see as an “ghosts” I feel like it’s still going on just now they’re not visible. I feel lonely, depressed, like nobody likes me and that I’m completely crazy, I don’t even feel sexy. I am very lazy, I pull myself together but I force myself to do it. Nothing feels real to me anymore. I really feel like meditating will help with all of this, I want to find myself and love myself again like I use to, I’m just afraid to close my eyes. When I do I feel a presence in the room as if someone where close to my face and just stares at me. I’m afraid that I will open myself to evil, as an spirits, is that possible?

    Reply
    • Hi, Lidia.

      First of all, there are no ghosts or evil spirits. These things are just ideas, and are the expression of your fears.

      It’s possible that meditation might not be helpful for you at all. I certainly wouldn’t suggest that someone with your level of fear and self-dislike took up meditation without being in close contact with a reputable teacher who could help you with the difficulties that can arise when you get up close and personal with the messiness of your own mind, because doing this can make things worse.

      I suggest that you perhaps take up something like yoga, which can include a small element of meditation at the end, without any deep introspection. The activity of doing yoga may well help shake you out of the malaise you’re experiencing at the moment.

      You might also want to explore something like Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, which can help you understand how your mind creates problems for you, and how you can change the habitual patters that intensify your suffering.

      Reply
  • Hi bodhipaksa
    Its catherine, again. I wrote down that wed site you gave to me, think I wrote it down corretly but I might of made a mistake. I tryed to get onto it the other day but when I clicked th go button the web address change two or three times. The page that came up said I had to clarify to see adult content. How strange I thought but clicked it anyway and something about an virus came up. To cut a long story short that tock me all over the place. I rung my sister up and she helped me sort it. Turned out no virus on phone. Just tried again and the bar at the top ficked tree times or so and ended up on anouther site, something to do with amazon. Tried to find the comment you left to no avail. Was thinking maby the other web site may of been hacked? Or may techinal problems? Could you please post the web site again? Would be very grateful. Thanks catherine and sox

    Reply
  • hello. I suffered a panic attack about a month ago which triggered about 2 weeks of suffering with ruminating thoughts. I started my mindfulness meditation about two weeks ago. I have meditated everyday for atleast 15 minutes using guided mediatations. I have seen an improvement and I am feeling much more like myself now. I plan on continuing meditation in efforts to prevent this sort of “attack” from reoccurring. My question is this: It seems that mindfulness slowly and gradually deepen over time, but how long before I notice a significant difference if I keep meditating every day? Yesterday I had a wave of anxiety come over me out of nowhere. I used breathing meditation to calm down and I watched it pass. I am just curious how long before I can see a difference in my everyday life. I understand everyone is different but any insight into this would be reassuring. Thanks in advance!

    Reply
    • Hi, Justin.

      You’re asking how long it’ll be before you see a significant difference in your experience, but you’re also saying that you’ve seen an improvement and that you feel more like yourself. Isn’t that a significant difference?

      This isn’t a minor point or a quibble: it’s to do with the power of expectations to undermine our appreciation of progress. It’s fantastic that you’re experiencing these positive changes! Just keep going and as best you can don’t get caught up in “are we there yet?” attitudes. Worrying about progress is a hindrance to progress :)

      All the best,
      Bodhipaksa

      Reply
  • Great article! What are your thoughts on breathing meditation vs candle meditation? Does each achieve the same results? I started with breathing but found I tended to zone out and lose focus over 20 minutes. After a few months I switched to focusing on a candle. Its a lot easier for me to stay aware and present. Am I missing something? Thanks!

    Reply
    • I’ve never done any sort of candle meditation, Pat, so I can’t really make a comparison. As for your losing focus over a 20 minute meditation, that’s not too surprising. It gets easier with practice, and you can also break a 20 minute period into four five-minute sessions (e.g. using the four-stage mindfulness of breathing that I teach here) in order to stay more focused.

      Reply
  • Hello All,
    Question; I was meditating this morning and my body felt very tiny but my consiousness and energy field was huge! I mean as big as an ancient tree…Where my chakras normally would have been was all out of proportion e.g. the root chakra was down below my feet but in the right position of the massive energy body?
    I’ve meditated for years and have never experienced this before? Does anyone out there have any idea of what happened? I’ve searched online with no success unfortunately. It was wonderful to experience such an expanded consiousness.

    Reply
  • This post really made something click for me. I had been meditating on and off for years, but inevitably I would miss a day, then two, and before I knew it, weeks had gone by without a single session. The breakthrough was realizing that even a “bad” meditation for 5 minutes when I’m half asleep before bed is worthwhile for the sake of keeping the habit and the commitment going. Thanks, Bodhipaksa.

