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Cannot prevent controlling the breath - absolute beginner.

Cannot prevent controlling the breath - absolute beginner.
mindfullness of breathing
8/11/10 5:11 PM

I have been attempting to meditate for a little over a year, on and off.
I initially stumbled into meditation quite by accident but using one of the guided meditations by Shinzen Young (on Science of Enlightenment) I discovered within a few days that my relationships with others improved immensely - the emotional edge (ego/politics) disappeared from discussions and my concentration was much more focussed at work.

If that is all that meditation could do for me then that alone would still be enough reason to continue with the practice.
Unfortunately that little positive situation did not last for long - a few weeks at most.

Not wanting to be reliant on mp3's, I looked to learn how to meditate by myself and so went to a Goenka retreat last Xmas. Goenka's retreat appeals to me on several grounds - the price and ostensibly secular setup being the main reasons.
Whilst I experienced a lot of positeve things during the retreat, I never felt I got any actual instruction and on leaving course was more confused than when I'd arrived. Having just read through the first 60 pages of Daniel Ingram's book I feel I have learned everything I should have either have known before I went on the retreat or at least learned while I was there. I don't blame the way the retreat is run however, and intend to repeat it again at the end of the year - forewarned is forearmed.

Anyway, apologies for such a long winded description of my background but it might give a better idea of where I'm at.

The problem is I cannot stop controlling my breath.
At no point during the retreat or since have I been unable to not control my breathing (except when my mind wanders).
I am either inhaling or exhaling without pause, or on the rare occassion I am able to break free and wait at the top of the breath, I hover, aware that even the act of not breathing is being controlled, and rather quickly break cover and initiate the next breath. All the while I find that I am frustrated, angry and distraught that I cannot end this seemingly vicious cycle.
Interestingly though, I do always feel more relaxed and 'quieter' after I sit - otherwise I think I'd have given up by now.

I suspect that what I'm facing is probably what everyone else faces when they first start to practise, but I have searched high and low online (including the discussions on this site) without finding anything beyond vague statements such as 'simply observe the breath', which is either really simple and I'm not getting it, or not so simple after all.

I look forward to any suggestions you might have.


Colin S.

RE: Cannot prevent controlling the breath - absolute beginner.
8/11/10 8:57 PM as a reply to Colin S.
Hey Colin,

Welcome to the DhO!

I assume what you're describing is common enough. I've definitely experienced it myself on and off throughout my practice. When I was having a hard time with this at a retreat, I asked the teacher for advice he suggested something like this: breath in, breath out, focus on your feet (or anything else that's away from the breath) and then try to catch up with the breath on the next in-breath. Other things that may work: relax! (I find this to be generally good advice); holding your breath until it forces itself out, at this point you might find it easier to let go since the breath already started going on its own; focusing on something else (e.g. feet) for a short while until the breath gets into a comfortable rhythm then slowly, gently, resting your attention on the breath.

Hope this helps,

RE: Cannot prevent controlling the breath - absolute beginner.
8/12/10 4:08 AM as a reply to Colin S.

This happened to me also; I found it was very educational: isn't it amazing that you can not do something as "simple" as not interfering? Can you imagine the tremendous amount of energy that is being spent by this mental habit? How does this compulsion to control or interfere influence your daily life, given that it is so present that you simply can not stop it not even for a few seconds?

Incredible hun?

Anyway, the good news is that it will pass. You can do a number of things. First of all, don't get irritated; getting irritated and frustrated is another layer of the kind of stuff you want to remove: you want to pay attention to the breath, not try to control the breath, but even less to control the breath AND be irritated at doing so; but if you do get irritated, just repeatedly let it go, certainly don't become frustrated at being irritated about controlling the breath, etc.

And that's the general approach if you want to do concentration meditation. Whenever irritation arises, let go of it and go back to the breath. If a controlling movement arises, try to let go of it, as best as you can and go back. Over, and over, and over again. Eventually, you will find that you can have a few seconds without controlling the breath, and eventually you will be so engrossed in the breath that the whole controlling thing will no longer be there.

