You Simply Cannot Focus on Your Breath for an Hour Without an Extremely Good Reason

The Mind Illuminated

Culadasa is a meditation teacher who recently published a compelling and systematic guidebook to meditation.  One important contribution of this book is its explanation of the link between meditation and motivation. It’s easy to see that meditation cultivates our skill in directing attention. This is important, yet it’s also not the whole picture. Meditation is also an opportunity to cultivate the various motivational forces governing our minds. In fact, progress in meditation depends crucially on working with motivation.

Consider the experience of watching an engaging film versus watching the breath. Many can direct unwavering attention to a film for two hours with minimal effort and yet struggle to pay attention to the breath for even two minutes. The film is captivating—artfully designed to unlock our intrinsic motivations and keep us rapt. As the product of years of effort and potentially hundreds of millions of dollars, a great film is an exception in a world that barely holds our attention at all. The breath, on the other hand, can seem rather boring. It’s easy enough to pay attention to the sensations of breathing for a few seconds, but it’s not long before we start to drift away.

Culadasa suggests that the natural tendency for attention to fluctuate is a product of evolution and diminishing marginal returns. To relate effectively to our environment, it helps to be aware of the many things occurring around us. After having focused your attention for a few seconds to the horizon, you’ve seen what there is to see for now. And so attention fluctuates between sights, sounds, tastes, scents, sensations, and thoughts—constantly updating our awareness of the world within and around us.  

For the mind to stay focused on the breath for an hour, it will need an extremely good reason. You have to provide it. Culadasa suggests a couple strategies that I wholeheartedly recommend:

First, take some time at the beginning of every meditation to recount your reasons for meditating.

Culadasa recommends that you embrace your reasons whatever they may be. I would go further to suggest that you should actively develop a compelling list of reasons. I use a process called associative conditioning where I reflect on all the most important ways I stand to gain from developing my meditation practice. In both the short and long-term, what joys and pleasures will arise? What pains and challenges will be avoided? Take some time outside of meditation to get very clear about all this. Ideally, you would craft and memorize a couple sentences that are imbued with all the excitement and emotion you can generate around meditation—then recite these to yourself every time you practice to reconnect with your conviction to practice wholeheartedly.

Second, stay attuned to the pleasure and joy of meditation.

Meditation is not always enjoyable, but it has produced some of the happiest moments of my life. The more effectively you practice, the more you enjoy it. The joy and calm you experience during meditation can then accelerate your progress. Not only do they encourage you to keep meditating, but the pleasure itself begins to naturally capture your attention. Ajahn Brahm describes this as the beautiful breath, which becomes so beautiful and enjoyable that you cannot help but pay attention to it. Noticing, embracing, and even fostering this enjoyment will help you cultivate a powerful motivation that will deepen your practice.