What if the Breath Freaks Me Out?

We’re going over anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing) practice right now, but it isn’t for everyone, and it might not work for you all the time.

The breath is usually a great object to rest my attention on, but there have been a few sits for me when I just couldn’t do it because I felt like I wasn’t getting enough air. When that happens, a little panic tends to settle in.

If it isn’t serious, I like trying to sit through it, but sometimes it’s either too much or it just won’t go away. If that’s the case, there’s no reason to keep at it. This is meditation, not Friday night at an S&M club.

One of my friends can’t focus on the breath at all. No matter how many times she tries it, it freaks her out. And that’s fine, the breath is far from our only option.

If the breath doesn’t cut it with you, you can try going to the body right away instead. Some people like focusing on the whole body, just paying attention to what it feels like to sit there in a meditation posture. We’re not trying to feel something, we’re in, “Receiving,” mode. Whatever we feel, we feel.

Over time, we’ll start to naturally move into the other stages of anapanasati. The key is to not wander from limb to limb or to judge sensations as good or bad. Just let things change and concentrate on the whole body or the posture.

We can also keep in the mind overall solidity of the body, sitting there like we’re a fucking mountain or something. Or we can focus on body heat and the temperature of the air on our skin. Not noting it, just experiencing it as it is.

I’ve also had some luck concentrating on my hands, which I tend to put in the Cosmic Mudra, but any position’s fine. With the hands, we can focus on heat and coolness a little more. Just feel the temperature, feel the fingers touch or the hands resting on your lap or knees. If you’re really adventurous, try to be mindful of the space in the mudra (space is part of everything).

The Surangama Sutra also gives the tip of the nose as a meditation object. This one’s difficult because it doesn’t mean going cross-eyed so that you can try to see your nose. It means staring ahead with your eyes partially closed and making focusing on the tip of your nose your intention. Intention controls attention. Even if we can’t see or feel something directly, just the intention to focus on it shifts the mind into a different gear.

If the body just doesn’t do it for you, then a mantra can also sub in for the breath. A few common ones are OM (of course), OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti (Shanti means peace), Namo amituofo, OM mani padme hum, or just Buddha or Buddho.

We can also use a visualization of some kind, and some people turn off the lights and focus on a candle burning in front of them (just make sure you don’t start the house on fire).

Generally, I don’t recommend concentrating on anything external because portability and versatility are two fundamentals of my practice. I can’t bring a candle or a statue of the Buddha with me everywhere I go.

Most of us don’t have the time to sit for 10 hours a day like monastics do, so the easier it is to chose a method that we can carry with us throughout the day.

Metta meditation is another alternative to working with the breath. The principles are the same, except instead of focusing on the breath, we’re focusing on the intention that all beings (including ourselves and people we dislike) be well, free of suffering, joyful, and at peace. We’re sitting and trying to surround ourselves with that intention to the point that well-being, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity seem to fill up the room around us.

You might need to experiment with different meditation objects at first, and that’s fine. But once you find one that works for you, it’s best to stick with it. Don’t be a mad scientist or hungry ghost like me if you can help it.

And just because you’re getting bored or feeling dissatisfied when you sit doesn’t mean you’re using the wrong meditation object. Boredom and dissatisfaction are parts of life, parts of life that we’re dealing with through practice. We can’t deal with them by avoiding them. So if your meditation object works well one or two days in a row, but the third day is a dud, I recommend sticking with on days four and five.

Our state of mind depends on a lot of different factors. Sometimes, well, we’re just bored and that’s all there is to it. The practice is about learning to sit through and live through these kinda moods. When we do that, they get easier to handle and see through.

But, for me, anapanasati isn’t usually boring. Then again, I’m rarely bored in general, so it might be different for you. It takes unspeakably awful things like the Last Jedi to bore me.

Anyway, if the breath doesn’t work for you, there are a lot of different options. Feel free to do your own research.

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