Stage 1 of the Mindfulness of Breathing: Letting Go With the Out-Breath

Stage One of this practice involves counting our out-breaths. We do this by counting, silently, just after the end of the exhalation. I’ll say more about that in a moment.

Before we start on Stage 1, it’s helpful to do some preparation — what I call “Stage Zero,” which you can read about here. Stage Zero involves setting up and settling into your meditation posture, then taking your awareness through your body, letting go of any tensions as best you can. To help you do that most effectively, you might want to check out our posture guidelines, then come back and read what’s next.

Okay, now we’re sitting comfortably, we’ll begin…

Sometimes it can be beneficial to take a few deep, long, breaths, or to breath more fully using the abdomen. This is done to encourage the body and mind to slow down. But if this is done it’s just for a few breaths, after which we let the breathing return to a natural rhythm. This is the only time we control the breathing.

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Once you’ve taken a tour of your whole body, begin to notice in particular the physical sensations of your breathing. Let yourself become absorbed in the sensations of the breathing that accompany the breath flowing in and out of your body.

This includes not just the experience of the breath — the contact your body makes with the air flowing in your passageways — but any sensation anywhere that’s related to this. That includes the movements of muscles, joints, and bones

Notice how the sensations are always changing.

This meditation is not a breathing exercise, and we don’t control the breath in any way, simply letting it flow naturally in and out. Generally we inhale and exhale through the nose, unless perhaps the nose is blocked.

It’s natural for there to be a slight pause between the end of the in breath and the start of the exhalation, and a slightly longer pause between the end of the out breath and the start of the in breath. Again, we allow the breath to flow naturally, and there’s no question of deliberately holding the breath or controlling it in any way.

Then begin counting (internally) after every out-breath:

Breathe in – breathe out – 1
Breathe in – breathe out – 2
Breathe in – breathe out – 3
Breathe in – breathe out – 4
Breathe in – breathe out – 5

… and so on until you reach ten. If you get to ten, start again at one.

If your mind wanders, just come back to experiencing the physical sensations of the breath, and begin counting again.

Keep following the breath, and counting, for at least five minutes.

Really notice the qualities of the out-breathing. Notice the sense of letting go, the downward movement in the body, the feeling of relaxation as your body releases, and perhaps even a sense of mental calming.

Bring as much patience into the process as possible. It’s normal for a lot of thoughts to arise, and from time to time you’ll completely forget you’re supposed to be following your breath. Distraction is a normal part of the meditation process.

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

Exploring Stage 1

Just tried the first stage of the Mindfulness of Breathing?

Kind of anxious about getting on to stage two?

Okay. Why not consolidate what you’ve already learned, rather than rushing on to do the whole practice as quickly as possible? Heck, the chances are you want to learn to meditate because life is so rushed and hectic, so why not start to relax. What’s the rush? Hang loose!

Try doing the first stage of the practice for a few days. Maybe even try to do it more than once every day. Why not take a few minutes now to plan exactly when you’re going to do it?

I suggest you try five to ten minutes in the morning, and the same in the evening, just before you go to bed. Or maybe a few minutes on your lunch-break? There’s no right or wrong time to meditate, so see what suits you.

So try that for maybe three days, and then come back and learn the second stage. Give that a few days (doing both stages) and then come back again. And so on.

You can also think about touching base with your breathing at various times throughout the day. This could be as simple as taking one full, mindful breath in between activities. Or you might stay in touch with your breathing while you’re having a conversation or listening to a presentation. Instead of sitting on the train or bus, letting your mind wander, or (since we don’t like inactivity these days) checking your text messages, try just paying attention to your breathing. If you’re walking — even if it’s just from the car to the building in which you work, or from your office desk to the bathroom — pay attention to your breathing. The breathing is always there for you to notice. And noticing it will always help calm your mind, at least a little.

Play around with the out-breath. Any time you become aware of the breathing during the day, explore the qualities of the out-breath. Notice how the body lets go every time you exhale. Notice how emotions like relief and contentment relate to exhaling.

