On what part of the body do we place our attention during a breath meditation? In mindfulness, the most common instruction is to follow the breath as it moves into and out of the belly, or as low down in the body as we are able to perceive it. There is good reason for this. A lot of the time, we are so caught up in our thoughts that we can end up spending our lives inhabiting a very narrow proportion of our being, that is to say, from the neck upwards.
By dropping down below the chattering mind and into the belly, we are contributing towards a reversal of this trend of ever greater imprisonment within our heads. With each meditation, we are practising being more grounded, anchoring our awareness and generally moving towards a greater degree of embodiment. To be embodied is to stay tuned in to the body, and therefore able to receive the messages and feedback that it is continually sending us.
This means that as well as being able to look after ourselves properly, through knowing what is happening within our body and what we might be needing, we are also able to benefit from its input at the level of consciousness. So rather than only having access to the perspective of the analytical mind, we can draw on our 'gut feeling', whereby we have a sense of what feels right without necessarily having determined why.
However, as well as using the belly as a focus for the breath, there are other options that each give the practice a certain emphasis, and bring corresponding benefits.
If we are particularly interested in invoking the qualities of the heart, we can intentionally place our awareness in the centre of the chest rather than in the abdomen, and follow the breath in this part of the body. With each breath, we can invite in a sense of openness, friendliness and acceptance towards our experience, even if it is not always comfortable. In recent years, a number of approaches to mindfulness that emphasise the qualities of the heart have become increasingly popular, such as Mindful Self Compassion (see www.self-compassion.org) and Mindfulness-based Compassionate Living (https://www.compassionateliving.info/), and often the instruction is given to bring awareness to the heart centre.
Meanwhile, bringing awareness to the sensations and movement of the breath through the nostrils can bring a sense of wakefulness and can help to counteract sleepiness. It can be particularly engaging to note the temperature change of the inbreath and outbreath – cool air flowing in and warm air flowing out. Also, some people find that rather than increasing thoughts, bringing awareness to the nose with its proximity to the brain helps them settle this part of the body.
Imagining breathing into a part of the body where there is discomfort or pain can help us to step out of an aversive relationship with it, and instead be with the difficult sensations in a more accepting way. And finally, maintaining a general sense of the breath moving into and out of the whole body is an approach that many find steadies their awareness and cultivates embodiment.