Learn the Mindfulness of Breathing Meditation Practice

meditation candle

This page, and those following it, will help you to learn mindfulness of breathing meditation.

The most common form of meditation practice is one in which we pay attention to the physical sensations of our breathing. We don’t visualize the breathing. We don’t think about the breathing. We notice the physical sensations of the breathing, including the movements of the rib cage, the movements of muscles in the abdomen, the movements of the skin against our clothing, and of course the touch of air inside the body’s airways.

Often we spend a lot of time immersed in compulsive thinking, much of it driven by anxiety, annoyance, painful longings, self-doubt, and so on. The negative emotional quality of those kinds of thinking diminishes the quality of our lives.

Paying attention to the present-moment sensory reality of the body’s sensations as it breaths trains us to develop the quality of “mindfulness” — which is where we are able to observe our experience rather than being immersed in it.

When we are mindful those unhelpful kinds of thinking still arise, but we are able to observe them, stand back from them, and choose not to get lost in them.

There are many different varieties of mindfulness of breathing practice. The one I teach here officially has four stages, which are described below. But settling in to our meditation practice is an art in itself, and so I regard this process as “Stage Zero.” You can read more about that on this page, where you’ll also find links to the other stages of the practice.

Jump to a section:

Guided Meditation Recording 1

The YouTube video below will guide you through a three-minute meditation. The point is to show that a meditative attitude can be brought into even small gaps in your schedule, such as pausing at a red light, waiting in line at the supermarket, or taking a short break from work.

Guided Meditation Recording 2

This YouTube video offers you a 27-minute guide to the full four stages of the meditation practice being taught here. Please make sure that you have half an hour or so of uninterrupted time so that you can give this your full attention.

(There are also shorter forms of the practice in the rest of this structured guide to meditation.)

Overview of the Practice

The Mindfulness of Breathing practice is in four official stages, plus some important preparatory and concluding work, which I call “Stage Zero” and “Stage Omega.”

  • Stage Zero: After settling in to your meditation posture (you may find our posture guidelines helpful here), become aware of the physical sensations of your breath. Whenever your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the breath. (Information about Stage Zero can be found below.)
  • Stage One: Settle into being aware of the sensations of the breathing, and silently begin counting your out-breaths, placing the number after each exhalation. Count ten out-breaths, and then start counting the next ten out-breaths. Repeat for a few minutes. Any time you get distracted and lose your place, reconnect with the breathing and start counting again from one. Learn more about Stage One here.
  • Stage Two: Do the same as in the first stage — counting cycles of ten breaths — but this time count your in-breaths, silently placing the number just before each in-breath. Learn more about Stage Two here.
  • Stage Three: Drop the counting, and just follow the breath as it flows in and out. Observe the in-breaths seamlessly turning into out-breaths, and the out-breaths seamlessly turning into in-breaths. Notice that the breathing is a continuous experience, and that there is no time when there is no sensation. Learn about Stage Three here.
  • Stage Four: Out of all the many sensations of the breathing, gradually begin to pick the vivid and delicate sensations of the breath flowing over the rims of your nostrils. You can let those sensations be a lightly held focal point among all the other sensations in the body, or you can allow your attention to move closer to this focal point and let other sensations fade away into the background. Learn more about Stage Four here.
  • Stage Omega: Gradually broaden your awareness so that you’re first aware of the whole of the breathing process, then of the whole body, then your thoughts and feelings, and finally your environment. And then, when you feel ready, open your eyes. (Information about Stage Omega is found in the Stage Four instructions.)

Each of these stages is a kind of mini-meditation in its own right. Each is a tool for achieving a different aim. Each has a slightly different purpose, and together they form a progressive series that can help us to develop states of deep calm and joy. At first it’s good to stick to the stages as you first learn mindfulness of breathing meditation, but as you learn more about them and how they work, you can make the practice your own and whichever of the “tools” are most appropriate to your situation.

You can use the links above (or in the sidebar) to help you explore each of the stages in turn.

To learn more about Stage Zero, continue reading below.

“Stage Zero” – the Importance of Preparation

flowers are often placed on an altar as we meditate

With any meditation practice, it’s important to do a certain amount of preparation in order to help things go well. But all too often, this preparation is seen as an optional extra and is not done thoroughly, or at all. That’s a bad idea.

