Sitting Meditation Full Catastrophe Living

We call the heart of the formal meditation practice “sitting meditation” or simply “sitting.” As with breathing, sitting is not foreign to anyone. We all sit—nothing special about that. But mindful sitting is different from ordinary sitting in the same way that mindful breathing is different from ordinary breathing. The difference, of course, is your awareness.

To practice sitting, we make a special time and place for non-doing. We consciously adopt an alert and relaxed body posture so that we can feel relatively comfortable without moving. Then we simply reside with calm acceptance in the present without trying to fill it with anything. You have already tried this in the various exercises in which you have been watching your breathing.

It helps a lot to adopt an erect and dignified posture, with your head, neck, and back aligned vertically. This allows the breath to flow most easily. It is also the physical counterpart of the inner attitudes of self-reliance, self-acceptance, and alert attention that we are cultivating.

We usually practice the sitting meditation either on a chair or on the floor. If you choose a chair, the ideal is to use one that has a straight back and that allows your feet to be flat on the floor. We often recommend that, if possible, you sit away from the back of the chair so that your spine is self-supporting. But if you have to, leaning against the back of the chair is also fine. If you choose to sit on the floor, do so on a firm, thick cushion that raises your buttocks off the floor three to six inches (a pillow folded over once or twice does nicely, or you can purchase a meditation cushion, or zafu, specifically for this purpose).

There are a number of cross-legged sitting postures and kneeling postures that we can choose from if we wish to sit on the floor. The one I use most is the so-called Burmese posture, which involves drawing one heel in close to the body and draping the other leg in front of it. Depending on how flexible your hips, knees, and ankles are, your knees may or may not be touching the floor; it is somewhat more comfortable when they are. Others use a kneeling posture, placing the cushion between the feet or using a bench designed for the purpose.

Sitting on the floor can give you a reassuring feeling of being “rooted” or “grounded” and completely self-supporting in the meditation posture. But it is not at all necessary to meditate sitting on the floor or in a cross-legged posture. Some of our patients prefer the floor, but most sit on straight-backed chairs. Ultimately it is not what you are sitting on that matters but the sincerity of your effort.

Whether you choose the floor or a chair, posture is very important in meditation practice. It can be an outward support in cultivating an inner attitude of dignity, patience, presence, and self-acceptance. The main points to keep in mind about your posture are to keep the back, neck, and head aligned vertically to whatever degree possible, to relax the shoulders, and to do something comfortable with your hands. Usually we place them on the knees, or we rest them in the lap with the fingers of the left hand above the fingers of the right and the tips of the thumbs just touching each other.

When we have assumed the posture we have selected, we bring our attention to our breathing. We feel it come in, we feel it go out. We dwell in the present, moment by moment, breath by breath. It sounds simple—and it is. Full awareness on the inbreath, full awareness on the outbreath—letting the breath just happen, observing it, and feeling all the sensations, gross and subtle, associated with it, as best we can.

It is simple but it is not easy. You can probably sit in front of a TV or in a car on a trip for hours at a time without giving it a thought. But when you try sitting in your house with nothing to watch but your breath, your body, and your mind, with nothing to entertain you and no place to go, the first thing you will probably notice is that at least part of you doesn’t want to stay at this for very long.

After perhaps a minute or two or three or four, either the body or the mind will have had enough and will demand something else, either to shift to some other posture or to do something else entirely. This is inevitable. It happens to everybody, not just to novices.

It is at this point that the work of self-observation gets particularly interesting and fruitful. Normally every time the mind moves, the body follows. If the mind is restless, the body is restless. If the mind wants a drink, the body goes to the kitchen sink or the refrigerator. If the mind says, “This is boring,” then before you know it, the body is up and looking around for the next thing to do to keep the mind happy, usually by entertaining it or distracting it and thus diverting you from your original intention to stay with the meditation practice. It also works the other way around. If the body feels the slightest discomfort, it will shift to be more comfortable or it will call on the mind to find something else for it to do, and again, you will be standing up, literally before you know it. Alternatively, you may find yourself perpetually lost in thought or daydreaming.

