This practice is based upon a form of insight meditation. In order to do this basic practice, first, find someplace quiet to sit, where you won’t be disturbed.
Pick out a chair that you won’t mind sitting on for half an hour, more or less. You should be able to sit with your spine relatively straight, without slouching. You do not need to sit in the “lotus position,” or any other special posture in order to do this practice. Of course, if it’s easy for you, go ahead. It just isn’t necessary, that’s all. The most important rule for practice is… You don’t need to sit in pain!
Get some kind of timer. (Or sit with somebody who keeps time!) Some people are able to sit for just the right amount of time without any kind of timer. That’s fine, but it doesn’t matter one way or the other. A kitchen timer is good, but you don’t want it to be too loud, either the ticking sound or the bell.
When you begin this practice, you can start sitting for 10 minutes and then quickly go up to 15 minutes per session. After a while you can go up to 20 or 25, which is a good time to settle at. You can eventually work up to 45 minutes if you want, but it’s not necessary unless you are comfortable sitting for that long.
Start by just sitting down in a comfortable position. Move around until you feel good sitting where you are. Then go through your body checking for tension, and just relax. Drop your shoulders a little. Take a reasonably deep breath and let it out. If, at any time, you start feeling uncomfortable, shift around a little. This is also true about scratching. If you have to scratch really badly, go ahead. Try to put up with a little manageable pain or itching. But this practice is not about learning a new method of self-torture.
Rest your hands someplace. Some people like to put their hands together and let them rest in their lap. Others like to rest their hands palm-up on their thighs.
Some people like to close their eyes. Others like to keep them part-way open, looking at a place just in front of them on the floor. Either way… It may be best to keep your eyes closed, because if you look at one place for too long, you’re liable to get bumped into a trance. This isn’t about trances.
Breathing is very important. When you start your practice, notice how you are breathing. Pay attention to where you feel your breath coming in and going out. Do you feel it clearly in your nostrils? Or maybe you feel your abdomen moving up and down. Or maybe you can clearly feel the air filling up your lungs and then flowing out of your lungs. Wherever the place is where you feel your breath the clearest, just let your awareness settle in there.
Follow your breath coming in and then going out. Just breathe naturally. Don’t try to make your breathing different. After a while, start to say something to yourself (subvocally, silently, just to yourself) in order to help you follow your breathing. Say something like “now I am breathing in,” and “now I am breathing out,” or “in” and “out” or whatever. It doesn’t matter what you say to yourself as long as it is geared to your breathing.
Just settle down with what you have been doing. You’ve got a place to sit, you’ve got your chair to sit on, you’ve got your natural posture, and you’ve got your breathing to pay attention to. The pattern goes like this: Breathe in. While you breathe in, say “breathing in” to yourself. Then breathe out. While you breathe out, say “breathing out” to yourself. No need to rush. No need to do anything besides just sit.
After a while you will begin to notice that there is a little pause between breaths. As you settle down, the pause will probably get a little longer, but that doesn’t matter. During the pause between your breaths you can check to see if you have been thinking. It doesn’t matter whether or not you have been thinking, and it doesn’t matter what you have been thinking about. Just notice. You can say something to yourself like “thinking” if you notice you have been thinking. Sometimes you’ll get in the habit of saying “thinking” in the pause between your breaths whether or not you’ve been thinking, and it will remind you to check. There’s nothing wrong with doing this, because it will get you to actually check. But see if you can say “thinking” only when you actually notice that you have been doing it.
In addition to simply thinking thoughts, you will notice yourself doing things like planning for the future, or remembering things that happened in the past, or rehearsing, or imagining. It is important to notice these aspects of mind as they arise. You can name them separately to yourself, like “remembering” or “imagining” or whatever it is. Or you can just lump all these aspects together as “thinking.”
When you find yourself thinking, it’s not necessary to force yourself to stop thinking. The whole trick is just to notice whether you are thinking. After a while you’ll just get used to being in a place inside yourself where you can watch whether or not you are thinking, and your thinking will naturally decrease. But you don’t need to force yourself to get there.
Of course, there will be many times when you forget to do any of this. You’ll forget to follow your breath, and you’ll forget to check your thinking. When this happens, you simply start all over again. You can start to follow your breath again, and then you add the check to see if you’re thinking. Everybody loses touch. The moment you come back is a moment of awakening.
As your practice proceeds you will begin to identify other realms of awareness besides thinking. There are two other realms of experience you will notice - these are experiences of the outside environment, and the internal realm of feeling.
First you might become aware of internal bodily experiences, like a tension or pain in you shoulders. You can say something like, “inhale,” “exhale,” “tension.” Then you will probably begin to notice other feelings and moods. For instance, say that you notice you’re feeling sad. You can say something to yourself like, “inhale,” “exhale,” “sadness.” Don’t try to change what you’re feeling. Just be present with whatever is happening in a mindful way.
Next you might become aware of the external sounds around you. So you can say something like, “inhale,” “exhale,” “hearing.” And you might become aware of the movement of air against your skin. So you might say, “inhale” “exhale,” “sensation.”
At first you will probably just pay attention to thinking, because that’s what we tend to do most of all with our minds. But eventually you will become aware of the other realms of experience. As your sitting practice deepens, you will begin to distinguish the three realms - an internal realm of feelings and moods - then an external realm of sensing - as well as the realm of thoughts, memory and imagination.
But there is no need to rush. All you need to do is just sit there, following breath, and being aware of whatever arises.