The Mindfulness of Breathing Meditation Practice

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:

Recording of the Full Meditation Practice

By clicking on the player below, you can listen to a guided meditation that will lead you through the full four stages of the practice. There are also shorter forms of the practice in the rest of this structured guide to meditation.

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.

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, 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

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 x, you have to provide the conditions that allow x to arise. There are no short cuts.

The preparation that we do in 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

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

  • adjust your cushion 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 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

One thing that you can add to your preparation for meditation in stage zero is the cultivation of 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.

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. You can set an intention of finding a way to enjoy your practice more, or of calming your mind.

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 moving towards your goals. 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 goals like these can revolutionize your meditation practice. It’s all too easy for our meditation 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.

Having set ourselves up, the next step is for us to let the mind settle on the breathing and for us to begin counting our breaths.