One of the most common questions that comes up for early practitioners is about meditation objects. This will be the first in a series of posts intended to clarify confusion about what we pay attention to when we’re practicing mindfulness meditation.
Because folks are generally introduced to mindfulness through the object of the breath, they may assume that meditation is nothing but paying attention to breathing. But in the most general terms, our intention with mindfulness is simply to return our attention to the present: to recognize, feel and observe our present time experience, as opposed to being lost in the habitual mental activities of planning, remembering, playing out scenes, ruminating, etc. Any time we intentionally place our attention in the present, observing and feeling some aspect of what’s happening with us right now, we’re being mindful. You can use any subjective experience, or “object,” to connect with the present: the sensations of breath or body, hearing sounds, even emotions and thoughts can become objects of mindfulness, as our skill develops. The point is to be aware of something, rather than unaware, lost in thought.
The analogous terms mindfulness meditation and mindfulness practice refer to training ourselves be mindful & present more often, which involves repetition, like every other kind of training. We repeatedly, mentally extract our attention from being caught up in our thinking, and return it to simply feeling and observing our present experience, moment after moment. This training involves, primarily, remembering to do it! Remembering to recognize the present moment, which can be a hard thing to do when we’re lost in our mental worlds– planning for the future, reliving scenes from the past, or just wandering around in the endless stream of discursive thought. It doesn’t really matter what object we recognize in the present, but choosing a single “class” of object to practice with (like the breath) can support skillful training, which is why “single object” meditation is such an important and common practice.
Why Choose A Single Object?
Choosing one “class” of object to attend to and sticking with it for a period of time can be helpful at the beginning, whether it’s the beginning of our practice life, or the beginning of a practice period (even if we’re experienced practitioners). By repeatedly returning our attention to this one object, we train our attention to be steady and our minds to be present, and we cultivate concentration, the collectedness of mind that comes from momentum of mindfulness. Choosing one object to practice with keeps our intention simple, so we always know what to do and where to place our attention when it has strayed. Sometimes the mental stories we get caught up in can be agitating and obsessive, so it’s helpful to have a simple intention for practice at those times.
The sensations of breath are a convenient training object, because they’re always happening, and because they happen in the body, which helpfully frees our attention from where it’s usually stuck—in our minds. You can choose to place your attention anywhere in your body where you feel the breath—the sensations of the belly rising and falling; or the chest or back stretching & releasing; or the air moving in and out your throat, or nostrils. Choose whichever sensations are most easy and even pleasant for you to feel, and make this spot in your body your “home base” for practice; where you return your attention after it’s strayed, which it will, a lot! Don’t worry about that; remember practice is about repetition. It’s through repeatedly returning our attention to the breath (or other object) that momentum of attention, or sustained attention builds up.
A Note on Effort
The effort we expend in practice is the effort to remember to come back to the present; it’s an effort of persistence rather than the striving, pushing, “gritting your teeth” kind of effort that we’re familiar with in sports and other achievement-based endeavors. All of those kinds of effort will have the opposite effect we want in meditation; they will tense and agitate the mind and body, which actively works against steadyingour attention. Mindfulness practice involves diligence rather than strain. We apply a relaxed, patient effort of perseverance and repetition. When we commit to relaxed diligence, momentum of mindfulness (more continuous attention) will build on its own.
Try using breath sensations as an object:
- if you’re a beginner, just learning how to practice
- when your mind is restless, spaced out, or obsessively lost in thinking, planning, remembering, etc.
- any time you feel too much in your head (ie, when there’s a lot going on in your life that you can’t stop thinking about)
- when you feel tense and stressed out
- when you want to calm and ground yourself, as when emotionally upset, overwhelmed or multitasking
As always, these practice suggestions are meant to be tried out for yourself, to really feel the outcomes experientially. Everyone has unique conditioning and will respond differently to the various meditation techniques. We find out what works for us through trial and error, experimentation, curiosity and the willingness to make mistakes! In fact, there are no mistakes in meditation practice, there is simply mindful observation, and that observation will clearly show us what’s helpful and unhelpful, under the current conditions. We learn how to practice by practicing. So enjoy and have fun! The next post in this series will discuss using sound as a meditation object.