For the purpose of this exercise it is necessary to sit still for ten minutes, and take notice of your breathing. The point is to follow each breath, in and out, without going off at a tangent and forgetting what you had intended to do. The intention is simply to notice each breath as it happens, in and out. What tends to happen, of course, is that your thoughts will drift off towards other, more interesting subjects, and when this happens all you have to do is to notice what is happening, notice that you have drifted off, and then return to the task. This is a very gentle exercise, because the idea is not to force yourself to concentrate, but just to watch in a non-judgemental way to see what happens. When you do lose track of what you are doing, that is not ‘failing the exercise’ because the point of the exercise is to learn about the tendency to be distracted, not to fight that tendency. Each time you forget your intention, all you have to do is note the fact, and return to the task. There are two stations here, “home” and “away”: when you are remembering your intention to follow your breathing you are “home,” and when you drift off from it you are “away”. When you see that you are “away” then this means that you have remembered your intention and so you are “home”. It is as simple as that.


Although the exercise described above is very simple, it is also very powerful. It is powerful in two ways:

[1] It brings to our notice very clearly to the tendency to be caught up in, and distracted, by every little issue our mind throws up; it shows us how ‘compulsive’ (or unfree) our thinking is.

[2] It gradually undoes the force of this compulsive tendency.
It is actually through [1] that [2] comes about, and it is important to realize this because otherwise we might start thinking that we can weaken the force of distraction by fighting it. This idea is a natural one, but it is also quite wrong. I cannot coerce my mind to be relaxed and peaceful, any more than I can bully someone who is nervous into being at ease. Pressurizing myself to become less pressurized, to become less driven in my thinking, is not the way to do it. Rather than giving in to the knee-jerk reaction to demand obedience from my mind, which is both natural and totally counterproductive, what helps is for me to allow the compulsiveness (the automatic-ness) of my thinking, whilst maintaining full awareness of the compulsive (or automatic) quality of my thoughts. This is a totally different kind of work then ‘fighting’ or ‘struggling’ – it doesn’t take any forcing at all, simply awareness of what is going on, without getting further distracted by anxiety or self-recrimination about what is going on. What this means is that I don’t blame myself or judge myself for forgetting my intention not to forget, which is just another way of relieving discomfort; all I do is notice that I forgot my intention not to forget.

This sounds simple, but it is far from easy because it involves a subtle type of pain. If I stick at the exercise for a while I start to grasp the enormity of the automatic force that is working against me, degrading and dissipating my consciousness. At first the task may be mildly interesting, or even challenging, but this stage doesn’t last very long. After a while it becomes irritating, and then terribly tedious. After a while longer I become desperate to think of a reason for not continuing. In actual fact, when it is discovered what this exercise truly entails, we very quickly lose the motivation to continue with it. If there were a quick ‘pay-off’ then we would stay interested, of course, but this particular exercise educates us to understand that there is no point in ‘waiting for results’. It is as if you were given the job of moving a mountain of sand from one location to another using only a teaspoon. Normally we look to see what sort of difference we are making in a task, but with a virtually endless job such as this we wouldn’t last long at all if we kept looking for encouraging results. Thinking about it doesn’t help, thinking makes us grow discouraged and give up, horrified at the prospect of how much work we have to do.

So, we have covered the benefits, along with the ‘disadvantages’ of the exercise. The benefit is that to practice it can bring us back our long-lost peace of mind, no matter how difficult our situation might seem. If we persevere, the force that is responsible for taking away our peace of mind will burn itself out; it will expend itself because it isn’t being fed. This is an important point to understand: everything else that I might do (either ‘acting out’ the urge by giving in to it, or ‘repressing’ it by resisting or fighting) simply feeds back into the compulsive force and makes it stronger. ‘Acting out’ or ‘repressing’ are what we normally do with impulses, and that is why the tendency to get caught up in them gets as strong as it does. Purposeful [+] or [-] reactions are all that we know; it goes totally against the grain to ‘allow the itch’ without scratching it, to not get sucked in. Yet, ‘allowing the itch without reacting’ is the only way to defuse compulsiveness. The ‘disadvantage’ of this exercise, as we have already said, is that the task soon turns into something we just don’t want to do! We haven’t the patience for it because it doesn’t offer our goal-orientated minds anything to grasp for, anything for it to be interested in. If I am stuck in ‘goal-orientated’ mode, then this is a nightmare for me, because it isn’t about getting anywhere. It isn’t about interesting developments. One the other hand, it is that very ‘goal-orientatedness’ that is the root of all the trouble in the first place, it is being stuck in that G.O. mode that makes life so unsatisfying for me. What we are talking about here is the choice between short-term benefits and long-term costs, versus long-term benefits with short-term costs. The experience of ‘conscious suffering’ that comes from carrying out the exercise is the short-term cost – everything worthwhile has to be worked for, and this is the work.

And yet, it isn’t as bad as all that! The exercise only seems hard work when I am living in the future, or in the past, or in some alternative vision of where I would like to be. Once I change my attitude, it’s a piece of cake. Nothing could be easier! Once I switch over into the ‘non-goal orientated’ mode of consciousness, then I discover what it is that I have been missing all along, the peacefulness of being where I actually am, rather than always trying to be somewhere that I am not. It is actually the constant ‘trying’ that is so frustrating – when I stop trying everything is perfectly fine. It doesn’t matter if I am trying, or if I am trying ‘not to try’ – I’m blocked either way. Either way, it’s all still trying, it is all just useless, counterproductive effort. It is this ‘trying’ that is always distracting me and keeping me from seeing that everything is already far better than I could possibly imagine, right where I actually am, at home in myself.