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.
Jump to a section:
- More about stage four
- Review of the practice
- Moving from stage three to stage four
- A nasal experiment (best performed while alone)
- Moving on to the next activity
- Four dimensions of mindfulness
- Keeping subtlety in the practice
- Why the emphasis on refining our attention?
- How long should I meditate each day?
- What’s next?
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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