But if you want to do insight meditation, then this is an awesome opportunity to investigate the way that you interfere; What I mean is that the way that you interfere with the breath, when you stay with that moment by moment, really looking at how that's like, how it feels to interfere, where the impulse to interfere comes from, how it actually changes the way the breath presents itself, etc, all of these things are INTERESTING sources of insight. Heck, they are fascinating objects for insight meditation! If you can pinpoint, moment by moment, the exact place where the sensation of pushing or pulling comes from, which interferes with the breath, you are doing very good insight meditation.

Good luck!


RE: Cannot prevent controlling the breath - absolute beginner.
8/13/10 3:24 AM as a reply to Bruno Loff.
Hi Eran and Bruno,

Thank you for your responses which although quite different from one another appear to both be quite promising - I feel confident I can use both your ideas going forward.

I was impressed by the simplicity of the idea of "breath in, breath out, focus on your feet ... and then try to catch up with the breath on the next in-breath" - this was something I was able to put into my next sit with a small amount of success.

I found your rather penetrating observations on interference etc to be very valuable, Bruno. I noticed that I was still getting frustrated due to the fact I am still essentially controlling almost every breath (except when I remembered to move my observation away to my feet!) but this was alleviated somewhat by the knowledge that this does happen but that it will eventually get better.

The reason I am interested in just observing breath as concentration meditation is as a stepping stone towards Vipassana (according to my understanding of what I think Goenka teaches). I figure that if I can sort my breathing out then I won't have those frustrations nagging me in the background as I try to observe all sensations in my body - The aim is to learn to walk before I try to run.

This of course ignores the fact that the interference is prevalent at all levels! emoticon

You have both given me a huge amount to think about and work with. Thanks again.


RE: Cannot prevent controlling the breath - absolute beginner.
8/13/10 5:05 PM as a reply to Colin S.
Yeah, I went through this too (and may again, for all I know).

What helped me some was a sorta fake-it-till you make it attitude. The Goenka AT said to me "breathe normally"... and I was like what the fuck does that mean? So, I imagined some guy in Kansas sitting on his sofa drinking a beer and watching football on Sunday, and imagined that he looked pretty normal to me, and I wondered "how would he breath?" So, I started to breath like "a normal person." What's weird is that pretty soon, I was able to notice the small micromovements that I was applying to control the breath in a non-normal way. And, seeing them, I was able to let them go, and come back to this "normal" breath. I was aware that the "normal" breath was also me controlling, but did it only temporarily. I did this for a few days, and then was able to drop the whole "normal" thing, and just let my breath come and go with much less control on my part. With lots of practice, eventually I came to be able to observe it much more without controlling it, but I can't say that it's totally solved, as the compulsion to control things goes deep... as does the illusion that there is even anyone there controlling things to begin with.

Anyway, I don't necessarily recommend the kansas-sofa method, but it worked for me. For the most part, though, this stuff seems to sort itself out with practice

Acceptance might help too, as the habitual reaction might be to try to control your controlling, which then leads to more controlling. Sometimes you may have to just accept: "at this moment, I am controlling the breath, let me start again."

By the way, did you ask a Goenka assistant teacher about this?

RE: Cannot prevent controlling the breath - absolute beginner.
8/14/10 2:35 AM as a reply to Colin S.
Go ahead and jump ahead to the Progress of Insight section and read about Cause and Effect, Insight Stage 2, in which we can't help but control the breath. This is a normal part of the progression of practice. Just do the technique, don't worry about what the breath does as long as you are able to see the sensations that make up whatever you are experiencing, and keep at it.

At points our mindfulness seems to "mess the breath up": this is not a problem.
At points this doesn't occur in the same way: also not a problem.

Do the technique, keep going, see how it goes. What the breath does is irrelevant: noticing the Three Characteristics of the sensations that make up your reality and the breath produces insight and is key.


