We begin with breath, opening to the feeling or the sensation of each breath, each movement of the rise and fall or in and out, without any expectation of how any particular breath should be, not trying to force it into a particular pattern, not thinking that there should be any one kind of sensation. It is a settling back into each moment, with a great deal of care and precision, and being open to what is revealed in that particular breath. What is the sensation of this rising, or this in-breath? What is the feeling of it? Is it long or short, is it rough or smooth, is it deep or shallow, is there heaviness or pressure or tingling?

There is no need to go through a checklist. Just by our being open and paying careful attention, the characteristics of each breath will show themselves. So we settle back and stay open, with a beginner’s mind for each rising, each falling, each in-breath, each out-breath.

If there is a space or a pause between the breaths, notice one or more touchpoints, making the note “touching, touching.” When sensations in the body become predominant, when they’re calling the attention away from the breathing, let the mind go to the sensation that is predominant; open to it, feel it. Note what kind of sensation it is. Is it heat or cold, heaviness or lightness, is it vibration or tingling, is it a painful sensation or a pleasant one?

When you open with awareness to each sensation, the characteristics of that sensation will become obvious. Let the mind stay very receptive to the sensations. Note what happens as you observe them. Do they get stronger, do they get weaker, do they disappear, do they increase? Observe what happens, without any model or expectation of what should be there; simply be with what is. When the sensations are no longer predominant, return again to the breath.

Stay mindful too of the different mind states or emotions. These states are less clearly defined as objects. They don’t have such a clear beginning, middle, and end, and yet they can become very predominant objects of experience. So if a mind state or emotion or mood becomes strong – feelings such as sadness or happiness or anger or desire, restlessness or excitement, interest or rapture, joy or calm – make the mental note of that mind state, feeling it and observing how that too is part of the passing show. It arises, it is there for some time, it passes away.

Use the breathing as a primary object, being with it if nothing else is very predominant and coming back to the breath when other objects disappear. Also, if the mind is feeling scattered or confused, without knowing exactly what to observe, center the attention on the breathing, either the rise and fall or in and out. When the mind feels more centered and steady, again open the awareness to the entire range of changing objects – the breath, sounds, sensations, thoughts, images, intentions, emotions – noting each in turn as they arise. Keep the mind open, receptive, and alert, so that in each moment there can be an accurate awareness of what is present.

Excerpted from Seeking the Heart of Wisdom: The Path of Insight Meditation, by Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, reprinted with permission from Shambhala Publications.

To read more from the Practice section on breathing,  and Shakyamuni Buddha on contemplating the body and mindfulness of the breath, see Yasutani Roshi on breathing in Zen, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi on becoming a swinging door, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana on being mindful of breath to tame your mind, and Walpola Sri Rahula on anopanosati, mindfulness of breathing.