While you’re exploring stage one, you can try to answer any questions you have by exploring the site, and explore the links on this page that deal with stage one.

What Does This Practice Do?

In the short term, the Mindfulness of Breathing practice helps us to become calmer and (rather paradoxically) to become more energized and refreshed.

In the long term, it helps us to develop more awareness so that we have more freedom to choose what our responses are going to be in any given situation. This means, for example, that we can find ourselves in a situation that would normally make us anxious, but we can choose instead to cultivate patience and calmness.

Practicing mindfulness is enormously enriching. Instead of being half-aware of what we’re doing, we can fully and richly experience every moment of our lives. The mindfulness that we develop in this practice will help us to enjoy our food more, will help us to concentrate better at work, and will help us to be more present when we’re talking to our friends. And many people who do this practice last thing at night say that it helps them to sleep and that their dreams are richer.

Mindfulness helps us develop the ability to pay sustained attention, and this is valuable in many ways. Ultimately it’s because we’re able to pay sustained attention to our experience that we’re able to gain spiritual insight. Without this ability we simply skim over the surface of our experience without really learning anything. With it we learn more and more about how to become happier and more fulfilled.

What’s the Counting For?

The counting has a number of really useful functions (almost as useful as the breathing, really!).

It’s very easy just to “space out” instead of actually meditating. When we space out we get distracted without realizing it. The counting helps to give us a more objective sense of how much of the time we’re distracted, and how much we’re remaining aware.

Counting allows us to “measure” how long we’re maintaining our awareness. Sometimes it’s hard to stay focused on the breath even for three breaths. Other times we can be aware for several cycles of ten breaths. So you can tell if it’s a “good day” or a “bad day.”

Counting gives us something to aim for. It’s good to have goals. If you’re getting distracted before getting to the tenth breath then you can try hard to reach ten. If you make it that far then you can try to get to ten again. Without the counting it’s hard to have any sense of what you’re working towards.

The numbers help us to see if we’re making progress. If you put the effort into your meditation practice then you’ll see results. But how can you see results if there’s nothing to measure them by?

The numbers subtly alter your perception of the breath. When you count after the out-breath then that’s the part of the breathing process that you’re most aware of. So in the first stage of the practice you’re more aware of breathing out. We’ll talk more about this after you’ve done the second stage of the practice.

Keep Getting Distracted?

Everyone gets distracted during meditation — even people who’ve been meditating for years. You’re in good company.

The first stage in creating a beautiful garden is to realize how many weeds there are to be cleared up. If you feel a bit daunted by the sheer volume of trivia that your mind seems capable of creating then it’s good to remember that you need to know it’s there before you can do anything about it. Also bear in mind that dealing with it will bring you happiness.

It’s as if you’ve just inherited a beautiful garden, which is full of weeds. You can’t just pretend that the weeds aren’t there — you have to do something about it. With a real garden you could always just get rid of it or hire someone to look after it. With your mind you don’t have that luxury. Leave it alone and it will just get worse. The best thing to do is get started as soon as possible on clearing those mind-weeds.

If you ever feel frustration with your distractions, then remember that when you realize you’ve been distracted in meditation you have a choice — you can choose to exercise patience and gentleness with yourself. Getting mad or getting despondent will only make things worse. It’s a bit like kicking the dandelions because you’re annoyed with them; all you’re doing is spreading the seeds even further.

So chill, and patiently continue working at clearing the weeds from your wild mind.

The moment that you realize you’ve been distracted is actually a very valuable one. This is the point at which our natural tendency may be to get annoyed, or despondent, or frustrated. But it’s also an opportunity for us to practice patience, and to be accepting of imperfection, and to be kind to ourselves. And it’s bringing those qualities into being that’s as important, in the long run, as returning to the object of the meditation practice.

It can be reassuring as well to know that there are tools that help us reduce the level of distraction we experience. Simply returning our attention to the breath every time we realize the mind has wandered is very effective in the long term. Counting the breaths is another way to bring more stability to the mind in meditation. We’re not helpless. In fact we have all we need in order to calm the mind. We just need to keep making a gentle effort.

