how to breathe

A guest post by Kate Swoboda

In my experience, if you start talking to people about how to meditate, there will be at least one naysayer who will crop up to tell you that you are doing it all wrong.

I experienced this a few years ago, when I was leading a retreat based on the theme of presence. My perspective was that while formal meditation was great, it wasn’t for everyone, and this retreat was about exploring alternatives to formal meditation that would still get people taking time to get present to their lives.

A prominent Zen Buddhist saw my retreat offering and blogged about it, blasting what I’d written without directly naming me, but paraphrasing so closely that people were emailing me about it to ask if I’d seen her blog posts.

We live in a culture that encourages us to be steadfast in the face of these things, to simply not care, but I don’t think that that’s the healthy response. I cared.

I didn’t care so much from the perspective that I thought she was right, as much as I cared from the perspective that I was simply hurt that another human being had gone out of their way to be unkind, to actually put time and effort into a blog post that would make me wrong, and then encourage their commenters to chime in with how wrong I was, too.

Despite the backlash of this scenario, I have remained steadfastly committed to an idea:

that true meditation is about presence, and that presence does not always need to look like sitting on a zafu with knees angled just-so, hands in the proper mudra, eyes at the “correct” gaze.

Meditation & Discipline

I don’t say any of this from a place of not knowing what in the world I’m talking about. For several years, I seriously studied Zen Buddhism. I read every book I could get my hands on, took meditation retreats, and visited a nearby sangha every Sunday for services. (I continue to study, but wouldn’t say that I’m quite so “serious” about it, now, as you’ll see).

What I have come to understand about sitting on the zafu, hands just-so, focus entirely on the breath (or the pauses between inhale/exhale, more accurately) is that these “rules” create a kind of safety, a kind of protection. For this, I appreciate them.

What are they protection from? Monkey mind. Without them, you might be apt to constantly shift and shuffle, never actually getting to a place where you can settle deeply into the present. To have a “rule” about how to sit or place your hands is a form of putting a boundary on a practice that helps to keep your aim steady, your practice focused.

Where they become limiting is when they become the basis for determining that you are “good” or “bad” because you have done it “right” or “wrong.”

I’ve met many a person who meditates who didn’t leave me with a sense of being loved and cared for (see example, above: the blogging Zen Buddhist who used her blog to put someone else down, and encouraged others to join in).

I’ve met many a person who didn’t meditate in the strictest way, who left me feeling utterly held, seen, and connected.

Hitting the Brakes, Suddenly

The other limitation? This sort of formal meditation just isn’t for everyone. I’ve met so many people who have told me that they “wished” they could meditate, but that they just couldn’t get themselves to do it. Sitting on a cushion in silence was more than they could bear.

This doesn’t surprise me. Look at the culture we’re in–with media and information coming at us in such a fast-paced way.

Perhaps it’s too much to expect someone to walk off the street, hear the ‘rules’ of meditation, and then sit down and do it. Perhaps that’s a bit like hitting the brakes on a car, rather suddenly.

Some of us might need an in-between space.

Having studied various forms of meditation and seen firsthand the enormous benefits, it seems to me that we can get down to brass tacks and pragmatics with this–we could release the judgment about “how” someone meditates and instead, celebrate the fact that they are choosing to engage in any kind of presence practice, at all.

What It Could Look Like

  • Meditation could look like what I call a “stillness practice.”
  • It could look like taking time each day to sit quietly and gaze at the room around you.
  • It could look like lighting a candle at night and watching the flickering flame.
  • It could look like a moving practice, dancing furiously to music that’s played really loudly, being completely and totally present and focused with the movement.
  • It could look like choosing to breathe deeply when a family member is being accusatory.
  • It could look like running on a trail in the early morning, no sound except nature and the light patter of left-right, left-right from your feet.

Down to Brass Tacks

I’m a Midwesterner, transplanted to California, who has never entirely escaped the roots of her “Give it to me straight” conditioning.

I can talk breathing and mantras and presence, and the pragmatic Midwesterner in me wants to get down to brass tacks–how exactly is this going to have a practical application to one’s life?

That’s the basis from which I make ‘controversial’ statements about not needing to follow a dogmatic approach to meditation.

I’m just excited when anyone looks at their life and sees clearly the benefits of getting present to it, in service to living in a more fully alive way.

How to Start

If you’ve always longed to start your own meditation practice, but have faced resistance, then perhaps calling it a “stillness practice” would be one place to start.

After that? If the resistance has been about doing something daily, every day, for a prescribed amount of time, consider: what if you started with three times a week? Choose a Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for your very own “stillness practice.”

Put that on the calendar for this upcoming week–and then–only commit for a week. Then your monkey mind needn’t screech at you with how you’ll “have to” do this “always” for the rest of your life.

When you have your “stillness practice,” experiment.

How I started was with lighting a candle each night after everything had quieted down, and watching the flames flicker on the wall while listening to soothing instrumental music. Instead of getting present to the breath, I got present to just watching the shadows on the wall.

