They’re right. It can be.
Indeed, many of the most widely used meditation techniques — you’ll probably agree — do sound rather monotonous.
Repeat a mantra, over and over again, inside your head.
Scan the body from head to toe, and back again, ad nauseam.
And then there’s the common refrain: “Pay attention to the breath, and when the mind wanders, gently bring it back.”
This, in my opinion, is a recipe for boredom. Not that there’s anything wrong with focusing on the breath (or boredom), which — under the right conditions — can be both beneficial and profoundly relaxing. However, the instruction “pay attention to the breath…” allows little room for creativity. Instead, it turns you into a robot. If this, do that. Meditation becomes a repetitive task, when it could be so much more.
Meditating with interest
Thankfully, it’s okay to use your intelligence when you meditate. You don’t have to follow a teachers’ recommendations to the letter. You can adapt the instructions. You can be playful and creative. And you don’t have to return your attention to the breath. That’s just one possibility — and not necessarily the best. It often results in little more than frustration and disappointment.
So, instead of paying attention to the breath (as though it were a business transaction or a job), consider the ways in which you could savour, explore or experiment with it.
Similarly, instead of turning the breath into an anchor, treat it like a resting place, where you can pause from time to time. Also, consider how you use the breath in daily life: smelling your morning coffee, sighing when you need to let go, yawning as you wind down towards sleep. You don’t need to smell, sigh or yawn continuously — just when it’s appropriate.
In other words, think about how you meditate, rather than what you should focus upon. Experiment with the attitudes that Bill Morgan recommends in his book The Meditator’s Dilemma. These include playfulness and delight, gratitude and wonder, warmth and tenderness. Struggle and strain, you will note, are not included.
An experimental meditation process
Let’s take the breath as an example, and see how we can make meditating on it more engaging.
Firstly, don’t think of meditation as a test to see how well you can stay focused. You can gently hold the breath in mind, or let in dance in awareness — a little more present than usual. You don’t have to block anything out. Thoughts, sounds, emotions, memories, plans, discomfort, relaxation: these can all be welcomed.
Then, at those times when you naturally become aware of the breath, see if you can notice what part of the breath you find most satisfying. Do you prefer the inhalation or the exhalation? If it’s the out-breath, is it the moment the out-breath starts, or somewhere else? How does one breath differ from the next? Imagine that you can zoom in on one tiny part of the breath, and get to know it.
Or feel the breath in different places:
- gently undulating deep in the belly
- swirling in and out of the lungs
- floating up and down the length of the spine
- playing delicately across the upper lip.
Or in different ways:
- like a wave ebbing and flowing through the body
- like a balm spreading across the neck and down the shoulders
- like a massage, gently working through areas of tension
- like a warmth or glow, radiating outwards
As Lorin Roche says in Breathtaking, a whole world of sensory experience gradually unfolds:
- the silky sensation of air flowing in and out of the body
- the rhythm of the breath
- the smell of the air, flowers or someone cooking nearby
- the motion and undulation of the body
- the quiet sound of air whispering across the vocal chords
Playing with the breath
Meditation doesn’t need to be nearly so serious and dour as it’s sometimes made out to be. Approach it with a sense of play, like a child at the beach, or a kitten with a ball of wool.
I like to play with location and scope. I might start just by noticing the breath as it moves across my upper lip. Then I might check to see whether it flows more freely through one nostril. I might ask myself:
- What is it like to feel the breath flowing down the spine from face to belly?
- What is it like to feel the breath flowing up the spine, from coccyx to navel?
- How far does the breath want to move?
- Can I feel the breath in the lower back, the armpits, the pelvis? Where else?
- How do the ribs respond to each breath?
- Can I let the entire body expand and contract as I breathe?
I also like to imagine the breath flowing through the pores of my skin, such that every cell is oxygenated on the inhalation, and every cell relaxes as I breathe out — almost as though air flows through the body like a breeze through the leaves of a tree.
Experimenting with the breath
You can also notice how the breath affects your mind, mood and body.
What happens when you focus on letting the out-breath be long, slow and soft? What happens when you breathe fully, opening up the lungs and chest? What happens when the breath becomes extremely subtle? What happens when you make the breath sharp, clear, easy to feel and follow?
Donna Farhi invites us to rediscover the wonders and freedom of unrestricted breathing (by asking similar questions) in The Breathing Book. She notes that most of us breathed with complete ease during infancy, but unconsciously altered these natural rhythms in response to stress and other demands in our lives.
Another teacher suggests that you try to breathe so softly that an imagined piece of duck down resting on your upper lip remains undisturbed. This is meditation as play. It’s an invitation to use your imagination and creativity. It permits you to have fun meditating.
Caring for the breath
If you’re in a serious mood, you may prefer not to have so much fun, in which case you could care for the breath instead. You might imagine it as a living thing that you nurture within. Can you let the breath purr like a cat? Can you let it flow, or flower, or vibrate? Can you feed it with tenderness or appreciation, checking in with it like a doting parent? Can you gently tease more beauty, more pleasure, or more strength from it?
How does this feel different from simply counting the ins and outs? When play is permitted, your options expand. Your interest is engaged. The breath comes alive. Focus becomes an inevitable and effortless byproduct, rather than a source of struggle, strain and self-condemnation. Distractions become invitations, and failures become opportunities for new adventures.
Meditation doesn’t have to be boring. It doesn’t require rote adherence to some arbitrary instruction. It doesn’t have to be mechanical and monotonous. In The Book of Secrets, Osho makes this same point, inviting meditators to experience and experiment with everyday phenomenon and to trust in your own capacity to access meditative states.
Meditation is much easier — and far less boring — when you adopt this kind of playful, exploratory attitude. At least, it is for me.