I can’t meditate on my breath

When I meditate, my thoughts just run away with themselves, and I was advised to calm my mind by following my breath as it goes in and out. But I find that as soon as I start to do that, I change my breathing, and I can’t just let it be and follow it. It’s crazy because a second before, I was breathing naturally, then I just start interfering with it! Now I can’t meditate at all, in any way, what should I do?

The liberating purpose of meditation is the exploration of your experience, and this does seem to be a situation where that might be useful. What are your options? You could wrestle with the problem, you could give up and avoid it – or you could learn something vital from it. (Actually the same options exist for the issue of having difficulty quietening your thinking.)

Were you told that controlling your breath was a problem for your meditation, or did you come to that conclusion yourself?

I was told to breathe normally, but just to put my attention lightly (whatever that means) on the sensations of the breath.

You conclude that controlling your breathing means that you cannot meditate, which is the very thing you want to do. What would happen if you were to meditate while interfering with your breathing? You would at least be having some experience, which could be understood better, don’t you think?

But there’s more to learn from this situation: what appears to you as a problem might be a lucky opportunity.

Who’s in charge here?

You say that you start to take charge of your breathing, despite aiming to follow the instruction to breathe normally without interfering with it. Is that not curious? You tell yourself to do one thing and you do the opposite. Which of these ‘you’s is really you?

You know how to breathe normally because you do it all the time. Then when you tell yourself to do the very thing you are already doing, you cannot do it! And what’s more, the reason you are doing this meditation on the breath is to quieten your thoughts so you can begin to understand your experience better. Yet it sounds like your thoughts are extra-busy with their new job of making you breathe, as well as worrying about not doing what you told yourself to do.

Could the situation be understood by looking at what all these conflicting ‘you’s are doing? You could try that approach and see if that led anywhere. You can breathe normally; you decide to breathe normally while watching it happen; you now consciously control your breathing; you have decided to attend to your breathing instead of your thinking; you get tied up in thinking about the way you can’t do what you set out to do.

Is this ‘you’ one thing, or is it several? If there is a single ‘you’, what the heck is it playing at? If there are many ‘you’s which appear spontaneously to frustrate each other, what is happening there? How would the idea of an infinite number of possible ‘you’s fit with the notion I presume you have, that you are one and the same person since you were born? Can you sort out those questions and come to a useful conclusion?

What is wrong with this picture?

Try this seriously, taking all the time you need to explore it thoroughly, until you come to a firm conclusion. This is of course the way to proceed with any meditative exploration: to wonder about something, perhaps to ask a specific question – and then crucially, to answer it from your experience, not from how you think it is. Then you must check what you find, either refining the exploration, or coming to a definite answer in which you now have total confidence. If you do find that you explore it first using logic (i.e. thinking), that would also be interesting – is it answerable by in this way, or does it all make no sense?

If it did end up making no sense at all, you would have to give up trying to fit the idea of ‘you’ to your experience, and look directly at what is happening. It might seem hard to believe that a way of interpreting your experience which you have used for most of your life might not work when examined closely, and it would certainly be challenging to see things another way, but if your concept of being a single lasting ‘you’ really turns out not to fit your experience, there might be a better, more peaceful understanding.

Meditation is always a cliff-edge

Chasing the wrong suspect

What stands in the way of your peace now is the way the concept of a ‘you’ which can decide your behaviour does not appear to be working. The more you try to make it work, beating your head against the unhappy fact that it doesn’t, the less peace you get. It’s the thinking rather than the breathing which is the spanner in the works.

A warning: there are no shortcuts here. If you do not exhaustively check out how the ‘you’ idea works or doesn’t, it will stay as the way the machinery of your mind interprets everything. All I am saying here is that at least it’s an idea you could call into question, and that your current problem with meditation would be a good situation to test it in.

Another warning: don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. If there are some parts of the ‘you’ story which remain true, why is that? The Buddha had a clear way of discriminating truth: what is false always reveals itself in dukkha, restless unease and suffering. Happy exploring!

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