    Reply
  • Thank you, Bodhipaksa, for this wonderful site. I had a regular meditation practice several years ago and was really seeing results – less stress, more kindness towards others, etc. But life got crazy, and instead of clinging to my practice like a lifesaver, I let it lapse. Not surprisingly, I quickly sank like a stone. In fact, I found myself becoming someone I didn’t even recognize… and certainly didn’t like.

    So, I was sitting around feeling bad about myself when a word popped into my mind – Wildmind. I recalled having come across your site in the past, but had not taken advantage of what is offered here. I opened my laptop and jumped in with both feet. I’ve reestablished my practice, I’m already feeling a greater sense of spaciousness in my life, the irritability and judgementalness that has been my constant companion recently is all but gone.

    I can’t wait until Feb 1, when Living With Awareness begins! Thank you again!!

    Reply
  • […] or use whatever timetable works better for you. When you know break time is coming, it is easier to concentrate on the task at hand. If you need help, there are concentration timers available […]

    Reply
  • Hi Bodhipaska,
    I haven’t done meditation ever, but I feel need to do it to improve my attention span and memory. I want to ask what is the best time of the day to meditate? what about early morning right after I wake-up because that is only time I can find my surroundings quite ?

    Looking forward~

    Thanks in advance!

    Reply
  • Hi Bodhipasaka, I’m a lone practioner. I have spiritual friends but they are not on the same path. I’m just doing mindfulness of breathing, with some christian meditative prayer. With that in mind, what would you suggest?

    Reply
    • Hey, Victor.

      I’d definitely recommend doing just as much lovingkindness or compassion meditation as you do mindfulness of breathing. And if you don’t have a community that you can be part of locally, you could look for one online. I have a community on Google Plus which is very supportive. It’s a good place to make positive connections and to get encouragement. Here’s the link if you’re interested.

      Reply
  • Is there any danger from doing too much meditation? When doing say, around 2 hours a day over a weekend, I feel like it’s digging up negative things from my subconscious (or something), and start to fear that I’ve done too much, maybe I’ll have a psychotic break like some people do.

    Reply
    • Two hours is either a long time or not very long, depending on how long you’ve been meditating, Victor. If you’re fairly new to meditation then it’s a lot, but for a long term meditator it’s more than most people usually do, but by no means extreme.

      Important questions are:

      What are you doing with those two hours? I always advocate a balanced program of mindfulness of breathing and lovingkindness meditation. Without that balance, I worry if people have the emotional resources to cope with the challenges that practice can bring us.

      Do you have a wider context for your practice? Are you part of a sangha? Do you have spiritual friends? Do you have teachers you can talk to?

      And lastly, what do you mean by “negative things” coming from your subconscious? “Negative” can often be just a label we put on things we don’t find pleasant. Unpleasant experiences, though, are a necessary part of life. If by “negative,” you mean “unskillful,” then experiencing unskillful thoughts is, again, just a part of life. The important thing is just to let those thoughts pass away without getting caught up in their stories.

      Reply
  • gina fitsemons
    July 14, 2015 3:05 pm

    Im having a terrible bout of anxiety. Ive been practicing mindful breathing. The problem is, i have to do it ALL day. Plus i want to cry, but i wasnt raised to cry so its so very scary to me. Plus im 54 and i think im going into menopause
    Thanks
    Gina

    Reply
    • Hi, Gina.

      It sounds like you should find a therapist or counsellor to talk to. Your discomfort with crying and your menopause aren’t really things that I, as a meditation teacher, am able to help you with.

      Reply
  • How to move all types of sexual thoughts and control wandering of mind.
    remove bad thoughts ..

    Reply
    • Hi, Yash.

      It sounds like you might be overly judgemental about having sexual thoughts and a wandering mind. Meditation will help with reducing mind-wandering, but more importantly it’ll help you to be less concerned about it. As for sexual thoughts — they’re normal. Just let them come and go. Accept that it’s all right for them to arise. Just come back to your immediate experience if you don’t want to get caught up in fantasies.

      Reply
  • […] Bodhipaksa zegt hier bijvoorbeeld over: “Through my own experience I’ve found that any amount of meditation is better than none.” […]

    Reply
  • June 23, 2015 10:00 AM

    Hello, I am 15 years if age and have just started my meditation training it is my first day and I have managed to make 40 minutes and let me tell you it was amazing I haven’t really experienced many things like that but I can tell you I was lost in meditation for quite some time and am very happy to be continuing in my next step in my meditation training

    Reply
  • Hello Bodipaka, I. Sit and concentrate on my breathing, you mentioned above that I need to pay attention to many sensations, what do mean by sensations, are you talking about the sensations which happen in my body while breathing or the air which goes in and out while breathig, should I feel the air which goes in and out or the movement of my stomach, chest while breathing or both.

