One meditation technique that you can use to reset your ability to pay attention is to take 10 mindful breaths with no thinking. That’s it. No sitting for 20 minutes or 30 minutes. No having your foot fall asleep. You can do it sitting, standing, or–my favorite–lying down. You know, you could really go down a wormhole with all the different mindfulness and meditation techniques, and this one really distills it all for me into one very simple mission.
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That said, it may be simple, but it’s not necessarily easy
And that’s why I suggest starting with just ONE mindful breath, and gradually, over time, working you way up to 10 breaths. Because if you can do something once, you can replicate it and build on it. But if you try to do something big and fall short, you might just write it off as a possibility and give up. But more on this in a moment.
I’ve been using this technique since reading about in the book Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet by Buddhist monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh, whom we lost last year, moment of silence.
The book also has significant contributions by two of Hanh’s teachers and disciples, and the passage I’m about to read was written by Sister True Dedication, who is talking about a time when she was meditating and her old habitual sense of despair came up out of nowhere.
She decided to do 10 mindful breaths, and here’s what she says happened:
“Lying on my back, hands on my belly, drawing my concentration to my breathing, the strength of mindfulness required felt like I was tethering not just one wild horse but a hundred. I counted along my fingers and had to start at zero again and again and again. Finally, through sheer stubbornness I was able to do it: ten breaths without thinking. I sat up drained, relieved, and vividly present. It had taken almost an hour.”
OK, back to me again. That sounds really hard, right? So hard that maybe it’s not worth it?
Well listen to what happened next:
“My next thought was, ‘Right, the problem. What was the problem again?’ To my surprise, the whole landscape of my perception had changed. The situation looked and felt completely different–and all the possible solutions were there, clear as day. I was shocked. It was the first time I realized that there can be moments when it’s far better to trust my breathing than to trust my mind.”
I just loved that. Because we tend to think that attention is all mind-focused. But it is definitely affected by your body. So often times, asking the mind to quiet down so you can listen to the body changes both what you decide to pay attention to and how you see the things you’ve been trying to focus on.
This again is from Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet:
“Being present, and calmly embracing the feeling in the body, gradually gives rise to growing compassion, as well as clarity and courage about what we can do and how we can respond.”
Back to me:
In other words, by paying attention to your body as it breathes, you can better pay attention to your life.
What makes counting out 10 mindful breaths so powerful?
First, something about counting the breaths is comfortingly concrete. You don’t have to wonder what to do, ever–and you’ve known how to count to 10 since you were in diapers. But, getting to ten is kinda ridiculously hard. Which forces you to corral your attention and put it on what’s happening in your body, and feeling the belly inflate and deflate with each breath. I must confess, I often find it hard to complete even one breath this way. So 10 is a really nice goal, but just know that you most likely will have to work up to that and that is A OK.
But honestly, while sometimes it will feel hard to pay attention to your breathing
The hardest part is deciding to step away from whatever you are doing and give it a go. It’s soooooo harrrrrd sometimes to let yourself just be in your experience as a human being in this moment. There’s so much to be done! So remember, by choosing to take the time to reset your attention with as many mindful breaths as you can muster is a warrior’s choice; a hero’s choice. It’s like you’re the character in a movie who decides it’s time to face the scary thing head on–we always cheer for those characters, so imagine a crowd cheering for you as you do it.
I find that when I decide to focus on my breath instead of the many many thoughts that are exploding like popcorn kernels in my head, it almost feels like sticking your face in the water when you are snorkeling. It immerses you in a quieter, more interior plane of existence that is super soothing, even if you might also be a little bit scared of some creepy sea creature rising up out of the depths. When you can stick with the breath, it’s like a life preserver.
Even if all you can manage is one good breath without thinking, it’s still mega helpful
I attended a talk by meditation teacher and author of many books Sharon Salzberg and she told us, “Even when you think nothing’s happening, something very good is happening.” I have clung to those words in the years since, I hope they are comforting to you too!
And maybe, with practice, you can work up to 10. Frankly, I’ve plateaued at about three breaths before I’m off to a million other ideas, but I’m working on it. Hey, it’s good to have somewhere to go!
Daily Tiny Assignment
Your tiny assignment is this: the very next time you find yourself agitated about something, notice that your attention has gotten hooked by something unpleasant and then decide to take as many mindful breaths as you can muster–paying attention to how that breath feels in your body the whole way through.
Have fun snorkeling! And come back tomorrow, when I’m talking about how to raise your awareness of the things you aren’t paying attention to.