Hi Roger .. I’ve been learning to meditate and I’ve been to a number of teachers who keep instructing me to concentrate on the breath. It is supposed to relax me and make me calm. For sure in the first few minutes it does. It’s relaxing to close my eyes and be with my breath.
But I find, as time passes, the breath tightens up and meditation begins to feel like a prison and it becomes extremely unpleasant.
I’m wondering what I’m doing wrong.
Thanks in advance,
When I first began to meditate, I experienced something similar. Whenever I focussed my attention on the breath, either of two things would happen -either like yourself, my body would tighten up around me, or I’d drift into a disorienting unconsciousness. Some time later I realised what the problem was – and I’m wondering if it might be what’s causing your own problem.
Speaking for myself, I’d turned meditation into a kind of competition. I was channelling all my energy into a kind of competitive battle to ‘own meditation’. To win. To become a fantastic meditator. To progress.
To this end, I focussed on the breath in an almost muscular way, trying to fix my attention to it with ever more effort. As a result, awareness slowly closed down and my body tensed up with the effort, and a claustrophobic kind of mindset took over – with the result that I either closed down by falling asleep, or sat inside a body that felt like a block of concrete. Either way, it was extremely uncomfortable.
In this, I think the habits of my Western culture were showing themselves. And I see similar indications of this conditioning in the attitudes of many of the meditators I’ve worked with over the years – as sense that meditation is another skill that must be mastered. As such, they bring a muscularity to meditating that runs totally counter to the spirit of it – and only end up tying themselves up in knots.
And it’s understandable.
From the time we’re born, we in the West are instilled with the spirit of competition and the urge to win. It’s a kind of cultural anxiousness which permeates even our most benign interactions. Even in social situations, we are covertly competing with one another. Winning and competing is a huge part of the social conversation, and it’s propagated by the media, our schools and workplaces and almost every aspect of our lives. In this, the goal is everything – we do things with an imagined outcome in mind, then strive to make it happen.
And then we come to meditation. And suddenly everything we’ve learnt is wrong.
So let’s go back to the beginning.
For sure, there is a goal that’s implied in meditation. The goal is to learn how to be still, and create a relationship with stillness.
By stillness, I don’t mean unconsciousness. I mean conscious and calm disengagement.
So we’re using the meditation methods to practice disengaging our attention from all the things it usually reacts to – desires, fears, opinions, pain, emotional reactions, gossip, memories and so on.
This complex landscape of triggers are where our attention usually spends most of its time. From waking to sleep, it’s used to bouncing from one event to the other, creating all kinds of hormonal changes in the body as each reaction it generates blooms in the mind. As stressful as this unrelenting excitement is, we view it as ‘normal’ because that’s what we’re used to, so we don’t really notice the effects until its too late.
So our purpose in meditation is to create a kind of ‘reactive silence’ in mind and body.
To this end, we use the meditation methods to train the attention to gently disengage from everything that usually stimulates us. In this way we enter a paradoxical state where, though mind and body are still active, and we’re aware of everything that’s happening inside and outside of us, our attention is utterly disengaged from it all – either resting on the breath or, in more absorbed state, merged back into the awareness.
Either way, no reactions are being generated so, in mind and body, we are still.
But here we see some confusion arising from the use of this word ‘stillness’. The word implies nothing is happening. It implies complete silence – no activity.
But stillness is actually quite an active state. It’s only our meddlesome attention that has gone still – for the rest of mind and body, things go on – the only difference is, our meddlesome attention is not interfering any more.
With the attention still, the mind and body naturally turn their energies to ‘housework’. In this, they take the opportunity to re-organise and re-balance themselves. Recent experiences and reactions get filed into the unconscious. Concepts and ideas currently in process in the mind are intuitively refined. And all this happens without the attention needing to be present.
To the meditating mind this ‘housework’ shows itself as shifting clouds of thinking, memories and daydreams passing through awareness as we meditate. If we don’t pay attention to this mental stuff, it all passes away as quickly as it arises.
In the body this clearing process is felt as changing landscapes of sensations – aches, tingles, itches coming and going. And feelings – happiness, peacefulness, or sadness or anger, or even boredom. And if we don’t react, but keep meditating through them, we see they pass away quite quickly.
This is mind and body doing what they naturally, intuitively do. Left to themselves, they devote themselves clearing and reorganising themselves.
As I said, it is our attention is the key to this cleansing/reorganising process – which is why it is only the attention we are concerned with when we meditate. It’s our attention we’re training to be still.
We’re not interfering with awareness. If anything, as the attention becomes more still, we will become more aware. We become aware of deeper substrates of thinking and emotional undercurrents, and deeper tensions and imbalances in the body, which can feel quite uncomfortable at first.
Commonly, to the inexperienced meditator, these things can be misleading – it can seem as if meditation ‘isn’t working’, because, understandably, the attention becomes more and more restless in this uncomfortable environment.
And this is when our competitive spirit can kick in and create even more problems. We think if we just try harder, we can get the calm and peace we’re trying to win. So we begin using brute strength to bury our attention in the breath.
But the more muscular we become, the more our awareness shrinks.
And meditation, instead of being the open, unconditionally aware and accepting environment it is supposed to be, becomes a prison in which we lock ourselves.
Try to always remember, the game you’re playing here is not meditation – it’s stillness. So you’re not trying to become a good meditator. You’re simply reaching for stillness, however it comes – and meditation methods are an array of tools to help you.
So don’t fixate on the breath if it’s only making you tighten up.
The breath is simply a convenient main object for the attention to rest on. It’s bland (not much to think about) and it’s constant and easy to feel. Also, the breath is in the centre of the body, which helps us learn the delicate balancing act between paying attention to the breath while maintaining passive awareness of the rest of the body. Other than that, there is no special significance with the breath.
So as I said, if, as you rest your attention on the breath, you feel your competitive spirit kicking in, and you begin tightening up in a tussle with to keep your attention there, then let go of the breath.
Go to the body sensations. The whole body.
Pay attention to the sensual shape of the sitting body.
And if it helps, note ‘sitting, sitting’ as you do this, and just feel the body. Feel the layers of sensations of the skin, the muscles and organs. Feel the weight of the body, and the mass. Feel the tensions that have built up and allow them to let go if you can.
When you are paying attention to bare sensations – as they are and without thinking about them or reacting to them – you are in stillness. It doesn’t matter how painful the sensations might be – if you simply feel them as they are, and give them all your attention, you are in stillness.
This is because, unlike thinking, which creates reactions in the body, sensations are simple and ‘in the moment’. As such, paying attention to any or all body sensations will calm the attention down.
In fact, it’s a good idea, even when you’re not meditating, to keep breaking your experience down to sensations. Every so often, as you move through your day, bring your attention back to basic sensations.
In this, unconditional acceptance is essential. Keep bringing your attention back to how you feel rather than what you think about how you feel. This will slowly acclimatise your attention to the habit of feeling rather than thinking and make meditation easier.
I hope this has been helpful.
- ‘Practical Meditation Audio Course’ – a complete set of meditation lessons to be downloaded as a package of MP3′s