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How Do You Know You Are Focused on the Breath?

Blue Water Lilly at Wat Tham Seua Buddhist Temple in Krabi, Thailand.

Are you having difficulty knowing if you’re focusing on the breath the right way, as you meditate?

Do you know what it means to be focused continuously on the breath without interruption?

Occasionally I have a look at videos by Ajahn Brahm or others where they speak about meditation, and how to go about it. I’ve written a couple of books on the subject and as I think back to it, I haven’t explained this topic as well as I can.

I want to talk about how you can be sure that you are focusing on the breath 100%.

How Do You Know You’re Properly Focused on the Breath?

I think this is one of biggest questions (and issues) for beginners in meditation. I think even for people who have been doing it for years. I’ve helped some monks here in Thailand figure this out. Teachers usually talk about focusing on the breath without distraction…. but what is that like? What does it mean? No distractions or thought at all, nothing?

Let’s go through it.

The first few minutes or tens of minutes of any meditation session, is a time where you’re winding down and moving toward a state of mind and body where meditation will be possible. As you’re just beginning, the entire sitting session is helping you move toward this goal. The body needs to slow down. Muscle activity needs to relax. The body and mind have to get accustomed to slowing way down and doing something different, like just sitting in one spot doing nothing physically.

For the purpose of illustration, lets say we’re sitting on some cushions on the floor.

If you’re a brand new beginner – you can sit and focus on your whole breathing cycle. You can chant something out loud if you want. You can repeat mantras in your head or out loud. These things help the mind and body calm down and get into a different state. A state where the mind isn’t looking at every option, every color, every situation, every fear, and trying to come up with options you can choose. The mind is so active when we’re awake that most of us don’t know how to go from an active state to a calm and motionless state in a couple minutes. It probably will take you a half hour or so at first to change your state at all.

You will make progress – no matter how long it takes. Sit and chant, say something over and over in your mind to calm you, or just focus on your breath. Initially I used some phrases that Thich Nhat Hanh taught in one of his mindfulness books. Then later I was able to be calm enough to start focusing on the breath as soon as I sat down.

So, you’re sitting. You’re relaxed. The body is completely relaxed. The mind is relaxed enough that you can focus on breathing in silence, there is no need to keep repeating mantras in your head or out loud once you can focus on your breathing.

Initially you focus on the whole breath. Then, as your mind becomes able to do that, switch over to watching the little spot on your upper lip or inside your nostrils where you feel the tickle or coolness of breath passing over.

Your hands, legs, neck, your entire body remains still. Your muscles are not flexing. Your eyes are not moving around beneath your eyelids. Your breath isn’t forced slower or faster than usual, you’re just sitting there in complete stillness and silence, as if you were invisible. I sometimes try to move my chest and stomach as little as possible as I’m breathing too – to make it appear as if I’m not even rippling the air around me with any vibration at all. I’m just part of the room, not separate from it. The room is still, and I try to merge with that. All without thoughts, mind you, it’s more like a letting go of everything that I am, that this body is, so I cannot be any different from my surroundings.

Anyway… that’s just some extra about how I go about it.

When you’re focusing at that tiny spot where you feel each in-breath and out-breath you’ll notice some distractions. Thoughts start as the result, usually, of some sensory input. So you might be warm – and have a thought about that. You might feel a sweat drop roll down your face and that starts a number of thoughts. You might have some pain in your ankle, back, leg, or elsewhere. You might hear a dog or cat. You might hear a car zoom by, a plane overhead, or a bird chirping outside your window. Anything you sense with any of your five senses can start a thought.

Then, your mind can start one all by itself too. The mind constantly regurgitates bits of memory that can trigger thoughts.

So, you’re fighting all of this. But, focusing on your breath itself can start thoughts.

What Is a Thought?

Shaved Buddhist nuns meditate in Thailand at Suan Mokkh temple in Chaiya, Southern Thailand.This is another thing that I don’t think is explained all that well by most teachers that I’ve listened to, watched, and read. Myself included. I don’t think I’ve gone into depth with it all that well. I’ll create another article here – What Is a Thought?, also under the Meditation Tips menu above so you can see what all comprises a thought.

I won’t go into it here in-depth because it really does deserve an entire article. I suggest you go and read that one too because it will probably give you a different view than what you’ve learned, or thought before.

So a thought arises. Then what?

In meditation on the breath, we want to refocus back on the feeling of the breath again immediately. We don’t want to think about the thought. We don’t want to investigate where it might have come from, why it came out, or anything about it. We just want to notice that a thought popped up, and refocus on the breath. That’s it.

Eventually, as you get further down the path, you’ll be able to keep your focus on the breath for an entire breath – in and out. It might be today, it might be in a couple of months. No matter. All the time you spend in meditation is training your mind to calm down, to slow down. It may take months to calm the thought circus running through your mind. No matter! Continue meditation and don’t think the world was built in a day. Well, wait a second, don’t think Buddha attained nirvana in a day! Oh, hmm. Well, don’t think anything, just keep meditating until you can focus on the breath continuously in eight to ten breaths.