Imagine you’re baking a cake, and you want it fast. You want results. You want to get straight to the eating stage with as little time spent on fussing around with ingredients as possible. So you throw some flour and eggs and sugar into a cake tin (Hey! Who’s got time for measuring!) and slam it in the oven. Oh, the gas isn’t lit. Okay, let’s just turn it up full now so that it cooks faster. Yum! Looking forward to your cake? I thought not.

If you want to get certain results (whether a delicious cake or a calmer, clearer mind) you have to set up the right conditions for that to happen. This is an important Buddhist principle called “conditionality,” which states, in part, that if you want something to arise, you have to provide the conditions that allow that thing to arise. There are no short cuts.

The preparation that we do as we learn the mindfulness of breathing meditation (or any other meditation) is the stage of setting up our postures, deepening our awareness of our bodies, and relaxing as deeply as we can. This preparation is essential if we want to provide the conditions for the arising of a calmer, clearer, less stressed, more peaceful mind.

I call this preparation “Stage Zero” to emphasize that it’s not an optional extra. Setting up the right conditions for your meditation practice to go well is an essential and integral part of your meditation practice.

In a way it would be much better if we called Stage Zero “Stage One” instead. That way there would be less of a tendency to think that you can drop the preparation and just plunge into the practice. Unfortunately, that would be rather confusing, since the stage of counting after the out breath is universally known as Stage One.

“Stage Zero” as a Practice

standing meditation

You can practice Stage Zero as a practice in its own right, spending anywhere from five to twenty minutes on this exercise, or you can go straight into Stage 1 after working through the material below.

Start with adjusting your posture

As you learn the mindfulness of breathing meditation practice, it’s important that you find ways to sit comfortably so that you won’t be distracted by physical pain.

We have a guide to meditation posture on this site that you might find useful, but here are a few pointers:

  • Adjust your seat height so that your back is relatively straight, and also relaxed
  • Make sure that your hands are supported
  • Relax your shoulders, letting them roll back in order to open your chest
  • Adjust the angle of your head, so that the back of your neck is relaxed, long and
    open, and your chin is slightly tucked in
  • Let your eyes close

You’re now ready to begin working on body awareness and relaxation.

Take your awareness through your body, from your feet to your head, becoming aware of every muscle, and relaxing it as much as you can. If your awareness wanders, just come back to your body. Once you’ve scanned through your entire body from your feet to your head, then be aware of your body as a whole, continuing to make sure your posture is open and upright, and that you are continuing to relax.

Then notice the sensations of your breathing — right in the center of your experience. Let your awareness fill your breathing, and let your breathing fill your awareness. Just keep on bringing your awareness back into your breathing, and let the relaxed rhythmic movements of your breathing have a calming effect on your mind.

You can continue doing this for several minutes, or you can go onto Stage 1 of the practice, which involves counting your exhalations.

“Stage Zero” – the Importance Intention

walking meditation

One thing that you can add to your preparation for meditation in stage zero is a sense of purpose or intention. As you go through your body, relaxing, and as you become aware of what you are bring into your meditation practice, you might become aware that there are certain things that you particularly need to work on in your session of practice.

You might notice, for example, that there is a lack of joy and inspiration in your experience. Maybe you have a tendency to get annoyed right now. Maybe you’re tired. Or perhaps it’s just that your mind is a little restless and needs to be calmed down. It’s good to develop a clear intention of what you want to achieve in such circumstances. Your intention might be not to take yourself too seriously, to stay with every moment of the breathing, to let yourself enjoy the meditation, or to make sure that you maintain a good posture thoughout your session.

You can take this awareness of purpose into the other stages of your practice, monitoring from time to time what progress you’ve made in maintaining your intention. Perhaps the first approach you take doesn’t seem to be working, and you need to try another method. Or perhaps what you are doing works very well – perhaps even too well! You may try to calm your restless mind and be so successful that your mind becomes rather dull and sleepy. At that point you may wish to change your purpose for a more suitable one – in this case perhaps you could adopt the goal of balancing relaxation and energy.

Having intentions like these can revolutionize your meditation practice as you learn the mindfulness of breathing meditation. It’s all too easy for our practice to become stale and mechanical, as we unmindfully use some technique that was once appropriate but isn’t now.

Having clear goals is another way of bringing more mindfulness into our practice. It helps us to become not only aware of what emotional, mental, and physical states are present in any given moment, but keeps us alive to where we are going and, very importantly, whether what we are doing is taking us to where we want to go.

