In this article we’re going to look at two of the most common meditation techniques: observing the breath and repeating a mantra.
The good news is that both methods basically work in more or less the same way, so it’s not really a case of which one is ‘better’ or ‘worse’. The ‘best’ technique is simply the one that works best for you. It really does come down to a matter of personal choice.
With both methods, the idea is to keep the mind focussed on one single object of awareness, whether that be the experience of breathing in and breathing out, or continuously repeating a mantra over and over again, in order to keep the mind from getting distracted by thoughts about this or that or whatever it may be.
If we can keep our mind anchored to one thing, holding it steady and keeping it from drifting off, then perhaps we might find it settles down a bit, becomes calmer and clearer. Perhaps we might experience some degree of stillness and serenity. Perhaps we might grow in awareness and become more mindful.
But although both methods function in a similar way, each has its pros and cons – so let’s take a closer look at them in turn.
The use of the breath as a focus for our attention is found in many different traditions, but is perhaps most well-known within the context of Buddhist meditation teachings. Indeed, mindfulness of breathing is arguably one of the most popular and widespread meditation techniques.
This is because the breath has a number of obvious advantages as a meditation object.
First and foremost, it is incredibly convenient. Our breath is always there; it’s something happening in the body that we can tune into any time we like. We don’t need an app, or anything else for that matter. We don’t even have to remember to do it. We just have to notice that it’s happening.
As a natural, bodily process, our breathing is something that happens in the present. Unlike our mind, which is more often than not anywhere but present, the body can only be present. Therefore, if we can keep our attention anchored to the breath, that might help the mind to be more present as well.
The breath also serves as kind of bridge connecting body and mind. We cannot exert any deliberate control over many, if not most, of our bodily processes, such as our heartbeat or the working of our kidneys, but we can – simply by an act of will – control the breath, if we wish. We can choose to breathe fast or slow, or even to hold our breath and stop breathing altogether, at least for a short while. So, the breath is a physical process, which both happens automatically and, at the same time, can be controlled by our mind.
And finally, for those for whom meditation may be part of a spiritual practice, the breath may be highly symbolic, being associated with the lifeforce or divine energy that pervades the whole of existence. Respiration is one of the features common to all living things; the breath is an indicator of the presence of life.
In spite of all these advantages associated with the use of the breath in meditation, there are also some disadvantages, which might make it unsuitable as a meditation technique for some people.
For example, it may not be an appropriate practice for people who have asthma, or other respiratory conditions, that make it difficult enough to breathe at the best of times, without drawing additional attention to the fact by concentrating on it.
In a similar way, and even without any physical conditions, sometimes focussing on the beath can make us very self-conscious about our breathing, and that in turn may make our breathing start to feel forced or unnatural. Eventually this could even cause us to experience some degree of discomfort or anxiety. It is possible that with a bit of practice these obstacles just fade away. Or we may find that the breath is simply not the best technique for us to use.
The other universal meditation technique, found in one form or another in many different traditions, is what is often described as repeating a mantra.
A mantra is essentially just a word or short phrase, which may or may not have some particular meaning or significance, that is repeated continuously over and over, in order to give the mind just one object of awareness. In this respect, the principle is the same as observing the breath. We focus our attention on one thing, whilst trying not to get caught up in everything else.
One of the great advantages of using mantra, as compared with observing the breath, is that because the mind generally thinks in language – the voice in our heads – so it stands to reason that it will be easier to keep the mind from being distracted if we give the voice in our heads something to say. Some people find that trying to focus their attention on the breath is too abstract, and they are easily distracted. But using a mantra, repeating a single word or phrase, helps them keep the mind centred, and they are able more easily to avoid being distracted by their inner monologue.
Also, for some people, it may help their focus if the mantra means something significant, thereby reinforcing the intention of the practice. Some mantras are essentially prayers, which repeated over and over again may not only help to settle the mind, but may also convey some spiritual significance for the person repeating it. Even without reference to religious devotions, one may be able to see how the frequent repletion of a particular word or phrase may not only reinforce its meaning but even in some sense help to manifest whatever the word represents.
By the same token, however, for some people, repeating a mantra can be counter-productive, as they find themselves distracted by thinking about what the words mean.
As with the breath, there are pros and cons of using a mantra. There is no right or wrong technique, and one is not ‘better’ than the other. As I said at the beginning, it’s a matter of personal choice, based on what works best for you. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be an either/or choice. Many people, myself included, combine both techniques together, repeating a mantra in time with the breathing. This is why I often recommend a mantra of two syllables, that can be easily synchronised with the breath.
Whatever your preference, the important thing is to find what works best for you, and then stick at it.