Free Mindfulness Meditation of the Body and Breath
Meditation is so overwhelming good for mental and physical health that it should be freely available whenever you need it.
With this in mind, we’re giving away as many of the meditations from our book, Mindfulness, as possible. All of the meditations are from the core Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) programme co-developed by Professor Mark Williams of Oxford University. As you know, I wrote Mindfulness with Mark. MBCT has been proven by countless clinical trials to treat and prevent anxiety, stress, depression, unhappiness and exhaustion. For these reasons we want to make as much of our Mindfulness course as accessible as possible. If you find the meditations useful, please let all of your friends and family know where they can get them (and feel free to Tweet or blog about them and our book too).
Last week we gave away the Three Minute Breathing Space, which serves as a wonderful ‘de-stresser’. This week we’re making available the Body and Breath Meditation, which forms the core of Week One of the Mindfulness course.
Every meditation tradition begins with daily practices that help to focus a scattered mind. The most common way to start is by focusing on a single object that is always with you: the movement of the breath in the body. Why the breath?
Firstly, the breath is something that you probably take for granted despite the fact that you cannot live without it. You can live without food for weeks, without water for days, but you cannot survive without the nourishment that the breath provides for more than a few tens of seconds. The breath really is life.
Secondly, there is an important way in which the breath does not need us to make it happen. The breath breathes itself. If it was up to us to remember to breathe, we’d have forgotten long ago. So tuning into the breath can be an important antidote to the natural tendency towards believing that we have to be in control. Attending to the breath reminds us that at the core of our being, something is happening that depends very little on who we are or what we want to achieve.
Thirdly, the breath provides a natural, gently moving target to focus on in your meditation; it grounds you in the here and now. You cannot take a breath for five minutes ago, or for five minutes’ time. You can only take a breath for now.
Fourthly, the breath can be a sensitive monitor for your feelings. If you can sense more clearly when the breath is short or long, shallow or deep, rough or smooth, you can begin sensing your own internal weather patterns, and choose whether and how to take skillful action to look after yourself.
Finally, the breath provides an anchor for your attention, so that you can see more clearly when your mind has wandered, when it is bored or restless or when you are fearful or sad. During even the shortest meditation on the breath, you may become aware of how things are for you, and, returning to the breath, let go of the tendency to fix things straight away. The breath opens up a different possibility, that of allowing life to live itself for a while, to see what wisdom emerges when you don’t rush in to ‘put things right’. This can be an important antidote to emerging feelings of anxiety, stress, and unhappiness.
We suggest that you practise the meditation of the Body and Breath shown below for six out of the next seven days (you can download the track from the ‘Free Meditations from Mindfulness’ page of the ‘Resources’ section). The meditation takes just eight minutes and we recommend that you do it at least twice each day. You can do it sitting or lying, and feel free to experiment with whichever posture best supports your intention to stay awake for the period of the practice. You can also choose the times to do it. Many people find that the best times are in the morning and in the evening, but it’s entirely up to you when you carry it out.
At first, you might find it difficult to make the time, but meditation ultimately liberates more time than it uses. And don’t forget that this meditation, along with the others in our book, have been proven in numerous studies around the world to help people deal with a host of problems including anxiety, stress, exhaustion, unhappiness and depression. It will, however, work most fully if you put in the required time each day. It may not appear to have instant benefits; you have to practise. Ideally you would carry out the full eight week course detailed in our book Mindfulness. However, even the little taster provided by the download will begin the process of putting you back in control of your life. And some people report feeling more relaxed and happy almost from day one.
There will be times when you will miss out on one of the practice sessions; since life can be busy and often frantic, it’s not unusual for this to happen. If it does, there is no need to criticise yourself in any way. Likewise, you might be forced to miss out a day or two. If you do, then don’t chastise yourself – instead, see if you can make up the time later in the week.
You may wish to read the meditation through first. It’s very detailed and gives you many pointers of what to become aware of when you’re meditating. But see if it’s possible to focus on the spirit of the meditation, rather than becoming hung up on the specifics. Even after you’ve read it through, it is best to do the meditation following along with the guidance on the downloadable track, so that you are taken through the meditation on a moment-by-moment basis, and don’t have to worry about when the time is up.
Mindfulness Meditation of the Body and Breath
Although it’s best to follow the guidance on the downloadable track while actually carrying out the meditation, you’ll find that reading through the details of the following meditation will help enormously. Please try and remember to not get hung up on the specifics; as we’ve said, the spirit is more important than the detail.
