Nose, Belly and Heart

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.


Is there a right or wrong time to meditate?

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When is the best time to practice meditation? For a sense of brightness and alertness, after bathing but on a relatively empty stomach (before a meal or a significant amount of time after one) is usually found to be best. Many dedicated practitioners get up very early in the morning, sometimes a long time before dawn, because they favour the stillness and serenity of the early hours, before the rest of humanity sets about its busyness. Others favour the evening, when the days activities have wound down and can be put to one side.

We all like to feel that we have been present and alert during a meditation, but why not also practice at all the 'wrong' times: when we are feeling angry, upset or agitated; late at night, when we are drowsy and dreamy; when we are really hungry or have just had a big meal; in the midst of a very busy day...? Or we can practice meditation precisely at the times when when we least want to.

At these times, we may not necessarily be the most settled or experience the greatest clarity in our meditation, but we have a special opportunity to explore and bring kind awareness to less common or desirable states of mind. We can practice patience and non-judgment when we get lost in the mind or drift into sleep or day dreams, we can experiment with ways to be with uncomfortable emotions, and we can investigate feelings that we would otherwise go out of our way to avoid.

Meditation isn't just about training the mind to be focussed, it is also about cultivating a different relationship with experience. In our meditation practice, we 'learn in the shallow end', that is to say we practice meeting whatever feelings that arise with an attitude of acceptance, curiosity, non-judgment and patience, so that we can do the same in our daily life. It is our reactivity to experience that causes a large part of our suffering. If we only meditated when we were feeling good, we would not have the opportunity to practice applying this mindful and heartful approach to exactly the kinds of feelings that we most often resist and struggle with.

Resistance is futile!

What do we do when we find ourselves resistant to our meditation practice? For people who meditate regularly, or who would like to, resistance is an all-too-familiar companion on the path. We all know the kinds of stories that our mind tells us—that we are too tired, or too restless, that we are not in the right frame of mind, that we will do it later—but going ahead and practising anyway, in spite of the resistance we feel, can be one of the most useful times to practice of all.

Resistance can become a valuable guide. Sometimes, for example, it can signal to us that we would benefit from a change in our approach to practice and what arises within it. Perhaps we have been somehow turning our practice into a struggle, for example by battling to silence a busy mind (never a good strategy!) or to suppress an uncomfortable feeling or emotion.

If we sense this might be the case, it can be useful to inquire, 'What feeling or aspect of my experience am I trying to avoid?'. As well as the more obvious candidates, such as grief, fear, anger or anxiety, we can also be seeking to avoid experiencing relatively more subtle mind states, such as boredom, agitation, drowsiness or worry. When these arise in meditation, we can easily think that something has gone wrong in some way, that we are not doing it right, and that there is no point in even trying.

In mindfulness meditation, however, we practice turning towards our experience rather than trying to push it away. Bringing a sense of curiosity towards these feelings and mind states transforms our relationship with our experience, from one in which are resisting something that is perceived to be 'in the way' to one in which we investigate—ideally even welcome—our present moment experience. Even in the presence of discomfort, agitation or the like, we can ask with genuine curiosity, "I wonder what it will be like to sit with these feelings, to experience myself this way".

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The fact is that a big chunk of our life is spent resisting in one way or another. Whether it be resistance in the form of not wanting to do something (get out of bed, pay a bill, start a task or chore) or resistance in the form of wanting something that has already begun to end sooner (a journey, our work day, a phase of our life), we can so easily be caught up in fighting the unavoidable.

Practice gives us the opportunity to make friends with these mind states, which is a necessary step on the path towards liberating us from the negative impact that they have upon us. If within our practice we can learn to sit with our agitation, to breathe with it, to give it our kind attention, we can learn what it means to have the option not to be controlled by it.

Very often, resistance is all story and very little substance. How often does it happen that for weeks or months we put off doing something (filling in our tax return, sending an email, starting a project), in so doing tainting our life with that pervasive background feeling of unease, only to find that when it comes down to it, the object of our resistance was not so unpleasant after all. The task in question can even turn out to be quite enjoyable, or at the very least getting it done can usually bring a sense of satisfaction or of being on top of things.

So too with meditation practice: it is often the simple act of lowering ourselves onto the cushion that we resist, but once we are down there we may realise just how much we needed to sit quietly and let it all be. So when you next feel resistance, try just agreeing with yourself to sit for a few minutes, and then see where that takes you. Often you will find that you are happy to sit for the full duration.

Sometimes, of course, what you experience or label as resistance can have an important message for you, and some validity. Perhaps you really are too exhausted and in need of rest or sleep. Perhaps you have other responsibilities or important matters that you need to attend to. To discern when to listen to resistance and when to 'feel the resistance and do it anyway', it is helpful to know your tendency: are you someone who pushes themselves at the expense of their needs, or someone who is too quick to find an excuse not to follow through with a commitment?

A little experimentation is also helpful: sometimes doggedly following through with an intention to sit, whilst at other times shortening or adapting your practice (perhaps doing mindful movement or a bodyscan instead of sitting), or missing it out altogether. Caution is needed, however, because momentum and consistency are so very useful in establishing a regular practice, and so telling yourself that you will at least sit for a few minutes as described above is an invaluable strategy.

A final point to consider is that resistance can be a sign that our practice is right where it needs to be, that we are on the verge of something interesting. Resistance can be the last-ditch attempt to self sabotage as we come close to freeing ourselves from an unhelpful pattern… if we can only stick with it.

So next time resistance strikes as you make your journey down to sit on the cushion, take heart, and see what happens if you can turn the whole thing on its head, welcoming whatever feelings and mind states are there, investigating them with renewed curiosity and interest. Your resistance will likely dissolve.