The first meditation instruction is almost always to bring attention to the breath. Sometimes it’s framed as a way of settling in. You can use the breath to slow down, to lower the heart rate, to relax the body, to open up the posture and get comfortable — after all, you’re going to be there a while.
Once you’re settled in with the breath, the next instruction might redirect you elsewhere, but sometimes there’s one last reminder about the breath: You can always come back to it. The great thing about the breath is, no matter what happens, it’s always there.
I might have undervalued this reminder. It has struck me in the past as a beginner instruction — like, if the practice gets too hard, don’t worry, you can always run away and do baby meditation until you feel better. I’m way too arrogant for that crap. Give me the hard stuff!
Well, that’s an easy attitude to swing around when you aren’t being challenged — that is to say, when you’re an overconfident beginner, as I have been — but this stuff gets pretty hard sometimes, even when the instructions are simple. You don’t get “the hard stuff” from the teacher; you bring that in yourself.
Sometimes, whatever’s coming up is so powerful and all-encompassing, it takes you all the way away. While sitting this morning, I was so swirled up in the challenging emotions of a looping, vivid memory that I forgot where my breath was. I stopped breathing! I was snapped out of the trance by my body’s insistence that I breathe, and I had to consciously remind myself of that fundamental instruction: “The breath is always there.” I only found it once I remembered to look. One mindful in-breath, one mindful out-breath, and there I was again.