Bring your attention to your breath? Focus on body sensations? Be in the present moment? What on earth could possibly be more boring?
I remember thinking this when I first heard about meditation techniques as a child. I was into fantasy novels and video games; my head didn’t want to be in the present moment, it wanted to be in Middle-Earth saving the world from the Dark Lord, or in Mortal Kombat kicking ass with superhuman strength and the kind of abs that I will never have in real life. By contrast, the present moment, “just as it is,” seemed nothing to write home about.
I didn’t know that something as simple as focusing on the breath could become one of the most mind-blowing highs you could experience. I didn’t know that losing yourself in the sensation of the breath, body or sounds, enjoying the tension draining from your mind and your muscles, could be such pure pleasure that you wonder why people even bother with drugs.
I certainly didn’t know that (unlike drugs) getting high on mindfulness can make you better, not worse, at dealing with whatever life throws your way; calmer, less reactive, more productive.
This post is, in a sense, a response to my younger self; it’s a post on what I wish I had known back then, or what I wish someone had told me.
Previously I’ve written that the key to meditation is to find your “anchor,” the thing that is going to keep you grounded in the present moment; the breath, the body, the senses. However, the main point of that post was just to bust some myths around what meditation is and is not. As such I didn’t go very far in terms of explaining how to actually use each anchor in meditation, and so that is the gap that I will plug here.
I’ll start the way many good meditation scripts start: bring your attention to the breath. Don’t try to push out your thoughts, just get “beneath” them by shifting the focus of your attention to the breath. If it helps you could try counting the breath as you go; or you could just rest in the sensation of breathing itself.
The advantage of the breath is that it is always there. Whatever is going on, whatever madness is rampaging around you, you don’t have to wait for the gentle sounds of bird song, of waves lapping a shore, of your favourite meditation music, so on and so forth, to get some peace. In any given moment you can anchor yourself in the breath, taking a step back to think more calmly and rationally about whatever is going on.
You don’t have to breathe in any special way, either. You’re not consciously trying to change anything about how you breathe; you are just observing it. You may find at first that your breath is quick or shallow or restricted; this is just how we naturally breathe when we are a bit stressed out. Yet simply observing the breath can have the peculiar effect of changing this, of making us breathe better, deeper, calmer, flooding the body with relaxation.
And then, regardless of whatever is going on around you, you start to breathe like a normal, content human being, who can respond to events in the world without the usually-attendant anxiety or fear. You learn that just as your way of thinking can influence your way of breathing, the reverse is also true; your way of breathing can influence your way of thinking. And that is definitely a trick worth knowing.
Strangely, you may find that the way you breathe has a peculiar effect on your perception of time itself. The quicker your breath the quicker and more stressful the world seems to move, while the slower the breath the slower the world moves. Somehow you feel like you have more time to respond in a calm, measured manner.
You don’t have to experience an earth-shattering, mind-altering transformation of the soul. Just sit with the breath, without deliberate thought, without even a goal or agenda, and that is enough. Remember, the simple pleasure of meditation comes from the mind doing less.
The breath is the beginning of getting yourself out of your mind and into your body. The next step, then, is to bring the attention to the entire field of sensation that is the body. Notice where your body meets the chair, or cushion, or bed; feel the weight of your arms and shoulders; the tingling sensation in your hands and feet.
Again, you are just observing your body without consciously trying to change anything, and yet paradoxically the simple act of observing the body will tend to relax it automatically. A body-scan is a popular way of doing this; move your attention slowly from head to toe. Relax your jaw, the muscles around the eyes, which we tend not to notice are tensed until we let them go. Let your throat soften, your shoulders sink, your arms go limp.
If there are areas of pain or discomfort anywhere in the body, don’t try to block them out, just observe them with an attitude of acceptance and non-judgement. Let go of any tension in the legs and relax your feet.
A strangely effective trick is to imagine a rope tied to the top of your cranium, gently pulling your skeletal structure upward, allowing your spinal column to slightly float and expand; while simultaneously feeling the effect of gravity pulling the rest of your body downward, allowing your flesh to sink and relax thoroughly.
Somehow this two-fold movement drains the body of all remaining stress and tension. Again, you can sink into this feeling, lose yourself in it, slow your perception of time’s passing and rest indefinitely.
The next step is to expand your attention to the outside world, grounding yourself in the senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. If it’s a formal sitting meditation then you might adopt a “soft gaze” that is somewhere between eyes-open and eyes-closed. The sight of soft evening light over a lake, the sound of rustling autumn leaves on pavement, the scene of a home-cooked dinner floating invitingly on the air.
Any and all of it has the power to snap you out of your exhausting ruminations of past and future and just be, fully and completely, in your body, in the present moment. Any and all of it can be the trigger of pure rapture, pure contentment in the here and now.
With this sort of meditation it’s very tempting – maybe even cliché – to quote the 19th century Romantic poets, but they really are relevant here. Take William Wordsworth, whose description of London in the early morning could almost define mindfulness poetry as a genre: “This City now doth, like a garment, wear/ The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,/ Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie/ Open unto the fields, and to the sky…”1
Some might object that mindfulness is about “non-judgmental acceptance of things as they are” and that to call something beautiful is a “judgement.” However, “beauty” could also just be an expression of savouring the present moment however one finds it, of finding the beautiful in the mundane.
And, of course, there’s William Blake: “To see a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wildflower; to hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.”2 Anyone who has so much as glimpsed the feeling of the sublime, even by accident, can identify with Blake’s words; the sense of being so fully absorbed in the present moment that not only does time slow down but you lose all sense of time and space completely, tasting “infinity.”
Yet using the senses as a meditative anchor is actually controversial in some circles. Certain traditions hold that using the senses leads to craving for sensual pleasure, and therefore to attachment. Sensual pleasures are fleeting; if you admire a beautiful sunset, then you develop an attachment to that sunset, and so you suffer when the sunset passes.
According to this view, meditation is about “closing the sense doors,” retreating within to solely focus on the breath, avoiding the multitude temptations of the outside world.
However, many meditation traditions have spurned this advice. Think of the meditation bells and gongs in many Buddhist temples; think of the popularity of meditation music, soothing voices, burning incense, etc. etc. Clearly, many people have found the senses to be powerful anchors for meditation, without becoming ensnared in attachment to sensual pleasure.
The difference is just one of attitude; it is perfectly possible to observe a sight, sound, scent etc. with an attitude of non-attachment, savouring it just as it is in this moment without craving for it to last into the next moment. If anything, you could argue that denying the senses is, itself, just another form of attachment; you are, in a way, craving for your sensory perception to disappear, rather than just accepting it as it is.
the ten thousand things
Once you are absorbed in your meditation it becomes possible to let go a bit, to open yourself up to multiple anchors at once; you might enjoy the breath and body sensations and the sounds of birds outside and so forth all at the same time. There’s no rule saying that you have to stick to a single anchor during any given meditation.
Instead your anchor can become the whole present moment, all of it at once, until it kind of “swells” in your awareness. In this state the entire world feels alive, buzzing, pulsing with life in all its infinite variety. It is what Buddhist texts, in their own poetic way, call being awakened to “the ten thousand things.”
Yet in a strange way, the “ten thousand things” all seem to be vibrating together, so that it all somehow feels connected, interdependent, one. In this state you know you have reached the pinnacle of human experience, of the sublime, of life itself.
In this state, you are truly high on nirvana.
- Wordsworth, W. (1802, September 3). Composed upon Westminster Bridge. Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45514/composed-upon-westminster-bridge-september-3-1802.
- Blake, W. (circa 1803). Auguries of Innocence. Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43650/auguries-of-innocence.