Where should I be noticing the breath?

Often people ask the question, When I’m meditating, where should I be watching the breath?

Usually, what I suggest is to pay attention to the breath where it’s most prominent in your experience. When I’m meditating I usually start off by being aware, for a little while, of all the sensations of the breathing process. I notice the breath where it touches the rims of the nostrils on the way in an out of the body, as it flows up and down the nostrils themselves, in the pharynx (the passage leading down to your windpipe). I notice the chest (both front and back) expanding and relaxing, the shoulders rising and falling, the belly rising and falling. I sometimes even notice slight movements in the arms, and a sense of flow in the legs.

I don’t try to focus on all these sensations at once, of course — that would be overwhelming. Noticing these sensations in meditation is more of a question of “scanning” the breathing process. The focus of my awareness moves around the sensations of the breathing, getting an overall sense of what’s there.

Having scanned the breath I then pull back my awareness, as it were, so that I’m no longer focusing on the individual sensations but getting a sense of the breath as a whole. It’s as if I’ve been scanning a room, looking at items one by one, getting a sense of where and what each one is. Then I relax my gaze, and without trying to focus on one thing in particular I take in the whole room.

When we do this (either looking at a room or watching the breath) we’ll probably notice that one thing in particular stands out. In a room there may be a picture, or a fireplace that is the central point (although more usually it’s a TV, which reminds me of a line from Joey in the sitcom, Friends: “You don’t own a TV? What’s all your furniture pointed at?”) In meditation, usually there will be one sensation that seems more prominent than any other. If it doesn’t, there’s no point sweating over it — I’ll just let my mind settle on whichever sensation it’s drawn to.

That sensation — and it may be the breath flowing up and down the nostrils, or it may be the rise and fall of the abdomen — becomes the place where I let my focus rest during the practice. It’s not that anything else is excluded from my awareness, just that this is the focal point of my inner gaze. Let’s go back to the analogy of a room, when you’re taking in a whole room with your gaze and you’ve let your eyes settle loosely on a focal point in the room. At the center of your visual field is one object (a picture, the fireplace) but you’re also alive to the whole room. Similarly, in meditation I may be generally aware of other aspects of the breath other than the focal point.

There are a couple of instances in which I might consciously choose part of the breath to focus on in meditation that my mind isn’t naturally drawn to. When my mind is very sluggish or when it’s overactive, I may choose to direct my attention in such a way that it brings me back into a more balanced state of mind. When I need to calm my mind it’s helpful to pay attention to sensations lower down in the body, such as the movements in the abdomen. And when my mind is a bit sluggish or dull it’s useful to pay attention to the sensations higher up in the body — for example the movements of the upper chest, or even the sensations of the breath flowing through the passages in the head.

The mind may be drawn to the soothing sensations in the belly when it’s already sluggish, and this or course is very unhelpful. Or it may, when it’s excited, rest on the rather more stimulating sensations high up in the body. And so at such times it’s better to consciously choose to place your focus in such a way that it wil encourage the development of a counteracting mental state — cultivating calm by paying attention lower down in the body, or cultivating alertness by noticing sensations that are more stimulating. But otherwise, it’s a question of paying attention to the sensation that’s most prominent in your experience.

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