Why eight to ten?

If you make it that far, you’re there. Your mind is ready for what’s next.

So, how do you know you’re really 100% focused on the breath and watching it the right way? I mean, this is the whole point of the first bit of your meditation practice… trying to reach a point where the body, the mind, everything is quiet and you can focus 100% on that tiny spot of breath in your nose or on your upper lip.

What if you’re not doing it right? Are you going to ever reach the Jhanas?

Honestly, I don’t know. I do know that for me and for others I know that have reached Jhana, it seems to require a very tight focus on a very small area of feeling of the breath.

So, if you don’t have a continuous focus on a very small area of feeling, it’s possible that you just don’t get into Jhana. I think this is probably one issue that is plaguing monks and other long-term meditators. It’s very hard for one person to explain to another what a continuous focus on the breath really is.

Here’s how I’ll attempt to show you…

Below is a list of symbols which stand for different things going on during your meditation. Each character represents lets say 1 second. It can happen much faster than that, but for the sake of trying to make this as simple as possible, let’s say the time between each character is just 1-second.

I’ll create some typical scenarios below, and then talk about each. I think after you read these, as you meditate, you’ll be able to notice something similar going on while you meditate and attempt to focus wholly on the breath.

Line 1- is tracking the mind’s focus

Line 2- is tracking the in and out-breaths that have been focused on

F = focused on breath

D = distraction occurred (dog, plane, etc.)

ND = notice a distraction occurred

T = thought occurs

NT = notice a thought occurred

RF = refocus on the breath after a distraction


 

Meditation Scenario 1

1- FFDTTTTTTTTTTTT-NT-RF
2- in

In this scenario, the meditator was still breathing in when a distraction occurred. She didn’t notice the distraction that quickly blossomed into an immediate thought . Once the thought came, it takes the mind far away from focusing on the breath. In this case, the meditator didn’t realize thought had taken control until 12-seconds (twelve “T’s” in a row) later. This, and Scenario 2 are the patterns most often seen by beginner meditators. The thought that is created after the smallest distraction, can easily take the focus away from the breath on to whatever the thought is about.


 

Meditation Scenario 2

1- FFTTTT-NT-RF-FFF-TTTTTTTTTTTTTTTT-NT-RF
2- in                    in

In this one, again the meditator is quickly taken away from focusing on the breath, straight into thought. No distraction needed. Or, the distraction might have been something so subtle, that it wasn’t noticed at all. Subtle distractions might be the breath didn’t flow smoothly, so the mind jumped in to analyze immediately why it wasn’t smooth. Or maybe you had excess saliva in your throat and had to swallow. Maybe your eyes fluttered or moved. Anything with the body can cause a thought to start immediately and you might not even notice the distraction that started it.

Distractions and thoughts about them, or about something else entirely can occur for minutes at a time before you realize it and go back to focusing on the breath. Though it happens less as you go further along in your practice, I know a few times when it happened to me after a year of meditating already.

Thoughts which take you away from your focus for a long time, are a kind of funny – no need to berate yourself, just notice that you’re having the thought, and return to focusing on the breath.


 

Meditation Scenario 3

1- FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFDDTTTT-NT-RF-FFF
2- in  out in  out in  out                       in

In this scenario the meditator is doing really well and is focused on 3 complete breaths and then a distraction pops up for 2 seconds and this leads to a 4 second thought before NT – noticing the thought and RF – returning to focus. The time it takes to notice a thought gets shorter typically as you meditate over time. When you go even further, you start noticing the distractions that cause the thoughts very fast too.


 

Meditation Scenario 4

1- FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFD-ND-FFFFFFFFFFFFFFF
2- in  out in  out in  out in      in  out in out in

In this scenario the meditator is pretty focused on 3 breaths and then a distraction pops up. The distraction is noticed and she quickly goes back to focusing on the breath.


 

Meditation Scenario 5

1- FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF
2- in out in out in out in out in out in out in out in out in out

In this last scenario we can see that the meditator has successfully focused on the in and out breath for eight breaths in succession. She might be able to do this consistently during a typical meditation session. She might be able to focus on the breath for one-hundred and fifty breaths in a row. Still, she isn’t getting any of the usual signs that she’s on Jhana’s doorstep, so to speak.

Why is that?

She isn’t fully focused, but she thinks she is.

Now, finally, we have enough background information to start talking about a serious focus on the breath. A 100% focus.

Focusing intently, intensely on the breath where you feel it at the upper lip or inside the nose is an all or nothing exercise. Your focus needs to be on one very small spot. Start with a large focus and bring it down to the smallest point at which you feel the breath. This is what we were doing when I said initially we can start with chanting or mantras. That’s starting with a big focus. Eventually we get down to the breath. Then we get down to a very small or tight focus on the breath just where the feeling of the breath occurs.

The breath is very subtle as you are completely relaxed and ready for a serious effort of focusing on the breath. It is not easy to feel all the time. This is why in my books I tell you to not cut your nose hair far up into your nose. The hair enables you to feel the air. As a triathlete and cyclist I’ve shaved my arms and legs before and guess what? I couldn’t feel the wind at all anymore. So, keep the hair you have around there, it will help you feel the breath!