If the Numbers Won’t Stay Put

Many people find that the number won’t stay put. It merges with the out-breath so that you’re sort of exhaling the numbers. I think that’s fine.

The first stage is more connected with the out-breath anyway, and the fact that the number has a way of integrating itself into the exhalation just reinforces that association.

It’s all too easy, especially when first learning meditation, to find that we get caught up in wanting to do things “perfectly.” We look at our current experience and compare it unfavorably to some imagined state that we tell ourselves we “should” be experiencing, and of course we feel unhappy. There’s no quicker way to make ourselves miserable than to make unfavorable comparisons between how we think we are and how we think we should be.

So we need to learn to let go and to accept that sometimes things don’t happen the way we expect them to.

In fact it’s probably a good idea, when something like this happens — the numbers not going where we expect them to go — to take a sense of gentle curiosity into the experience. Perhaps the fact that the numbers are merging into the outbreath (which is all about letting go) is helping us to meet a need to let go more.

Having said that, I think it’s good to work gently at getting the number to go where it’s “supposed” to go — in the space between the out-breath and the in-breath. There are good reasons for this that we’ve gone into elsewhere. But don’t force it. Be gentle. Be patient.

Timing the Stages

Beginners often assume that timing how long they are meditating for will be very distracting. They sometimes wonder if they should use an alarm clock, or some other mechanical method.

Actually, an alarm clock or beeper might be rather jarring and unpleasant. Most meditators just have a clock or watch sitting in front of them. They’ll open their eyes from time to time and see how long they’ve been sitting.

It really isn’t a great distraction. Just make sure to place your clock or watch somewhere that you can see it without having to change the angle of your head or move your eyes. Also choose a clock or watch that doesn’t tick, and that has a face large enough for you to see without straining.

There are also some specialist timers and apps available that make it even easier to keep track of the time without having even to open your eyes.

When You Find You’re Controlling Your Breathing

I recently received an email from a visitor to Wildmind. Ken asked:

When practicing breathing, I find that I can not seem to not control it to some
extent.

How can I feel more comfortable with the breath and prevent myself from
controlling it?

Should I just be aware of the fact that I am doing this and continue on?

This is a very common experience. We get so used to being in control, or thinking that we’re in control, or simply thinking that we ought to be in control, that the conscious mind starts to interfere with the act of breathing — something that’s normally handled unconsciously by the autonomic nervous system.

For most animals the breath is controlled entirely by unconscious parts of the brain. Dogs and cats don’t think about their breathing as far as we know. In a few creatures — such as whales and dolphins — breathing is entirely under conscious control and they have to take each breath as a deliberate action. These animals have a clever way of sleeping with only one half of the brain at a time so that they don’t drown. In humans breathing mostly takes place unconsciously (we don’t stop breathing when we fall asleep) but we can also take conscious control of our breathing when we need to. This is a handy talent — it means for example that we can hold the breath when we’re submerging ourselves in water or walking past an obnoxious odor, and that we can consciously take deep breaths when necessary.

In mindfulness meditation we don’t generally aim to control the breath consciously. Certainly there are times when we may wish to do this for short periods — for example taking a few deep breaths at the start of the practice in order to settle the mind, or slowing the breath when we realize that we’ve become excited — but the words to emphasize here are “short periods.” We only control the breath for a specific purpose and for few breaths, and then we let the breathing return to autonomic control.

Ideally we’re simply letting the breath flow in and out of the body at its own pace, and the job of the conscious mind is to observe the sensations of the breath. Ideally. This doesn’t always work out as we’ve planned, and sometimes beginners to meditation find that they’re controlling the breath. In its mildest forms there may be a slight sense of stiffness or awkwardness about the breathing, but in more extreme cases the muscles involved in the breathing, such as the intercostals (the muscles between the ribs) may become very sore indeed. People sometimes hyperventilate and feel dizzy. None of this is usually dangerous, but it certainly doesn’t help our meditation practice.

So what can we do if we find that we develop a habit of controlling the breath?

