While focusing on the breath is the most commonly taught form of mindfulness practice today, there are a number of ways we can develop a mindfulness practice. In fact, there are countless ways to develop mindfulness. It’s just that breath meditation tends to be the one that is easiest to understand and learn for beginners. Other practices will generally only work on smaller groups of people or take a bit more work to get going.
But if you are struggling with using the breath as an object of mindfulness, it is worth exploring some of the alternative methods. And even if you are doing great with the breath, one or more of these could rejuvenate your practice. Today we’ll look at why the breath is most common and also see what other paths can be taken.
Why the Breath?
Simply put, the breath is the most common object of practice because it is the most immediate and universal thing we have. If we learn to meditate and achieve calm and focus with our breath, then we will have a skill we can use at the office, in a traffic jam, or in the middle of a stressful conversation with a loved one.
In the dentist chair, even when everything is awkward and perhaps scary and your mouth is full of strange fluids, you can focus on the breath. And in situations when you need to be focused, such as taking a stressful test, you can begin by meditating on the breath, allowing all distracting side-thoughts to fall away.
When I taught my first course of Buddhism at the University of Montana here in Missoula in 2005, I regularly developed mindfulness of breathing on the walk in to class. One illustration of the power of mindfulness I taught my students was of the wise ninja or samurai warrior.
A ninja, at least as found in popular culture, is someone who has laser-like focus. With this focus, they could walk silently across a room, see and catch projectiles thrown at them, and even fight three, four, or more enemies at once.
Setting aside the violence and sometimes-questionable intentions of ninjas as we know them, we can see that mindfulness can be an incredibly active force. This should dispel any myths about mindfulness equaling passivity. Sure, sometimes we do need to just be passive and calm—such as in the dentist’s chair. But sometimes we need to summon our effort and focus on a difficult task—such as taking an exam or being a wise and compassionate ninja.
Another form of focus meditation taught in Buddhism is to focus on a colored circle or a candle. You can try using almost any object you have around you. Candles can be a bit dangerous, so use caution if you choose to use one. The object should be as simple as possible though. Perhaps a coffee mug that is all one color, a Nalgene bottle, or a bowl would work. Calmly let your gaze fall on the object as you take long, deep breaths. Notice the curves and textures of the object, the way the light falls on it, the shadows around it.
Then, once you’ve taken in the object for a few breaths, close your eyes and allow your mind to re-create it. Observe the object in your mind just as you did with your eyes. If it fades or you get distracted, just open your eyes for a few more breaths until it is clear again. Then close your eyes and work through the process again.
This meditation helps to strengthen your focus just as the breath does. And if you are a visual person, it might work better as it engages one of your strengths. You can spend time experimenting with different objects, developing ever-stronger focus and attention. Over time, just a glance will allow you to recall an object in stunning detail in your mind.
Open awareness practice is usually taught as a more advanced form of mindfulness. In this practice, we simply begin by centering ourselves—often using the breath—and then we allow whatever thoughts or experiences we have to enter the mind. The idea is to do this with non-attachment and without becoming reactive.
If we find ourselves attached to a thought, we practice letting go. Here again, a good foundation in breath meditation can be a tool. However, with practice, we can just recognize that we’re lost in a thought-stream and let go. Every time we get caught up and then let go, our practice gets a little bit stronger.
Similarly, if we find ourselves avoiding certain thoughts and feelings, we can notice our avoidance and let it go. In this way, we can allow ourselves to feel what we’re feeling and to notice what is happening.
On days like this, just after another horrific school shooting, helps me to just allow my sadness for a while. My heart is heavy. And I can avoid that reality. I can distract myself with a whole world of information available at my fingertips or by diving into a long to-do list of chores and activities. But only by allowing my feelings to arise with open awareness can I see into them in all of their complexity.
Along with that sadness comes anger. Why do we allow this again and again and again? And with that, powerlessness. What can I do? What magic wand can I wave that ten-thousand parents haven’t already tried over the past two and a half decades?
Breathing in and breathing out. I let it go. As long as I can keep letting go, the depth and complexity of the feelings can evolve. In some ways this “seeing into” the complexity helps to reduce the overall sadness. Instead it become a sort of energy that I can choose to engage in, or not.
Justin Whitaker, Ph.D., holds a doctorate in Buddhist ethics from the University of London. He has given lectures, and taught Buddhist studies and Philosophy at Oxford University, the University of Hong Kong, the University of Montana, and at Antioch University’s intensive study-abroad program in India. A certified meditation teacher, he is a regular contributor to Patheos.com, and Senior Correspondent for Buddhistdoor Global. He lives in Missoula with his family.