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3. Following the breath

At this stage, it is normal for your meditation sessions to consist of long stretches of mind-wandering split up by short periods of attention to the breath. Our preliminary goal is therefore to reduce the length of mind-wandering, and to extend the periods of attention. To do this, we will practice following the breath.

Following the breath is a practice that will give your mind an additional task so that it remains interested and attentive to the breath. When following the breath, we want dissect and investigate the different parts of the breath in an engaged way. This will neutralize the natural tendency of the mind to wander away. Here is the step-by-step technique:

  1. First, find the exact beginning, and the exact ending, of the incoming breath.
  2. Similarly, find the exact beginning, and the exact ending, of the outgoing breath.
  3. Then, observe the pauses between the in-breath and out-breath, and the out-breath and in-breath.
  4. Once you can distinctly observe these aspects the breath, try to see all of them with equal clarity during a breath cycle.

These four instructions should keep your mind alert and interested for a while. However, you may find that at some point, the mind gets used to these instructions and loses interest. When this happens, you can move on to the fifth and final step of following the breath.

  1. Observe all the different and changing sensations that make up the breath at the nose. Notice as many sensations as you can during the inhale, the exhale and the pauses in-between.

When practicing following the breath, we also should make sure that our peripheral awareness remains receptive and open; we’re not trying to shut down the background!

By practicing in this way, our mind will grow sharper and more sensitive. Our attention will be sustained for extended periods of time, while mind-wandering will occur less often. When mind-wandering does occur, it also won’t last as long.

As instructed previously, we should keep positively reinforcing the mental habit of noticing mind-wandering. When we see that the mind has wandered away, we take a moment to appreciate being conscious in this moment. Then, we direct our attention back to the breath, and practice following the breath as instructed above.

Also, remember to find joy and pleasure in this practice. Consciously bring to mind the enjoyable parts of your experience and savor them. This is time for you, away from the worries and movement of daily life. Appreciate it!

Once mind-wandering is rare and short, while periods of attention are longer and clearer, you can move to the next practice: connecting the breaths.