Breathing is the first thing you do in life and the last. And you are always doing it. That’s why it is such an effective meditation method to follow the breath- it is always in the moment, a kind of perennially mindful thing. Most of the time it is an entirely unconscious activity. But when you sit and start to follow the breath you start thinking about it, becoming conscious about it.
After a few months of daily sitting I’ve realized that when you’re conscious of your breath you need to learn to breathe naturally, a paradox for an activity that we are completely proficient at doing unconsciously.
When I started to follow the in-breath and out-breath I was making a breath that was easy to follow. A little noisy and more forceful than normal breathing. I’d feel the air moving into my nostrils and down my throat in a little rush and then back out again, over and over. Making the breath more noticeable helped me stay with it even as my noisy mind sought to get my attention away from it. This became even more pronounced when I did walking meditation because we breathe more rapidly and assertively when we’re moving.
I knew from my meditation guide (Tenzin Palmo’s writings) that this was fine and that if I kept coming back to the breath and stuck with the sitting daily that that noisy mind would give way a little to the quiet mind (noisy mind and quiet mind are my terms, not hers) and that my mind in general would get used to the process over time. And it did, with the calmer state coming earlier and the barrage of the noisy mind, with its aches, pains, itches, things I needed to get up and do, little thought stories, etc., becoming a little easier to escape. That escape is the Shamatha stage of meditating, getting to the point where you can observe the thoughts and let them go by getting back to the breathing. The goal there is to calm the sea a bit.
I’ve found that over time my awareness of breathing is changing. This started because of some games I’d play to help stay focused on the breath. I’d count breaths up to one hundred. I’d practice breathing from different places: The solar plexus, the abdomen, the heart/lung, the throat and the third eye. I wasn’t trying to do prana yoga, just using these techniques to take me through a certain amount of time until the mind quieted. Then I could just sit and breath with a single-focused gaze.
But recently I realized that being aware of the breath as it is naturally may be the next step. A quiet, unconcentrated breath without tension. No moment in the throat when the in-breath becomes the out-breath. Just breathing like air moving among trees. I don’t know whether it is the practice or those breath games but is getting easier to simply sit and follow a breath that has no tension. I’m learning to breathe.
This is not some kind of earthshaking revelation but it does give me a means to start towards the second stage of meditation, Vipashyana or insight. You can’t start with this form, you need to be able to let the thoughts go by without overly distracting you from your awareness of the breath, which is a stand-in for the present. Once you start to reach that point you begin to watch the thoughts come and go and to consider who is the watcher? I’m not there yet but I can see the possibility. And I think this natural, quiet breathing is necessary to being able to reach this next awareness.
The purpose of meditation is awakening. The awakening is to realize that the things we desire are nothing more than those thoughts that come and go and that we can live without them and the baggage they carry. The awakening starts with compassion because all sentient beings (however you define that) are needlessly ruled by these desires. As I understand it, desire for things that are beneficial to all is fine but desires that take over our thoughts until they are paramount are not. We wake up and see things as they are, not as we assume they are.