Wise Stillness (Samadhi) 3/4: Don’t Focus on the Breath



In the first two segments of this short series on Wise Stillness, I tried to emphasize two complementary attitudes that support the experience of stillness. The first, as beautifully articulated by Ajahn Brahm’s teaching, is the attitude of allowing and letting go. The second is an appreciation of essentialism, reminding oneself of the explicit value of simplicity.

In this installment and the next, I want to explore a few exercises that will hopefully facilitate a satisfying encounter with stillness.

Standard meditation instructions invariably begin by telling the meditator to focus on something such as the breath. The meditator is told relax with the breath and to notice when the mind has wandered from the breath.  At that point, the meditator is instructed to gently, non-judgmentally bring the attention back to the breath.

Whether it is intended or not, these instructions often instill a certain kind of tension within the meditator, particularly at the moment when they realize that they are no longer with the breath. Very quickly, being with the breath is equated with good meditation. And “wandering mind” is deemed bad meditation.

So try this: Don’t Focus on the Breath!!

When I was a small child, if and when I have gotten into a cranky mood, my parents would deploy a reverse-psychology-type of strategy and issue me an infuriating command: “Ok, Josh, you can be grumpy all you want, but under no circumstances can you smile. There is to be NO SMILING!!.”  I would sit and stew in my ill-humor for a few moments, firmly resolved to maintain a look of genuine irritation, and yet, with every “NO SMILING”, my face would helplessly collapse and betray me: a grin would leak out. At which point, my parents would then double-down on their tactic: “Hey, we said NO SMILING!!” And I would experience a maddening battle of anger-versus-laughter spasming across my face.

Of course, this analogy has it’s limitations, BUT, what if you were to apply the same strategy to your meditation practice. It might look something like this:

1. Invite a sense of receptivity towards everything. Relax within a sense of letting-be. And invite an attitude of “No Specific Agenda” (NSA), ie. Don’t Watch the Breath. Allow sounds, sensations, thoughts and drifting off to be held within an attitude of gentle permission.

2. From time to time, you may notice that the mind spontaneously alights upon the sensations of the breath. If and when that naturally occurs, appreciate the ease of the breath flowing in that very brief moment of noticing.  If it’s inclined to do so, let the mind linger with the breath for just another moment or so, but then return to an attitude of “No Specific Agenda”, ie. Don’t Watch the Breath.

3. By letting up on the intention to ‘anchor’ the mind with the breath, you might just notice that the mind gets a momentary sip of stillness whenever it happens to land spontaneously upon the breath. This is a kind of spontaneous stillness or samadhi. It is fleeting, for sure. But it will give the mind a taste of natural ease. And without the added tension of trying to control things, the mind oftentimes will return to this natural ease more frequently (ie. “you win more bees with honey”). There is an element of operant conditioning here: each time the mind naturally comes to breath, it is positively rewarded with the sweet taste of effortless ease.

So, let me know how this goes. From this kind of spontaneous stillness of being vis a vis the breath, we’ll move into a more panoramic sense of stillness in the next Minute.


Originally published on August 9, 2014