SIT comfortably, with your back straight but not stiff or tense. Gently close your eyes and feel the sensations of the breath as the air passes the nostrils or upper lip. The sensations of the in-breath appear simply and naturally. Notice how the out-breath appears. Or you might choose to feel the movement of your chest or abdomen as the breath enters and leaves your body.

Wherever you choose to follow the sensations of breathing, whether the in and out at the nostrils or the movement of the chest or abdomen, train your awareness to connect clearly with the first moment of the beginning in-breath. Then sustain the attention for the duration of just that one in-coming breath. Connect again at the beginning of the outbreath and sustain your attention till the end.

It is important not to become overly ambitious. We all have the capacity to feel one breath completely. But if we try to do more than that, if we have the idea that we are going to be mindful of our breathing for half an hour, then that is much too much. To sustain unbroken attention for that amount of time is far beyond the capacity of our mind, and so we quickly become discouraged. Connect and sustain for just one breath. . . and then one more. In this way you can work well within your capacity, and your mind will begin to concentrate simply and easily.

At times other objects will arise—physical sensations, thoughts, images, emotions. Notice how all these appearances arise and change in the open awareness of mind. Often we become distracted, lost in the display of experience, no longer mindful. As soon as you remember, come back to the simple state of awareness.

It can be helpful in the beginning to focus primarily, although not exclusively, on the breath. Focusing in this way helps stabilize attention, keeping us mindful and alert. Bringing the mind back to a primary object, like the breath, takes a certain quality of effort, and that effort builds energy. It is like doing a repetitive exercise to develop muscular strength. You keep doing it and the body gets stronger. Coming back to the primary object is mental exercise. We come back to the breath, again and again, and slowly the mind grows stronger and more stable. Our level of energy rises. Then when we open to a more choiceless awareness, we perceive things in a more refined and powerful way.

If at times you feel constriction or strain in the practice, it helps to settle back and open the field of awareness. Leave the breath for a while and simply notice, in turn, whatever arises at the six sense doors (the five physical senses and the mind): hearing, seeing, pressure, tingling, thinking. Or you can rest in an open, natural awareness, paying attention only to sounds appearing and disappearing. Widening the focus of attention in this way helps the mind come to balance and spaciousness.

You can also use the technique of mental noting to strengthen mindful awareness. The art of mental noting, as a tool of meditation, requires practice and experimentation. Labeling objects of experience as they arise supports mindfulness in many different ways.

Noting should be done very softly, like a whisper in the mind, but with enough precision and accuracy so that it connects directly with the object. For example, you might label each breath, silently saying in, out or rising, falling. In addition, you may also note every other appearance that arises in meditation. When thoughts arise, note thinking. If physical sensations become predominant, note pressure, vibration, tension, tingling, or whatever it might be. If sounds or images come into the foreground, note hearing or seeing. . . .

Be patient in learning to use this tool of practice. Sometimes people note too loudly, and it overshadows the experience. Sometimes people try too hard, becoming tight and tense with the effort. Let the note float down on the object, like a butterfly landing on a flower, or let it float up with the object, like a bubble rising. Be light, be soft, have fun. . . .

Investigate the technique for yourself. If at times you find that noting interferes too much, or is too slow for the rapidity of change, stop labeling for a while. See what happens. Understand that it is a tool, and learn for yourself how best to use it. Observe whether it helps keep a sustained attention or not. See for yourself how the noting functions. Be flexible, and enjoy the exploration.

Excerpted from Insight Meditation: The Practice of Freedom, by Joseph Goldstein, and reprinted with permission from Shambhala Publications.