- Settle into a comfortable position, either lying on a mat or a thick rug, or sitting on a chair, cushion or meditation stool. If you use a chair, it is best to use a firm, straight-backed chair (rather than an armchair), so you can sit away from the back of the chair and the spine can be self-supporting. If you sit on a cushion on the floor, it is helpful if your knees can actually touch the floor, although that may not happen at the beginning. Feel free to experiment with the height of cushions or stool until you feel comfortably and firmly supported. If you have a disability that means that sitting in this way or lying on your back is uncomfortable, find a posture that is comfortable for you, and which best allows you to maintain your sense of being fully awake for each moment.
- If sitting, allow your back to adopt an erect, dignified posture; neither stiff nor tensed up, but comfortable. If sitting on a chair, have your feet flat on the floor with your legs uncrossed. Allow your eyes to close if that feels comfortable. If not, lower your gaze so it falls, unfocused, a few feet in front of you. If lying down, allow your legs to be uncrossed, with your feet falling away from each other, and your arms lying alongside and slightly away from your body, so that the palms can be open to the ceiling, if that feels comfortable.
Bringing awareness to the body
- Bring your awareness to physical sensations by focusing your attention on the sensations of touch in the body where it is in contact with the floor and with whatever you are sitting or lying on. Spend a few moments exploring these sensations.
- Now focusing your attention on your feet, starting with the toes, expand the ‘spotlight of attention’ so it takes in the soles of your feet, the heels and the top of your feet, until you are attending to any and all of the physical sensations you become aware of in both feet, moment by moment. Spend a few moments attending to the feet in this way, noticing how sensations arise and dissolve in awareness. If there are no sensations in this region of the body, simply register a blank. This is perfectly fine – you are not trying to make sensations happen – you are simply registering what is already here when you attend.
- Now, expand your attention to take in the rest of both legs for a few moments, then the torso (from the pelvis and hips up to the shoulders); then the left arm; then the right arm; then the neck and head.
- Spend a minute or two resting in the awareness of the whole body. See if it is possible to allow your body and its sensations to be just as you find them. Explore how it is to let go of the tendency to want things to be a certain way. Even one brief moment of seeing how things are – without wanting to change anything – can be profoundly nourishing.
Focusing on the sensations of breathing
- Now bring your awareness to the breath as it moves in and out of the body at the abdomen. Notice the changing patterns of physical sensations in this region of the body as the breath moves in and out. It may help to place your hand here for a few breaths, and feel the abdomen rising and falling.
- You may notice mild sensations of stretching as the abdomen gently rises with each in-breath, and different sensations as the abdomen falls with each out-breath.
- As best you can, follow closely with your attention, so you notice the changing physical sensations for the full duration of each in-breath and the full duration of each out-breath, perhaps noticing the slight pauses between one in-breath and the following out-breath, and between one out-breath and the following in-breath.
10. There is no need to try to control your breathing in anyway at all – simply let the breath breathe itself.
Dealing skilfully with mind-wandering
Sooner or later (usually sooner), your attention will wander away from the breath. You may find thoughts, images, plans or day-dreams coming up. Such mind-wandering is not a mistake. It is simply what minds do. When you notice that your awareness is no longer on the breath, you might congratulate yourself. You have already ‘woken up’ enough to know it, and are once more aware of your experience in this moment. Simply acknowledge where the mind had wandered to. Then gently escort your attention back to the sensations in your abdomen.
The mind will likely wander over and over again, so each time, remember that the aim is simply to note where the mind has been, then gently escort your attention back to the breath. This can be very difficult, as you may find it frustrating that the mind seems so disobedient! Such frustration can create a lot of extra noise in the mind. So, no matter how many times your mind wanders, allow yourself on each occasion (without limit) to cultivate compassion for your mind as you bring it back to where you had intended it to be.
See if it is possible to view the repeated wanderings of the mind as opportunities to nurture greater patience within yourself. In time, you may discover that this quality of kindliness towards the wandering mind brings a sense of compassion towards other aspects of your experience – that the wandering mind has been a great ally in your practice, and not the enemy you supposed it to be.
Continue with the practice for around eight minutes, or longer if you wish, perhaps reminding yourself from time to time that the intention is simply to be aware of your experience in each moment. As best you can, use the sensations in your body and breath as anchors to gently reconnect with the here and now each time that you notice that your mind has wandered and is no longer in touch with where you had intended it to be.
If you find the Body and Breath meditation useful, then please tell your family and friends where they can get it. Feel free to blog or Tweet about it too. It’s a powerful meditation tailor made for our frantic world and we want as many people as possible to benefit from it. If you found the meditation beneficial, or are feeling anxious, stressed, exhausted, unhappy or depressed, then it might be worth doing the full eight week course detailed in the book Mindfulness. This book is now the recommended text for the Oxford University Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Course.