Just Breathe


“When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath.” ~Svatmarama


There are two basic forms of meditation, focused meditation and open monitoring. For the beginner, most teachers employ the focused meditation strategy. This involves placing attention on a single object of meditation and holding it there. Focusing on the breath is the most common object for focused meditation. But, there are many others including single thoughts or mental objects, or even mantras.


Although there has been research comparing focused to open monitoring meditation, there has been very little attention paid to different objects of focused meditation. The question has not been answered as to whether it is better to focus on the breath or some other mental object. The whole idea of focusing on an object is to eliminate wind wandering. So one way to compare the effectiveness of different objects for focused meditation is by comparing their relative abilities to prevent mind wandering or conversely to suppress thoughts.


In today’s Research News article “Better control with less effort: The advantage of using focused-breathing strategy over focused-distraction strategy on thought suppression”

Ju and colleagues randomly assigned undergraduate students to a focused breathing condition or a focused mental object (blue sports car) condition. Students were instructed to focus on their respective object for 2 3-minute sessions and report each time their mind wandered. The students were then measured for thought intrusions during a thought suppression task. They found that the focused breathing condition produced significantly fewer mind wanderings and thought intrusions than the focused mental object condition. For the focused mental object condition, the higher the participants working memory capacity the fewer mind wanderings and thought intrusions. This was not true for the focused breathing condition. This suggests that focusing on a mental object requires mental resources and employs a ‘top down’ strategy while simply focusing on the breath does not.


So, it appears that focusing on the breath requires less mental resources and is more successful in preventing mind wandering and thought intrusions than focusing on a mental object. This suggests that the ancient practice of focused breathing meditation became so popular for a reason. It is easier to do and it produces better results.


It should be kept in mind, however, that the students were only asked to focus for 2 3-minute periods. It is possible that the superiority of focusing on the breathing may only be true for beginners over very brief periods. There is a need to repeat the study with experienced meditators and for longer periods of focus. Nevertheless, it has become common practice with open monitoring meditation to always begin a session with focusing on the breath and only later moving into open monitoring. The current results suggest that this may be very good practice, helping to get the meditator focused, with minimal mind wandering before moving on to open monitoring where it is more difficult to maintain focus and keep the mind from wandering.


So, just breathe to better focus in meditation.


“So don’t beat yourself up the next time you find yourself far away from where your mind was supposed to be. It’s the nature of the mind to wander. Use it as an opportunity to become more aware of your own mental experience. But you may still want to return to the present moment—so you can come up with an answer to that question everyone is waiting for.” – Wendy Hasenkamp
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are available at the Contemplative Studies Blog http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/

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