Stop Worrying About How Long You Can Pay Attention To Your Breath

This post about meditation is by Dave Wellstood, who is currently in our Yoga Teacher Training Program. In this post he shares a simple but very helpful instruction that turned his meditation practice around.  

IMG_7419I find my meditation practice to be very rewarding.  When I tell people that, they often respond by telling me that they are no good at meditation or that they simply can’t do it.  I remember when I felt just like they do and I want to tell you about the small change I made that turned it around for me.

When I first started to meditate, someone told me I should sit quietly and pay attention to my breath. In hindsight that instruction was where things started to go wrong.  It gave me completely the wrong idea about what I was supposed to do.

I thought that meditating was like doing tree pose.  In tree pose, the goal is to balance on one foot.  Success means standing on one foot for longer and being more stable.  Sometimes you lose your balance and that’s expected but not desirable.  Similarly, I thought that success in meditation meant being able to keep my attention on my breath for longer and longer.

So I sat down on my bedroom floor and tried to pay attention to my breath.  If I was lucky, I could pay attention to three breaths in a row before my mind wandered off and started thinking about something else.  Again and again,  I brought my attention to my breath only to find that a few seconds later I was lost in some memory, or day dreaming about something that might happen.  I was an utter failure at keeping my attention on my breath.

At first it didn’t bother me much.  New skills take time to develop.  I thought all I needed was more practice, but after weeks of trying regularly I saw hardly any improvement. I started to think that maybe meditation wasn’t for me.  I seemed to be terrible at it.

It was years later when someone finally gave me a better meditation instruction.  They told me that in meditation the important thing is noticing when your mind wanders away and bringing it back to your breath.  It is completely irrelevant if you can keep your attention on your breath.  It only matters if you bring your attention back to your breath. Forget about how long your can pay attention to your breath and instead see how quickly you can notice when you stop paying attention to your breath.

This small change in focus was a breakthrough in my meditation practice.  I felt more positive about my meditation skills.  Instead of feeling like a failure because I couldn’t keep my mind on my breath I felt like a success because I could notice when my mind wandered away. Furthermore, I found that learning to notice that my mind had wandered away was much easier than learning to keep my attention on my breath.

Although my ability to keep my mind focused on my breath did not improve much, the amount of time I spent focused on my breath while meditating increased, because I could identify when my mind wandered away more quickly. So, each time my mind wandered away I might only spend a few seconds away from my breath where before I was spending much more.

I realized that my inability to keep my attention on my breath was not the result of laziness, lack of discipline or hyperactivity.  My mind wandered away because that is what minds do. They jump from thought to thought in the same way that a sparrow flits through the forest. Trying to stop that is as pointless as trying to stop yourself from breathing or trying to stop your salivary glands from making saliva.  The only thing to do is to learn to work wisely with your mind as it is.  In this case, that meant learning  to notice when my mind flits away so I can make a decision about how to respond.  In meditation, when my mind flits away I choose to return my attention to my breath.

I noticed that the same kind of flitting occurs in my mind throughout the day.  Impulsive behaviour occurs when some random thought pops into my mind and I act on it without considering it.  My new found ability to notice when my mind wanders to some random idea often allows me to notice when something new pops into my mind and that gives me a moment to consider whether I should act on it or just let it go. The result is fewer foolish impulsive decisions.

I became more aware when I was sitting in a meeting or trying to listen to someone talk and my mind would wander away.  That gave me a chance to bring my attention back to the person speaking in the same way I come back to my breath in meditation.  It made me a better listener.

These benefits didn’t happen immediately and they are certainly not absolute.  I still do impulsive things.  There are still times that my mind wanders away while someone is talking to me and I fail to bring it back.  There are still moments when I question my ability to meditate. However I have seen improvement in all these areas.  I feel that I have reaped huge benefits from a very small change in the focus of my meditation.  If you are having trouble getting a meditation practice started, try this approach and see if it works for you.

Interested in starting a meditation practice? Our next Art of Meditation course (taught by Amanda Ingall) begins Thursday Sept 25 at 6pm. Read more about the course here, or register here.


Dave Wellstood is in our 2014 Yoga Teacher Training Program.  When he is not doing yoga or meditating, Dave likes to ride his bicycle out into the countryside, paddle a kayak on a quiet lake or hang out with his son.   His current obsession is trying to figure out how to keep squirrels from destroying his garden.

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