Following the breath as it comes in and as it goes out is a practice found in almost all spiritual traditions, and is the simplest of all forms of meditation. In Japan it is called Hara. As one eminent teacher has written, ‘Hara is the seat of life, and the individual who practises it is not likely to lose his balance or his composure. He learns to anchor himself and not be distracted.’
All we have to do is to concentrate on a point about two to three inches below the navel, and breathe deeply into the lower abdomen, letting the diaphragm expand as we inhale. Feel the breath filling the depths of the belly. Then, on exhaling, we draw in the belly, letting the energy circulate through the whole of the body. On the in-breath we pause for a few seconds before letting the breath flow; and then for a few seconds we rest in the place where there is no breath, waiting for the breath to start flowing back of its own accord. We rest in the stillness of the full breath and we rest in the stillness of the no-breath.
We focus on the physical sensation of the breath coming in, pausing, flowing out, and pausing. Whatever thoughts or images distract us, we let them pass. It is as though we are lying on a hillside, gazing up into the emptiness of the sky … From time to time a flock of birds, or a butterfly or an aeroplane may pass overhead. We observe their passing and then gently bring our focus back to the emptiness of the sky.
As Thich Nhat Hanh observes,
When we focus our attention on our breath, we release everything else, including worries or fears about the future and regrets or sorrows about the past. Focusing on the breath, we notice what we’re feeling in the present moment … Real freedom only comes when we are able to release our suffering and come home … Freedom is the foundation of happiness and it is available to us with each conscious breath.