What’s Next?

what's the next step as you learn the mindfulness of breathing meditation practice

Having settled in, the next step is for us to let the mind settle on the breathing and for us to begin counting our breaths. You can learn more about this by following this link to our guidelines for stage one of the mindfulness of breathing practice.

You can also learn more about this meditation practice in the following books:

95 Comments. Leave new

  • I have been practising sitting, for a month, continuously, but my concentration, seems even less than when I first started…

    Reply
    • Well, one thing is that you may merely be noticing your distractedness more, Danny. We can be unaware we’re unaware we have a problem! We are terrible judges of our own distractedness, and of our own progress. So just keep going.

      Another thing is that life events can trump (at least in the short term) what we do in meditation. If there’s a lot of emotionally distracting stuff going on in life compared to before you started to meditate, it can easily make you more distracted than you were. Again, just keep going.

      Also, it’s possible to meditate in ways that do make things worse. We can try to meditate in a way that’s controlling and that causes inner rebellion. This is just one of those teething problems where we need to learn to be more appropriate in our effort, and to be more receptive and sensitive to what we’re actually going. And this—surprise surprise— sorts itself our if we just keep practicing!

      Reply
  • is it beneficial for students?

    Reply
  • Bodhipaksa–Many thanks for your quick response and also for setting me straight on this basic concept of meditation. Also want to say thanks for your well organized, informative and clearly written site. -M

    Reply
    • You’re welcome. Misconceptions about meditation are inevitable at the beginning. I’m glad you like the way the site is laid out.

      Reply
  • Bodhipaksa–I have just come upon your site, which I’m reading in conjunction with Mindfulness in Plain English and Meditation for Beginners. I’ve been meditating up to half an hour a day for only a couple of weeks so I’m not far along at all. A very basic question for you: Once I bring my mind back to the breath, should I try not to think about anything–in other words, try to clear all thought from my mind and just focus on the breath? That’s what I’ve been doing, and I can’t do that for very long before another memory or thought about the future intrudes, which I note then return to the breath. But is the object to try to empty the mind while I focus on the breath? Somehow I don’t feel like that’s correct. Maybe not incorrect but I’m having a problem with knowing what to think and feel when I drive those thoughts from my mind and concentrate on the breath. Probably impossible to tell if I’m doing it right or notice any changes after only such a short period of practice. But I am enjoying the ritual of daily meditation and the time seems to pass quickly. Many thanks for your answer.

    Reply
    • Hi, Michael.

      I’d suggest that the way you’re thinking about this isn’t helpful in some regards. For example, we don’t try to “drive thoughts from your mind” or “empty the mind.” The first is an act of self-violence, and the second is a kid of pop-culture misunderstanding of what meditation is about. When you realize you’ve been caught up in some kind of inner drama, just let go of the thinking and return to paying attention to your breathing. Don’t try not to think; just pay attention to your breathing. It’s highly likely that a few seconds later a thought will come up, and that’s OK. It’s just what happens. If you can, stay with the sensations of the breathing and let the thought pass without getting caught up in it. If you do find you get sucked into the thought, then when your mindfulness reappears, then again just let go of the thinking and return to paying attention to the physical sensations of the breathing.

      I hope this is helpful!

      Reply
  • I feel more and more relaxed and the positive evergy is flowing like a water.
    Questions:
    Is it that if we meditate for longer time it would be more helpful and fast to get into the trance state?
    When do we get into the trance state or deep relaxation state?
    Is it really safe to meditate at home because if we got into the deep relaxation state or trance state what will happen. Will we freak out ?

    Reply
    • The term “trance state” is very unhelpful, Suyog. Meditative states are “flow states” where meditation becomes effortless and enjoyable. It sounds like you may already be there. It is possible to go deeply into those states, and all kinds of things can happen when you do. The important thing is just to accept and enjoy whatever’s arising, as best you can.

      Reply
  • I’m just a beginner and have tried to sit comfortably legs crossed but as I’m not very flexible it is too uncomfortable! Is it possible to meditate lying down?

    Reply
  • […] and perhaps a sidewinder habit to mention here, I began meditating. I started practising back to breath meditation each morning. This daily practice is akin to recording your time, only for your mind. It […]

    Reply
  • […] feel like bringing a powerful relaxation technique to bear at other times of the day – practice breathing mindfully. Focusing on your breathing can help you stave off an outburst or a flood of tears by re-centering […]

    Reply
  • Bodhipaksa ive tried to meditate but it seems nomatter how badly i want to meditate my mind wont rest any tips on how to calm my mind?