Maybe that won’t work for you. I heard of a meditation teacher who had his students do a crying meditation (basically, they’d think of the saddest things possible and try to cry for the duration of the period), followed by a laughing meditation (laughing, or forcing yourself to, for the duration of the period), followed finally by pure silence.

After being told about this, the leader of our workshop had us actually do it–30 minutes with each. The silence in the room when we got to the sitting part was the deepest silence I’d ever “heard,” if one can say that about silence.

So–perhaps what you need before you can get to the silence is to let yourself release anger, sadness, laughter, joy.

Make that your meditation, connecting fully to what you’re doing in that moment.

Trust in People

It’s important that we have a fundamental trust in people, in their basic goodness, and in their desires to change their lives. We can turn inside-out the notion that the rules must be there for everyone, all of the time, and instead practice the courage of trusting that at a very basic level, people want to be well.

People want to thrive in their lives.

People just don’t always feel they’re capable of doing so.

If we create the conditions where people feel they’re capable, it’s my courageous perspective (courageous because it’s vulnerable to trust others) that they will choose what will evolve their souls.

In my case, the informal “stillness practices” have given way over the years to the place where I originally started, the place that I initially rejected: on the cushion, hands held just-so, focus on the breath, nothing but a blank wall in front of me.

If you’ve always wanted to try out meditation on a regular basis, but have felt forever stymied, the invitation is here to trust that instinct that you’ve had to try. That instinct is the most important thing, right now.

Then trust that if you simply follow your inclinations to create stillness in your life, this is something that you can do–and you aren’t bad for setting it up in your own way.

I bow in deep gassho to you as you contemplate what lies before you.

About the Author

Kate Swoboda is a Life Coach, speaker and writer who helps clients to lead unconventional and revolutionary lives through practicing courage. She’s the author of The Courageous Living Guide, and creator of the Courageous Play and Create Stillness retreats–as well as The Coaching Blueprint, a resource just for Life Coaches. Learn more at, sign up for her free newsletter, or follow her on Facebook:

3 Responses to how to breathe

  1. Nneka, Working Mystic July 3, 2012 at 11:32 pm #

    Hi Kate, I wholeheartedly agree with your philosophy that meditation is about presence. I, too, have studied for years (since 8, so almost 3 decades).

    However, my best friend asked me the other day how I am so certain about feeling Presence all the time. I told her it’s because of my meditation practice. She responded that she also has a daily practice, but she doesn’t get there. Then she described that she plays calming/soothing music when she meditates.

    I explained to her that I meditate in silence, sitting up with the intention of being fully aware.

    I think a lot of people meditate to feel good or relieve stress. These are awesome by-products. I say take it however you can get it. But, if you really want the benefit of awareness and Presence when you meditate, you might have to go to the mat, in silence:-)

  2. Michael July 7, 2012 at 1:28 pm #

    Hi Kate,

    I always felt that kindness and the desire to help others live a better life is a key requirement for any spiritual teacher. So given the choice, I would always opt for your (kind of) retreat, as surely as I would stay away from one offered by said Zen-Buddhist.

    What’s the sense in being burdened with another set of rules if you search for your inner peace and freedom? Isn’t it better to start meditating in an explorative kind of approach, guided by some encouraging advise? To enjoy the experience, and – like you write – follow your instinct on your way? If that approach leads to the mat in the end: fine. If not, maybe you end up doing Tai Chi in a park? It’s variety that makes the world beautiful after all.

    Thanks for your post, it was very inspiring.
    All the best from a small valley in Germany

  3. Noel August 5, 2012 at 4:50 am #

    Challenges to what we say can be tricky. At one level there is the apparent surface threat. At another level there is the opportunity from these challenges to learn more about ourselves, about others, and about our world. These deeper learnings may have far wider implications in our lives and in our relationships.

    We might one day see that the content itself (the challenge) doesn’t determine our reaction – even though it appears to. We might see that our interpretations cause our reactions. To the extent that we directly observe this, not believe it but see it, then we might be able to take greater responsibility within our lives. We might no longer be a victim to circumstance.

    Our conditioning, which includes our beliefs, causes us to automatically react. And automatic reactions tend to be mindless. To be mindful is to be present (to meditate). This meditation involves not being caught mindlessly unaware within these automatic reactions.

    When someone says something which appears to challenge our beliefs (our conditioning), a common automatic reaction is to feel threatened. We feel threatened because we identify with our thoughts. We may identify so tightly, and so mindlessly, that it might even be said that we implicitly believe we are our thoughts.

    When our sense of OKness is dependent, then it is unreliable. Is it possible then for us to have a sense of OKness which is not dependent, and therefore is reliable? For example, is it possible for us to have our thoughts “attacked” and to feel unperturbed? And more importantly, if and when we do feel perturbed, is it possible for us to feel unperturbed about feeling perturbed? To stay with the perturbance and not need to quickly get rid of it. To let it be, to watch it, to listen to it, to learn about it, to love it. To be present to it.

    Is it possible to examine our reactions without being dependent on the outcome of the examination? Is that something worth meditating on?