If you are genuinely committed to being more peaceful and relaxed, you might wonder why it is that your mind is so quick to be bored with being with itself and why your body is so restless and uncomfortable. You might wonder what is behind your impulses to fill each moment with something, what is behind your need to jump up and get going or be entertained whenever you have an “empty” moment. What drives the body and mind to reject being still?

In practicing meditation we don’t try to answer such questions. Rather we just observe the impulse to get up or the thoughts and emotions that come into the mind. And instead of jumping up and doing whatever the mind decides is next on the agenda, we gently but firmly bring our attention back to the belly, back to the breathing, and just continue to watch and feel and ride on the waves of the breath, moment by moment by moment. We may ponder why the mind is like this for a moment or two, but basically we are practicing accepting each moment as it is without reacting to how it is. And so, we keep sitting, attending to the breath sensations and being the knowing that awareness already is.


The basic instructions for practicing the sitting meditation are very simple. We observe the breath as it flows in and out. We give full attention to the feeling of the breath as it comes in and full attention to the feeling of the breath as it goes out. And whenever we find that our attention has been carried elsewhere, wherever that may be, we simply note it, then let go and gently escort our attention back to the breath, back to the rising and falling of our own belly.

If you have been trying it, perhaps you will have already noticed that your mind tends to move around a lot. You may have contracted with yourself to keep your attention focused on the breath no matter what. But before long, you will undoubtedly find that the mind is off someplace else. It has forgotten the breath; it has been drawn away.

Each time you become aware of this while you are sitting, the instruction is to first note briefly what is on your mind or what carried you away from attending to the breath, and then to gently bring your attention back to your belly and back to your breathing, no matter what carried it away. If it moves off the breath a hundred times, then you just calmly and gently bring it back a hundred times.

By doing so, you are training your mind to be less reactive and more stable. You are making each moment count. You are taking each moment as it comes, not valuing any one above any other. In this way you are cultivating your natural ability to concentrate your mind. By repeatedly bringing your attention back to the breath each time it wanders off, concentration builds and deepens, much as muscles develop by repetitively lifting weights. Working regularly with (rather than struggling against) the resistance of your own mind builds inner strength. At the same time you are also developing patience and practicing being non-judgmental. You are not giving yourself a hard time because your mind wandered away from the breath. You simply and matter-of-factly return it to the breath, gently but firmly.


As you will quickly see when you sit down to meditate, almost anything can carry your attention away from your breathing. One big source of distracting impulses is your body. As a rule, if you sit still for a while in any position, your body will become uncomfortable. Normally we are continually shifting our posture in response to this discomfort, without much, if any, awareness of it. But when practicing formal sitting meditation, it is actually useful to resist the first impulse to shift position in response to bodily discomfort. Instead, we direct our attention to these very sensations of discomfort and mentally welcome them.

Why? Because at the moment they come into awareness, these sensations of discomfort become part of our present-moment experience and thus worthy objects of observation and inquiry in and of themselves. They give us the opportunity to look directly at our automatic reactions and at the whole process of what happens as the mind loses its balance and becomes agitated as it is carried off and gets lost in the thought stream in one way or another, far away from any awareness of the breath.

In this way, the pain in your knee or the aching in your back or the tension in your shoulders, rather than being treated as distractions preventing you from staying with your breath, can be included in the field of your awareness and simply accepted without reacting to them as undesirable and trying to make them go away. This approach gives you an alternative way of seeing discomfort. Uncomfortable as they may be, these bodily sensations are now potential teachers and allies in learning about yourself. They can help you to develop your powers of concentration, calmness, and awareness rather than just being frustrating impediments to the goal of trying to keep your attention fixed on your breathing.

The cultivation of this kind of flexibility, which allows you to welcome whatever comes up and be with it rather than insisting on paying attention to only one thing, say the breath, is one of the most characteristic and valuable features of mindfulness meditation. This is the case because, as we noted earlier, it is not the breath that is most important here, but the awareness itself. And the awareness can be of any aspect of your experience, not just your breathing—because it is always the same awareness, whatever the chosen object or objects of attention.

What this means in practice is that we make some effort to sit with sensations of discomfort when they come up during our attempts to meditate, not necessarily to the point of pain but at least past where we might ordinarily react to them. We breathe with them. We breathe into them. We put out the welcome mat for them and actually try to maintain a continuity of awareness from moment to moment in their presence. Then, if we have to, we shift our body to reduce the discomfort, but even that we do mindfully, with moment-to-moment awareness as we are moving the body.