    Reply
    • Hi, Mohit.

      What I mean is that “the breathing” is not just “the breath.” If we just focus on “the breath” then the mind is likely to become very restless because it doesn’t have enough to do. What I encourage is that people notice sufficient among the sensations constituting breathing that the mind becomes relatively quiet. I don’t think it’s important to notice all of the sensations of the breathing, and it’s not even possible to notice them all at the same time. We just have to give the mind plenty to pay attention to. This can certainly include the movements of the chest and abdomen, and other sensations in the body as well.

      Reply
  • i attempt this, and to a degree i succeed
    but im always seeing images in my head, thinking, thinking about things ive done recently or said, something i may have seen on tv, what i am eating later etc.
    how best can i prevent this?
    when thoughts come in my head i picture a mountain, and pretend i am it, and the thoughts clouds, and i physically watch them move away
    this often works but i worry that i am essentially just replacing one thought (the distraction) with another (the image of the mountain)
    thanks for your time

    Reply
    • You seem to be making the assumption that all thoughts are “bad.” Having in your head an image of a mountain, which might bring a sense of stability and calm, is far better than having a conversation with yourself about something annoying that happened earlier in the day at work. Try noticing the quality of your thoughts, and whether they’re contributing to calmness, creating a more disturbed mind, or simply passing through like leaves on a stream without causing any inner turmoil.

      Here are a few articles from the blog that you might find helpful: here, here, and here.

      If you find the work I do here helpful, please click here to make a donation. I spend many hours offering advice in these comments, and yet very few people choose to support us.

      Reply
  • Mohit Oberoi
    June 2, 2015 9:23 am

    Thank you for a great article, I am also new to it & have been practicing for 2 months, with me my concentration is fully there when I initiate it but gradually I get distracted and start thinking about office, house, money etc. then it becomes very difficult for me to come back..though I try my best but I end up spoiling my mood, I get frustated at times..what to do?

    Reply
    • Hi, Mohit.

      You don’t say what kind of meditation you’re doing, but let’s assume it’s some kind of mindfulness of breathing. It’s likely that you’re simply not paying attention to enough sensations. When you don’t give the mind enough to do, it’ll find things to do — namely, thinking about the things you mentioned.

      If you pay attention to more of the sensations of the breathing (as opposed to “the breath”) you’ll find that the mind becomes much quieter. Thoughts don’t have to disappear entirely, but as you pay attention to many sensations of the breathing you’ll find that your thinking is lighter and more diaphanous. It’ll pass through the mind without catching your attention.

      If you do find that you’re participating in your thinking rather than merely observing it, regard this as a “mindfulness bell,” reminding you that your attention has narrowed. And use that reminder to return, without judgement, to a fuller experience of the breathing.

      Reply
  • Malla Krishna Kumar
    May 19, 2015 11:12 am

    Comment of Sagar on Feb 4,2015, made me remember when I started to meditate after reading Swami Vivekanada Books on Raja Yoga and others. He cautioned in his book not to worry but continue to do practice. I did it. After 9 months of practice I realized that those thoughts will evaporate themselves without much stress on your mind.

    Reply
  • I have learnt a few methods. Now I am confused which one to follow. whenever I start a method I always feel that the other one would be better. I feel a sort of guilt for not doing the other method. please advise me. venugopal

    Reply
  • I did a minimum of 20mins per day but have just had very bad headaches with high blood pressure 222/111 (hereditary) stress was leaking through my 20min shield so have upped my sessions to two one hour per day and sometimes add 20mins to that, it seems to have quashed stress and brought me back to the present though I must say meditations where often useless with my headache but I persisted, try 1 hour solid, it’s very satisfying and you will want to do it again, the more you do the more your mind clears.
    My description of Meditation :
    Meditation takes you from being the character in the book to being the reader…

    Reply
  • Hi there, I find your website very interesting. I have recently quit drinking and I have been told to try meditation for my anxiety. My counsellor told me to concentrate on my breathing, the point at which the breath goes in and comes out. I tried this and I felt like I was meditating. I’m not sure but I have never meditated before and I felt like I was accessing a part of my brain I have never used before. To be honest it felt like a third eye. Now I have googled this and it frightened me a bit as I’m generally not a very spiritual person. What does this all mean? Is it simply a form of meditation or a stage of it? Please let me know. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Hi, Olivia.

      I think I replied to your comment the other day, but our site got hacked and the backup that we restored from doesn’t contain my reply. What I said was that you basically had an experience of a physical sensation arising in your meditation (possibly in your head, you don’t say) and that you’ve created a story about it — or more than one story. Possibly you’re hoping this means you’re special (something we all tend to hope!), and possibly you’re worried that it means something’s wrong. But those are just stories. All that happened was that you experienced a sensation.

