Often when teaching yoga or breathing meditation, students approach with questions on “being good” (or bad) at meditation. How do I get better at it? seems to be the general theme. It’s a tough question to field, because, the truth is that there’s nothing to get “better at” or “be good at.” That’s the whole point of breathing meditation. It’s a simple act of being present. Probably for the first time our day or perhaps lives, we don’t have to do anything. We just be.
How I’ve been responding to the question “How do I get better at meditation?” has not really been as effective as I would like. So, naturally, I thought I’d write about it in hopes that some better and concise response would arise.
There are so many different kinds of meditations and practices, but one that I keep coming back to in my classes is breathing meditation or, as the yogis call it, pranayama breath-work. The reason the breath is so important is that it provides us a mechanism that we can choose to control and also one we don’t need to control.
Whether we think about breathing or not, our life force is intelligent enough to keep the breath moving. The breath is a source of life, of energy and can tell us a lot about ourselves. Hold your breath and the body reacts viscerally. Breathe deeper and the body calms down. So by focusing on it, especially during breathing meditation, we begin to observe how the mind and body functions together. There’s no good, bad, right, or wrong. There is only quiet observation, like a tiger stalking its prey.
Are the mind and body separate?
It’s a common belief that the mind and body are separate. It’s another common belief that to be “good at meditation,” you must be able to control or stop your thoughts. I’m not sure where these beliefs came from, but they are not grounded in any logic or science. The function of our brains is to think. Why would we want to stop this? To stop our brains is to, well, die. Instead, we may want to focus our brains a bit more and choose more wisely how deep we want to go down certain rabbit holes.
Breathing meditation helps us focus and concentrate on one process of the physical body so that we have a means to observe how the mind interacts with it. As a result, it appears that you are actively linking mind and body; but the two do not exist separate from each other, even if it sometimes feels that way.
Meditation as a brain administrator
From the observations gained during breathing meditation, you can decipher patterns, feel sensations, and start to broaden individual awareness. Meditation creates space for the subtle body. In other words, you allow yourself to hyper-focus on subtle aspects of the physical and mental being in order to learn about your more subtle reactions to circumstance – even if those circumstances take place 100% within your own head.
In essence, instead of “how do I get better at meditation,” the true question becomes:
What is my reaction to my own existence?
Oh snap! Now we’re getting deeper.
Throughout the day, we are collecting information from work, friends, family, thoughts, plans, memories, desires, fears, expectations, needs, etc. That’s a lot of stuff shaking around in such a small, but significant area. Through breathing meditation, the dust has an opportunity to settle, so to speak.
You can think of breathing meditation as your admin work, an administrator for your brain. The brain needs to file away some of this stuff so that it doesn’t show up and negatively impact other parts of the body or psyche. There’s a reason that a lot of emotions huddle around the hip area, but that is another blog post entirely.
Breathing meditation as a practice
Just like working a muscle, you practice meditation to strengthen your focus and ultimately achieve those wild benefits that everyone talks about, such as inner peace, relaxation, decreased anxiety, better sleep, etc. But just like working a muscle, doing it once won’t immediately get the benefits. It will get some, but in order to consistently grow and be healthy the muscle must be worked regularly. And small achievements harbor large gains. What a simple five minutes can do is absolutely amazing.
Breathing meditation can also be incorporated into daily life. For example, by simply concentrating on the breath while you go about your day increases awareness, mindfulness, and understanding of the self. This kind of meditation doesn’t have to be constricted to the confines of sitting, although this is a much more focused and easier way of doing it.