It’s not that the meditative process considers messages about discomfort and pain that the body produces to be unimportant. On the contrary, we consider pain and discomfort to be important enough to merit a far deeper exploration. The best way to explore sensations of pain and discomfort is to welcome them when they arise rather than resisting them or trying to make them go away because we don’t like them. By sitting with some discomfort and accepting it as part of our experience in the present moment, even if we don’t like it, which we don’t, we discover that it is actually possible to turn toward and relax into physical discomfort, to embrace it in awareness as it is. This is one example of how discomfort or even pain can become your teacher and help you to heal.

Relaxing and softening into discomfort sometimes actually reduces pain intensity. The more you practice, the more skill you can develop in reducing pain or at least becoming more transparent to it, so that it is less eroding of your quality of life. But whether you experience pain reduction or not during the sitting meditation, intentionally working with your reactions to discomfort and to whatever arises that is unpleasant and unwanted will help you to develop some degree of calmness, equanimity, and flexibility of mind, qualities that will prove useful in facing many different challenges and stressful situations as well as pain (see Parts II and III).


Aside from physical discomfort and pain, there are numerous other occurrences during meditation that can carry your attention away from the breath. The primary one is thinking. Just because you decide to still your body and observe your breath from moment to moment doesn’t mean that your thinking mind is going to cooperate. It doesn’t necessarily quiet down just because you have decided to meditate! Quite the contrary.

What does happen as we intentionally pay attention to our breathing is that we realize pretty quickly that we are immersed in a seemingly never-ending stream of thoughts, coming willy-nilly one after another in rapid succession. Many people are greatly relieved when they come back after practicing meditation on their own during their first week of MBSR and discover that they were not the only ones who found that their thoughts cascaded through their mind like a torrent or a waterfall, completely beyond their control. They are reassured to learn that everybody in the class has a mind that behaves in this way. It is just the way the mind is.

This discovery amounts to a revelation for many of the people in the Stress Reduction Clinic. It becomes the occasion of or sets the stage for a profound learning experience that many claim is the most valuable thing they get out of their mindfulness training: the realization that they are not their thoughts. This discovery means that they can consciously choose to relate (or not) to their thoughts in a variety of ways that were not available to them when they were unaware of this simple fact.

In the early stages of our meditation practice, the activity of thought is constantly pulling our attention away from the primary task we have set ourselves in the developing of some degree of calmness and concentration, namely, to be with the breath. In order to build continuity and momentum in the meditation practice, you will need to keep reminding yourself to come back to the breath over and over again, no matter what the mind is up to from one moment to the next.

The things you find yourself thinking about during meditation may or may not be important to you, but important or not, they do seem to lead a life of their own, as we have seen. If you are in a period of high stress, the mind will tend to obsess about your predicament—what you should do or should have done, what you shouldn’t do or shouldn’t have done. At such times your thoughts may be highly charged with anxiety and worry.

At less stressful times, the thoughts that go through your mind may be less anxious in nature, but they can be just as powerful in taking your attention away from the breath. You may find yourself thinking about a movie you saw, or fall captive to a song in your head that stubbornly refuses to leave. Or you may be thinking about dinner, work, your parents, your children, other people, your vacation, your health, death, the bills you have to pay, or just about anything else. Thoughts of one kind or another will cascade through the mind as you sit, most of them below the level of your awareness, until finally you realize that you are not watching your breathing anymore and you don’t even know how long it’s been since you were aware of it, nor how you got to what you are thinking now.

It’s at this point that you might say to yourself, “Okay, let’s just go back to the breath right now and let go of these thoughts I’m having, no matter what they are. But first, let me recognize that they are actually thoughts, events in the field of my awareness.” It is helpful to remind yourself that letting go of your thoughts doesn’t mean pushing them away. It means simply letting them be here as they are, as we once again place the breath sensations center stage in the field of awareness. It also helps at such moments to check your posture and to sit up straight again if your body has slumped over, which it tends to do when dullness and self-distraction set in.

