One of the biggest mistakes that a new meditator can make, is to become judgemental about their ability to be mindful.
The scenario is that a meditator is being asked to place their attention on an object, such as the breath. When the mind drifts, the student is to bring the mind back to the breath. However, instead of bringing the mind back, the student starts criticising themself for ‘failing’ to keep the attention on the breath. This is a mistake because the criticising thoughts compound the distraction.
There is a simple counter to this self criticism – it’s kindness. You should apply it proactively. So now the instructions are like this: Place your attention on the breath. When you notice that the mind is no longer on the breath, fill yourself with the quality of kindness. Then, remembering your original intention, ride the kindness back to the breath.
If you find it hard to bring the quality of kindness to life, then practice it. Mindfulness and kindness are the two legs of a beginners’ practice. You need them both, so you can move along.
It seems like mindfulness teachers are obsessed with the breath. They are always telling us to pay attention to it. But it’s the attention rather than the breath that we are developing. So why is the breath always chosen as the object of mindfulness?
The breath is subtle
Most of the time, the breath is noticeable enough that we can pay attention to it, but subtle enough that we can ignore it. This makes it a perfect challenge for training the mind.
Once we have gained some skill with mindfulness, we can also let the breath fall into the background, while we notice the shape of the mind in the current moment. That’s when things start to get really interesting.
The breath is in real time
Since the breath is something we perceive through our senses, our minds are focusing on what is happening in real time. Attending to the body brings us back to the present moment.
The breath is always with us.
The breath is portable. We always carry it around and we never leave it at home.
The breath has a rhythm
When the mind drifts away, breathing is a cycle of events that can eventually remind us that we were meant to be doing something.
The rhythm is just the right frequency to prompt us in the next interval in our distracted thinking. If you miss this breath, there’ll be another one along soon.
The breath is private
No-one has to know what you are doing. You can bring your attention to the breath in a meeting, during an argument, at a bus stop – anywhere.
The breath is essential
No matter how bad things are, the breath is usually available.
As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “If you are breathing, then there is more right with you than wrong with you.”