When you focus on the breath, you have nothing else in your mind. You’re not emotional about anything. You’re not wanting anything. You’re not hot or cold, you’re just right. You don’t have any obvious distractions. Maybe you’re running a fan or have other white noise to deaden some of the sounds that could distract you. You are comfortable and you have time. You’re not trying to fit your meditation into a ten minute time block. For just relaxing, yes, you can do that. For serious focus on the breath, you cannot. Give yourself 20-30 minutes to relax and be ready to focus.

As you begin to focus, look only at the feeling of the breath. Not the sound of it, not the temperature of it. You’re looking to focus on the very slight tickle or burning that is the result of breath passing over small hairs on your upper lip or in your nose.

You may hear the breath – that isn’t what you want. You want the feeling.

You may feel your chest expanding and contraction – that isn’t what you want.

You may feel your heart beating – that isn’t what you want.

If you are feeling any of those, or anything else besides the breath itself in that very small spot, then there is too much you’re focusing on. Your focus isn’t tight enough.

Refine the focus and try to find just the little hairs that are vibrating and causing that very subtle sensation of air coming in and out of your nose.

If you are noticing visual patterns while focusing on your breath, you’re not focused enough. Re-focus back on the breath. Completely on the breath.

Ok, say now you’re focused on the breath. You have a distraction outside yourself, a door shuts. There are distractions that you hear and that bother you, and those that don’t. They all bother the meditation though.

I suggest you count the breaths you are able to perform with 100% focus. The counting brings with it a subtle motivation to keep you going.

The counting is not the point, it’s the motivation to take the game seriously and keep trying that is so important. I used counting. I know many others who have done the same. The counting is just very, very subtle and is only in your mind at the end of a complete in and out breath. The voice in your head whispers just knows – you completed one. You completed two. And so on.

Counting is a tool that will help for a while. It goes along with this gradual reduction of all extra stimuli. You can use counting to get into 3-4 breaths, maybe 5-8… and then around 8 breaths in complete focus, your mind naturally drops the counting and you are 100% focused on the breath and nothing else. The concentration of this state is really solid and thought doesn’t intervene. Distractions don’t intervene. The ears are either completely shut off, or barely working. Not sure, I haven’t tested it in anyway, but I don’t remember ever hearing any sound while in that state.

So, when you have distractions of any sort, or you have a thought pop up, or literally ANYTHING that causes you to drop 100% focus, you start to count all over from the beginning.

Even if your focus drops to 95%, that’s not focused enough, and you have to start over counting.

If your eyes move and are now focusing somewhere else – up, down, higher than they were a second ago – restart counting.

My friend, David from Australia came to Thailand to meditate about a year ago or so. This was one of his questions – how serious is the focus on the breath?

It’s everything. It’s one of, or THEE most important part of going from a practice of relaxation and training the mind, to the realm of Jhana.

Now, here is where it’s tricky.

There are two parts to this:

1. Your Focus.

2. The Feeling of Your Breath.

Your Focus – where your mind is looking for the breath. It must not waver. It has to look at exactly the same spot for the breath. It shouldn’t move at all. This is the tricky part to describe. It is like your entire mind is focused right there at that spot, and it doesn’t move at all. Nothing in the mind or body moves at all.

The Feeling of Your Breath – the physical feeling. This wavers. If your breath is anything like mine, you cannot feel it all the time 100%. You might become aware of it for a second, then it disappears. Especially because it is forceful during part of the breath, and then is virtually absent as the velocity slows down toward the end of an out-breath. Right?

So what to do?

The focus remains rock solid right where the feeling ‘should be.’

Even if you cannot feel the breath at the time, the focus remains right there waiting for it so it can follow it again.

If the focus moves at all – start over counting, you’re not at 100%.

If the feeling of the breath dies away for a second or two, that’s natural, it happens all the time.

As you first start putting this into practice, it may seem ludicrous. It may seem like you’re never going to be able to focus rock solidly for any length of time.

But that isn’t true. You can. You will. It takes time. Your mind has been going warp-speed for decades, maybe scores of years. To calm it down is no easy feat! To bring it down to the state necessary for Jhana and complete relaxation, it can take some time.

Summary

I went over a lot of details before giving you the answer to the question about how you know you have the correct focus on the breath during your meditation.

The answer is that it’s a very serious focus. You’re either in it 100%, or you’re not. With counting, you train yourself to know what is 100%, and what isn’t. I think this helps you to get better at it as time passes. It goes along with what I always tell beginning meditators –

EVERYTHING is helping. It may not seem like it. You may not see visible ‘gains.’ Still, it’s helping.

I am going to think more about this today to see if I could explain it any other way that might help you get a better grasp on it. Sitting in meditation and trying, will increase your knowledge a lot. I think once you learn the difference between a steady, unwavering focus, even when you can’t sense any breath at all in that spot, you will be on the right path to learning how to go about it.

Best of luck to you! Contact me through the Contact link here if you have any questions.

Vern