      So when things like that arise, just let them be and continue with the practice.

      Reply
  • Can you tell me what is the best meditation CD I ca find? any website?
    Thank you,
    Daniel

    Reply
    • I can’t recommend the “best CD,” Daniel, since that’s a subjective assessment. I think this CD of mine is very good, although there may be others that suit you better. As for websites, this is a meditation website, and I’d recommend it!

      Reply
  • alexisbeauchemin
    February 18, 2015 7:47 am

    hi please when meditator meditate for 6-8 hours a day , are they taking breaks ?

    Reply
    • Usually, yes. Very few people could sit in unbroken meditation for that length of time. Often the pattern will be sitting meditation, alternated with walking meditation, plus breaks for meals.

      Reply
  • Hi,

    I started meditating around a month ago, and I do it for 15 mins a day, but I am not able to concentrate at all. Every time I close my eyes, I think of something and my mind is not calm at all, and its been told that I should not concentrate on anything when I mediate. Any suggestions how to improve my mediating skills.

    Reply
    • Hi, Sagar.

      Sorry for the lateness of my reply. In the last month I’ve moved house, had surgery, and had several sites hacked, including this one.

      Learning to concentrate is the essence of meditation, so I’d say you’ve been receiving some very bad advice. Try working your way through our guide to the mindfulness of breathing, and then lovingkindness meditation. Those guides will give you a better idea of what you’re “meant” to be doing in meditation.

      Reply
  • Mostrespectfully sir
    I am 22 years old boy, sir my problem was i am always feeling with my health due to anxiety attacked me 12month ago my stomach always tite and gastic. i am also checkup my health
    gastroentrology but i cant get good result.wanted to know how much time spend in meditation can help me make good health and right decisions.

    Reply
    • Hello, Harihar.

      Any meditation that you do will be helpful. Meditation isn’t a miracle cure, but it can help with anxiety. I’d suggest starting with 20 minutes a day, and then seeing if you can increase that to two 20-minute meditations.

      Reply
    • meditation practice can help with sensitive digestive system by reducing anxiety and inflammation. You might also want to add some cardiovascular exercise like running or swimming 3 times a week, which will help calm your body which works great along side meditation. Lastly you might want to check if you are not allergic to something like gluten (bread, pasta, wheat etc.) which might be causing your digestive system to react badly. If this is the case then meditation alone will not be enough.

      Reply
  • Philip Morris Jr
    January 21, 2015 6:07 pm

    Hello Mr. Bodhipaksa

    I am a new student doing Hardware and Networking, but I found it very hard to remember or imagine things, like after I’ve been thought by my instructor over and over, my sense of remembrances and imagining to crap concepts is my problems right now as I am speaking to you at this moment. So please I really need your advice or tips. Thank you very much.

    Reply
  • Hi,

    I am a masters student, always worrying about something. I do not have a decisive mind, it varies from a small chocolate to bigger decisions. I wanted to know meditation can help me make good and right decisions.

    Regards,
    Sagar

    Reply
    • Hi Sagar.

      Yes, meditation can help you make better decisions. It helps us to be more sensitive to our “gut feelings,” which is often how we make decisions, especially when situations are complex. It also helps to free us from the negative emotions (like fear and craving) that can cloud our thinking. There’s some scientific evidence to show these things to be the case.

      Reply
  • Thank you and your kind soul and spirit for helping people like me out. It is making a world of difference for beginners. But I do come to you with one question…
    Sitting straight for the posture has a pain to my lower back, there is a little pain there already, I am currently do other excerccises to try to reduce it. however after sitting for 15 minutes, it starts to get a little more distracting. I mean I can still focus but there is an obvious pain, will this subside when I teach my body how to sit up right, I’m sure part of its from years of slouching. But I would love to do longer meditations but I literally can’t do it. I had to meditate today laying on my side, which I could do but I don’t prefer it. It seems I become more distracted and it is of less convenience. Any tips to get rd of lower back pain? Thank you.

    Reply
    • Hi, Chris.

      There are so many factors involved that I couldn’t begin to offer specific advice. The first thing I would suggest is attending a yoga class for general flexibility, and asking the teacher is she/he can give you advice about what you need to do in order to sit comfortably. A good chiropractor may be able to help as well. It doesn’t sound like there’s any injury, but if you do then some medical advice would be in order.

      Reply
  • aaah….okay, shall persisting for as long as i can. thank you sensei:)

    Reply
  • what is the maximum duration of meditation in a day..??can i meditate through out the if possible ??

    Reply
    • There’s no maximum, although if you force yourself to meditate for a long time you may find that you develop an aversion to sitting. It’s best to build up gradually, unless you’re on retreat, in which case the positive pressure of the structured program makes it easier to sit for longer periods.

      Reply

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