RE: Cannot prevent controlling the breath - absolute beginner.
8/25/10 7:58 AM as a reply to Colin S.
I'm also having problems with this, it's fine when doing insight practice but when I just want to concentrate it suddenly becomes a bigger problem. This is two of the techniques that works for me:

1: Instead of focusing on the breath, just focus on not 'touching' the breath, not interfering witht the breath, make this your focus.
2: Apply acceptance and compassion to the breath and irritation around it. The acceptance should be all inclusive: "I love how I can't relax the breath", "I love how I suck at meditating", "I love how I think compassion is not working". etc.

RE: Cannot prevent controlling the breath - absolute beginner.
8/25/10 11:49 AM as a reply to Pål S..
Hi P O V,

The breath can be tricky as a concentration object.

Have you experimented with a visual object - candle flame, or a saucer-sized grey disk (cut out of a breakfast cereal box) stuck to a wall at a comfortable level to gaze at? Just gaze at it for a few minutes, with a light, fun attitude (not staring down demons).

Or a meditation word? Traditional suggestions are "buddho" or some mantra, but I've read an account somewhere of a person using the word "two". Repeat it mentally for a few minutes, trying to "hear" it mentally.

For me at least, gaining confidence with these different objects also really helped my ability to concentrate on the breath.


RE: Cannot prevent controlling the breath - absolute beginner.
8/25/10 1:51 PM as a reply to Florian.
Yes, I'm experimenting with different objects at the moment, trying to find one that feels comfortable. Mantras and visual objects are definitely on the list. By the way do you have any experience with using a state of mind as the object of concentration? Like compassion or nothingness? Or is that to "wide"?

RE: Cannot prevent controlling the breath - absolute beginner.
8/25/10 2:05 PM as a reply to Pål S..
P O V:
By the way do you have any experience with using a state of mind as the object of concentration? Like compassion or nothingness? Or is that to "wide"?

using states of mind as the primary object is really 'wide', and unless you ground their use down with a sense of bodily experience, you will likely slip out of focus again and again.

have you considered using a more wide and spread-out bodily sense as the object? feeling the weight of your body, for example, can work quite well. also, full-body breathing (where you are aware of the effect your breathing has on the sense of your entire body) are may lead into tranquility quite quickly.


RE: Cannot prevent controlling the breath - absolute beginner.
8/25/10 2:47 PM as a reply to tarin greco.
yes! I definitely use the body a lot, in fact all day long. It's great as a reference point and for staying present. In meditation though it does seem a bit to wide as I tend to move attention up and around the body and not getting the mind "locked on target".

RE: Cannot prevent controlling the breath - absolute beginner.
8/25/10 3:01 PM as a reply to Pål S..
Regarding the "locking on target" - that will happen of its own. Your job is not to wander off, and making it nice and pleasant in the body you're sitting in will make it more likely you'll stay.


RE: Cannot prevent controlling the breath - absolute beginner.
11/5/10 10:02 AM as a reply to Colin S.
I'm new to this site (Bravo for this resource!), pretty much a beginner and have also had my life transformed by meditation practice.

I've often thought that this problem of (not) controlling the breath must be why the breath is so widely favored as an object of concentration. I'm often enlightened and amused by the fact that when you pay close attention to the breath it's often difficult not to control it and when you're not paying attention it goes on all by itself 24-7 with (almost) never a glitch. It seems as if that which feels it must be in control is somewhat unmasked. I also find it fascinating just to watch what happens. Often, especially at the beginning of a sitting, on the out-breath there is a stop, a catch, or two or three. Might this be revealing a fear of running out of air? Then there's the opposite, which I find often during yoga practice, that the breath keeps going out and out and out, it stops, then I wait and wait for what seems like forever for the body to decide to begin the in-breath - there is no panic, no concern, no inclination to be in control and I suppose that amounts to a deep faith and trust.