As Ken suggested in his email, we can just be aware of the fact that we are controlling the breath and simply carry on with the practice. Eventually if we do this we’re likely to find that we’ve forgotten to control the breath consciously. But this can take a long time and this isn’t a very effective approach.

One time, when I was very new to meditation, I found that I was controlling my breathing. The more I noticed that I was controlling the movements of my ribcage and abdomen, the harder it was to let go and simply breathe. My chest muscles were working against each other and as a result they became very sore. The more sore they became the harder it was to just let go and breathe. I was caught in a vicious cycle.

Luckily I had a creative realization that I didn’t need to focus on my chest at all, and I started to pay more attention to the breath in the nostrils, and particularly to the sensation of the breath as it passed over the rims of the nostrils. It occurs to me now that it’s possibly to be aware of the breath in the nostrils but not to control it there. Anyway, I noticed that the more I directed my attention to the nostrils, the less I noticed the pain in my chest. From time to time my focus would slip down to my aching ribcage and I’d sense the discomfort there, and this experience became an incentive to notice the nostrils even more keenly. Eventually I became very concentrated indeed and my chest muscles began to relax and return to unconscious control.

Another approach that can be very useful is to lighten up by bringing more of a sense of playfulness into our experience. One way to do this is to imagine that you’re floating on warm, buoyant water that’s rising and falling in time with the breath. You can really enjoy the rhythm of the waves as they rise and fall.

A similar approach is to imagine that you’re sitting on a swing that’s moving in time with the breathing. You can call to mind the sense of enjoyment that you may have got from this activity when you were a child, and get a sense of pleasure from the rise and fall.

One thing that’s going on here is that we’re bringing a sense of enjoyment and playfulness into the practice. This can be very helpful if we tend to take a dry, dutiful, and willful approach to meditation. Another thing that’s happening is that the driving force for the breath is being imaginatively located outside of ourselves, in the waves or in the motion of the swing, and so we’re learning that we don’t have to have conscious control of the breath. Just as the motion of the water or swing is outside ourselves, so the control of the breathing is outside of the conscious mind.

So these are a couple of approaches to dealing with the difficulty of simply observing the breath without consciously controlling it. There are no doubt other approaches but these are ones that my students have found to be most useful.

Dealing With Ups and Downs

Diane, one of my students, reported the following:

“This morning it was not as easy to concentrate; I had to make more of an effort to keep myself on track. I handled the situation quite easily, noticing that I was more distracted and being aware that it would take a bit more work today to keep myself out of distraction. I did not judge myself or get scared that my practice is falling apart, just acknowledged that it was not one of my better days and went on from there.”

Your meditation practice will always have its ups and downs. This is inevitable in developing any skill. You’ll have good days and bad days, and at first both good and bad experiences may seem to arrive randomly, as gifts – welcome or unwelcome – of the gods. At first this can be dispiriting. You think you’re doing so well; your meditation was so calm and enjoyable yesterday, and here you are today struggling to count to three and feeling that it’s all hopeless.

Diane’s approach to her ups and downs is exemplary. Instead of getting lost in the distracted, reactive states of self-pity or fear, she simply observed what was happening, realizing that the conditions in her mind, for whatever reason, had changed, and that the kind of effort she would have to make had also changed. Change is unavoidable. Life gives us that challenge. And it isn’t helpful to us to mourn the inevitable or to fight change. We have to learn to embrace change, accept that it is a part of our lives, and then respond as creatively as we can: no condemnation, no self-recriminations, just a patient sense of working with whatever comes up.

As Diane went on to say: “I guess I always got the good and the bad, and perhaps now just have more awareness of my state of mind whatever it may be. I remind myself to be especially gentle with myself, that the ‘bad’ is really no different than the ‘good’, it just is.”

This is an excellent observation. Meditation is, above all, the art of dealing with what is.

What’s Next?

If you’ve explored the first stage of the Mindfulness of Breathing, as described above, you may want to start exploring Stage 2. It’s similar to Stage 1 in that it too involves counting our breaths. Yet it feels very different and has a different effect. You can learn more about Stage 2 of the Mindfulness of Breathing practice by clicking here.

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