    Reply
    • First I’d suggest that you just relax about the idea of making progress. You say your mind won’t rest, but actually what you’re saying is that you’d like progress to be happening faster than it is. If you just keep letting go of your trains of thought when you notice that you’ve been distracted, that will make a difference. Most of the change that’s happening is taking place out of sight, in your subconscious. Often people don’t even notice the change when it does become observable (for example it’s common for other people to notice that we seem calmer, when we ourselves haven’t noticed any change).

      So just keep going. Just meditate, and don’t be concerned about progress. The progress will take care of itself.

      Reply
  • […] and that part’s great and very practical. (For instance, she describes the basics of mindfulness of breathing meditation and loving-kindness meditation.) But perhaps even more usefully, she also writes about living […]

    Reply
  • zainab kamara
    May 16, 2013 6:29 pm

    i felt a bit of relief i was all stress out but when i did the breathing exercise i feel that calmness in me

    Reply
  • Hi Bodhipaksa,
    Firstly thank u for your continual support. Its been some time I’ve been practising mindfulness of breathing. Although Im unable to focus for a long time but still I’ve begun to experience some results: more control over oneself, the ability to remain balanced in unpleasant situations.
    However, many a times while meditation, I have lusty thoughts and sometimes its very tempting to indulge in those fantasies. Infact till now I’ve been struggling with a sexual obsession. In the past I’ve tried to artificially supress those (and infact even now subconsciously it is done) but it doesn’t work and I start getting a headache whenever I attempt to supress my sexual desires. I wanted to know your opinion on how should i deal with these thoughts. I would very much appreciate your advise.
    Thanks again, Deep.

    Reply
    • Hi, Deep.

      This is the kind of thing that’s probably best dealt with in a face-to-face discussion with a therapist. Reaching out on the Internet is a good sign that you’re open to change, but you’re going to have to take a further step. To face up fully to your feelings about this area you need talk to someone in depth about what you’re experiencing.

      All the best,
      Bodhipaksa

      Reply
  • Hello Bodhipaksa, Thank you for your reply. How much time do you recommend one to practice? And is there any special time of the day which is ideal? I travel daily almost 2 hours in the bus and I try to practice it in the bus. Is that ok ?

    Thanks.

    Reply
    • Hi, Deepanshu.

      How much time you spend depends on your needs, desires, and schedule. Any amount of meditation is better than none, and generally more meditation is better than a shorter amount, but many people struggle with finding the time to meditate for more than 20 minutes. Forty is better if ou can manage it.

      Practicing in the bus can work very well, although I’d recommend not making that the only time you meditate.

      Reply
  • Hi, Deepanshu.

    Mindfulness helps with any kind of obsessive thinking. And it can be practiced alone, and in fact much of our practice has to be alone, but it’s also beneficial to practice with others. We gain support and encouragement from others, and we can also learn from their experience.

    Reply
  • First of all thank you very much for putting this valuable information on meditation online. I had some questions regarding this meditation:
    1. Does it help in curing obsession with certain types of thoughts.
    2. Should we practice it in the association of others or we can do it alone as well?

    Thanks again for your kindness.

    Reply
  • Is stage zero a period of mOb?

    Also thank you for the running analogy Bodipaksa. Having been a serious runner that is a perfect analogy.

    Reply
    • “Stage Zero” is one of my things, Clarice. The “official” instructions for MoB start with Stage One, but everyone recognizes that there’s important work to be done in order to be ready to start Stage One. I call it “Stage Zero” so that it’s not thought about as an optional extra, but as an integral part of the practice.

      Reply
  • I just wanted to thank you so much for this webpage, it is so helpful, so interesting… I have been practicing mindfulness of breathing for 6 years now, and even though I have read many books about it and practice in the local dojo, I felt I needed “something more”, like a study course, to help me deepen my practice. So I started reading one article per day and reflected on that during the day, and so far (and I am just beginning) it has been so helpful, I feel I really found what I needed…
    so Thank you very much for all you give through wildmind! :)
    Gassho

    Reply
  • Hello,

    I am just a beginner and I want to know the frequency for meditating with the stage zero and also for how long. Because if i have meditated for only 10 minutes I start dozing off and think 10 minutes are ok for the initial level.

    Reply
    • If your doing just this, then 10 minutes is fine. But build up the time as you add more stages. And daily practice, or close to daily, is good as well.

      Reply

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