Just started teaching a new Mindfulness for Beginners class, and as usual, I began by asking my students, “what’s one thing you want to get from this class?” Their responses were typical: “how to stop worrying and stay present,” to quiet the inner chatter,” “to relieve anxiety,” “to reduce my blood pressure,” “to deal better with stress,” and “to learn to meditate successfully.”

Then I asked them to tell me one thing they already know about mindfulness, and as usual, it was that mindfulness somehow helps with all of the above, by keeping you focused on the present moment. Some students have already had some training in mindfulness, and maybe they’ve even been meditating a little, so they know from their own experience that it helps, yet they still wonder, “am I doing it right?” “is there a secret to this?” or “why can’t I stay mindful consistently?”

Mindfulness is one of those things that’s simple, yet not easy. Anyone can learn how to be mindful, just as anyone can learn to meditate – it’s not complicated, there are no formulas to memorize, it’s as simple as breathing in and breathing out, which we all know how to do – right?

Well, there’s the rub – it seems that many people don’t really know how to breathe, or they’ve forgotten how. Breathing begins automatically at birth, and ceases at death; yet we may give little thought to breathing during the intervening years. It’s an automatic body function that we take for granted, unless something happens to bring it to our attention.

Bringing attention to that which is automatic is really the essence of mindfulness. It is making a conscious decision to step out of automatic pilot mode: the usual mode of functioning that allows you to get through the day and get things done without any real awareness, where you can arrive at your destination, or day’s end, without recalling much of anything about the journey.

What happens when you step out of autopilot? You step into the present moment. You notice things, things like how you’re breathing, and the subtle sounds in your environment. You wake up out of the trance. You stop “doing”, and allow yourself to simply “be”. This can feel really weird at first!

When a beginning mindfulness meditation student is given the instruction to “focus on your breath,” she may notice her breathing is shallow, or rapid, so she inhales deeply or tries to force herself to breathe slowly. This is a common error of beginners, to exert more effort than is really necessary. The breath knows how to breathe itself. If you simply bring your attention to noticing the gentle movements of the breath, and keep your focus there for a few moments, your breath will naturally settle down on its own.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the octogenarian Vietnamese Buddhist monk who has written many books on mindfulness, including one of my favorites, “Peace Is Every Step,” has a simple meditation on the breath. It goes like this:

Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in. Breathing out, I know I’m breathing out.
As the in-breath grows deep, the out-breath grows slow.
Breathing in makes me calm, breathing out brings me ease.
With the in-breath I smile, with the out-breath I release.
Breathing in, there is only the present moment. Breathing out, it is a wonderful moment.
In, Out; Deep, Slow; Calm, Ease; Smile, Release; Present moment, Wonderful moment.