These Two Quick Breathing Practices Will Calm Your Racing Thoughts

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Diana Winston, director of mindfulness education at UCLA Semel Institute's Mindful Awareness Research Center and author of the new book, The Little Book of Being, is passionate about making meditation accessible to all. After experiencing the benefits of meditation at the early age of 14, she has delved deeper and found practices that help her and others find natural awareness, a state where one is focused on awareness rather than what's happening around them. In this excerpt from her book, Diana shares two practices to help calm restless thoughts and create sustainable awareness. These practices can be done in under 10 minutes, and you can try them out anytime. 

Let's look at two deliberate mental shifts you can make during classical mindfulness meditation that should help point you toward natural awareness: relaxing effort and broadening attention.

Let go of effort.

Using effort in classical mindfulness meditation typically means working to bring our attention back to whatever is the present-moment experience. We rigorously and faithfully return our attention to our main focus, typically our breathing. The moment we notice we've gotten lost in thought, we deliberately redirect our attention back to our breathing. It can be very hard work. I've seen meditators covered in sweat, straining to be aware.

This type of overexertion in meditation is too extreme. In classical mindfulness meditation, we need to be balanced between effort that leads to clear seeing and too much effort that doesn't really serve us. Some meditators experience a lot of self-judgment, believing that they're not trying hard enough.

Classical mindfulness meditators typically report that focusing gets easier over time. They can stay aware of their breathing for extended periods, or they find that they return their attention to their breath more quickly when it wanders away. Some people call this ease effortless effort—an experience in our meditation practice in which we are making an effort, but it doesn't seem hard to do at all.

Relaxing effort to shift into natural awareness is a little different. It means that we rein in the tendency to try to put our attention on our breath or other objects, and instead we just be with the objects as they arise.

I think a common concern of many meditators is that if they stop trying, then nothing will happen. Meditators also worry that their mind will wander all over the place if they are not making any effort to do something with it. Well, just sitting down and not doing anything wouldn't be natural awareness practice; it would be sitting down and doing nothing. So that's not what we're trying to do here. Dropping or relaxing effort is very different in that we are tuning in to the awareness that is already present, without trying hard to get there. We also don't necessarily have a wandering mind because we relax effort on the heels of having worked hard to pay attention.

Think of shifting into natural awareness like riding a bicycle. Often we pedal really hard, but at a certain point, we stop pedaling and begin coasting. The bike stays upright, and we continue to head wherever we're going, but we're not working so hard. In fact, it's usually quite exhilarating to coast on a bicycle. The coasting is dependent upon the earlier pedaling stage, just like effortlessness in meditation is dependent upon the effort you made earlier—particularly the effort to concentrate your mind.

So what does relaxing effort feel like in meditation? It feels like stopping the attempt to wrestle with your unruly mind, to bring it effortfully back to the present, and instead resting, relaxing, and exploring the awareness that is already present. It often feels like things are just happening on their own, and we're witnessing them. It can feel immensely relaxing and joyful to stop the struggle. We may lose the effortlessness, and then it takes a bit of effort to return to it (such as deliberately returning our attention to our breath for a few moments—or, to return to our bicycle analogy, pedaling for a block or two), but for the most part we are coasting, not pedaling. This relaxing of effort is one way to access a natural awareness:

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1. Let go of effort.

Start your meditation session by closing your eyes, if you wish, and taking about 10 minutes to develop focus and calm by rigorously paying attention to your breathing. When your attention wanders, bring it back to your breathing with regularity and precision.

After 10 minutes, see if you can simply pause the effort you are making. Relax a bit (and that may include relaxing your body), and notice what is happening without you trying to be aware. Is awareness present? Are you naturally aware of what is happening in your body or mind, without deliberately placing your attention on the object? Can you sense the way awareness is happening, kind of on its own, and how you are present without having to work at it?

If you notice yourself getting lost in thoughts, then make an effort to come back to your breath for a while. But then stop making an effort again and see what happens.

Expand your attention.

Your attention can be very narrowly focused or broadly focused. It can also be somewhere in between. You might notice the differences because you naturally adjust the breadth of your attention in life all the time. You are driving your car, and you focus first on your dashboard, and then you automatically shift to a wider peripheral sense of the road in front of you. You are talking with a friend, and you focus on her face, then shift to her whole body, and then notice the room in which you both are sitting.

We can think of the mechanism of attention as being like a camera. Sometimes you use a telescopic lens in order to focus on something quite narrow—maybe taking a close-up of a flower, seeing the intricacies of the stem and petals in detail. Usually we take midrange photos—of our kids, friends at the game, or whatever the selfie du jour is—employing a lens that is not too narrowly focused but open in a general way. The far end of the spectrum would be when we use a panoramic lens to take an elongated, comprehensive photo of, let's say, the Grand Canyon.

When we meditate, we can apply a narrow or panoramic attention. An example of using a narrow focus would be attending primarily to your breath (or any single object of focus). The panoramic attention would be when our attention is wide open—when we notice many things going on or just have a general wide view. When, for example, we listen to sounds coming from all directions surrounding us, this is a panoramic attention, or wide focus.

We can even apply an attention in meditation that's somewhere in between these two. A somewhere-in-between attention might be when a few things are going on and our attention can encompass them, either simultaneously or consecutively. Our lower back is achy, and we're trying to attend to the pain. And then perhaps we move our attention to a global sense of our body or to a part of our body that feels OK at the moment (typically our hands or feet), so that we're not overwhelmed by the pain (this is a helpful recommendation if you're experiencing pain in meditation).

Broad, panoramic attention tends to be the type of attention present when we do natural awareness practice. Because most of us gravitate toward a focused attention both in meditation and in daily life, opening up panoramically can actually invite in natural awareness. It counteracts our usual forward-focus tendencies and allows our minds to rest and reset, kind of like a brain vacation.

But broad or panoramic attention does not equal natural awareness; instead, shifting into broad attention will point us in the direction of natural awareness. That's why many of the glimpse practices in this book focus on broadening our attention. Sometimes as we practice broadening our attention, we find ourselves thoroughly and completely aware, which is close to how I defined natural awareness earlier in the book. And it is also possible to have natural awareness without noticing broadly.

2. Broaden your attention.

Close your eyes if that is comfortable to you. Start by narrowing your attention to a single area of focus in your body—your abdomen, chest, or nostrils. Try to keep this narrow focus for a few minutes.

Now begin to listen to the sounds around you. Start with sounds nearby, but then listen with an expansive ear. How far away are the sounds you can hear? Listen to the sound that is farthest out. Try this approach to listening for a minute or two.

Now notice your whole body. Can you fully feel your body seated here? Relax and unclench your belly. Imagine you could expand that sense of your body, feeling your body moving out in all directions, including above and below. Try being aware of your expanded body for another minute.

Finally, open your eyes and let your gaze become peripheral—wide open, noticing the space around you. Let your eyes be soft, but take in an expansive view. Keep your stomach relaxed. Explore this expanded view for a few minutes, resting here, and then notice what happens to your awareness.

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