Renowned meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg offers a variety of techniques for practicing meditation that focuses on the breath. One of my favorites is a very simple, nonjudgmental approach: as you practice, you identify what is the breath and what is not. The latter covers the whole range of things that happen as you practice from random, quickly passing thoughts and distractions to long, winding stories and fantasies.
The most important moment in meditation practice according to Salzberg is when you recognize those distractions and gently, without judgment, bring your focus back to the breath. You can mark that moment by mentally noting “not breath.” That’s it. Then, as you settle your attention, you note “breath.”
Salzberg often comments that you may do this thousands of times and that’s okay. I can hear her voice saying, “That’s the practice.” And, I am proof that you do get more skillful. But, as with life itself there are times when you feel very skillful and times you don’t. The beauty of breath/not breath is that it does not carry judgment. You simply identify the distraction as not breath, and then come back to breath.
Another lesson I am learning about meditation is that it isn’t just about taking a break or getting some quiet time to breathe and release. Another goal is to shift your mind so you carry meditative and practices with you throughout your day. I have been playing with the breath/not breath technique in other areas such as doing the laundry. Chores like this, I have discovered, are fertile practice ground as their familiarity means our mind can go elsewhere and while that can be good as it part of the creative process–I’ve had many an inspiration while folding the towels–we can also find ourselves revisiting our failings, rehearsing how others have failed us, rehashing old wounds or worrying about new ones, letting our mind spin tales that pull us into darker less welcoming places.
When my mind starts doing its thing while I sort the socks, I use that sorting as the focus of my attention. I recognize that I have been led astray and think “not laundry” and go back to the socks, noting “laundry.”
Dishes are another good chore. I am the primary dishwasher as we don’t have an appliance. I sometimes listen to the news or music, but lately I have been experimenting with focus: you guessed it, dishes/not dishes. Besides a good meditative rest, I think my dishes are cleaner.
I encourage you to give this a try, perhaps as a stand alone practice but also as a first step towards a more formal meditation practice. While I used to find laundry and dishes as necessary but somewhat boring practices, I now look forward to another opportunity to tweak my consciousness and practice mindfulness throughout the day.