During meditation, we intentionally treat all our thoughts as if they are of equal value. As best we can, and with the lightest of touches, we bring awareness to them when they arise, and then we intentionally return our attention to the breath as the primary focus of our attention, regardless of the content of the thought and its emotional charge. In other words, we intentionally practice letting go of each thought that attracts our attention, whether it seems important and insightful or unimportant and trivial. We just observe them as thoughts, as discrete and exceedingly transient events that appear in the field of our awareness.

We are aware of them because they are here, but we intentionally decline to get caught up in the content of the thoughts during meditation, no matter how meaningful or enticing the content may be for us in any given moment. Instead, we remind ourselves to see them simply as thoughts, as seemingly independently occurring events in the field of our awareness. We note their content and their “emotional charge”—in other words, whether they are weak or strong in their power to dominate the mind at that moment. Then, no matter how charged they may be for us in that moment, and regardless of whether they are primarily pleasant or primarily unpleasant, we intentionally let go of them and refocus on our breathing once again and on the experience of being “in our body” as we sit here. We repeat this hundreds of thousands of times, millions of times, as necessary. And it will be necessary.

It’s important to reiterate that letting go of our thoughts does not mean suppressing them. Many people hear it this way and make the mistake of thinking that meditation requires them to shut off their thinking or their feelings. They somehow hear the instructions as meaning that if they are thinking, that is “bad,” and that a “good meditation” is one in which there is little or no thinking. Thinking is not bad, nor is it even undesirable during meditation. What matters is whether you are aware of your thoughts and feelings during meditation and how you are in relationship to them. Trying to suppress them will only result in greater tension and frustration and more problems, not in calmness, insight, clarity, and peace.

Mindfulness does not involve pushing thoughts away or walling yourself off from them to quiet your mind. We are not trying to stop our thoughts as they cascade through the mind. We are simply making room for them, observing them as thoughts, and letting them be, using the breath as our anchor or “home base” for observing, for reminding us to stay focused and calm. It might help to keep in mind that the awareness of our thoughts and emotions is the same awareness as the awareness of our breathing.

In bringing this orientation to the cultivation of mindfulness, you will find that every period of formal meditation practice is different. Sometimes you may feel relatively calm and relaxed, undisturbed by thoughts or strong emotions. At other times, the thoughts and emotions may be so strong and recurrent that all you can do is watch them as best you can and be with your breath as much as you can in between. Meditation is not so concerned with how much thinking is going on as it is with how much room you are making for it to take place within the field of your awareness from one moment to the next.

It is remarkable how liberating it feels to be able to see that your thoughts are just thoughts and that they are not “you” or “reality.” For instance, if you have the thought that you have to get a certain number of things done today and you don’t recognize it as a thought but act as if it’s “the truth,” then you have created a reality in that moment in which you really believe that those things must all be done today.

If you find yourself behaving in similar ways, it is likely that you will also feel driven, tense, and anxious without even knowing why. So if the thought of how much you have to get done today comes up while you are meditating, you will have to be very attentive to it as a thought or you may be up and doing things before you know it, without any awareness that you decided to stop sitting simply because a thought came through your mind.

On the other hand, when such a thought comes up, if you are able to step back from it and see it clearly, then you will be able to prioritize things and make sensible decisions about what really does need doing. You will know when to call it quits during the day, and when to take breaks while you are working so you can restore yourself and work most effectively. So the simple act of recognizing your thoughts as thoughts can free you from the distorted reality they often create, and allow for more clear-sightedness and a greater sense of manageability and even productivity in your life.

This liberation from the tyranny of the thinking mind comes directly out of the meditation practice itself. When we spend some time each day in non-doing, resting in awareness, observing the flow of the breath and the activity of our mind and body without getting caught up in that activity, we are cultivating calmness and mindfulness hand in hand. As the mind develops stability and is less caught up in the content of thinking, we strengthen the mind’s ability to concentrate and to be calm. Each time we recognize a thought as a thought when it arises and we register its content and discern the strength of its hold on us, as well as the accuracy of its content, we are strengthening the mindfulness muscle. Each time we then let go of it and come back to our breathing and to a sense of our body, we are strengthening the mindfulness muscle. In the process, we are coming to know ourselves better and becoming more accepting of ourselves, not as we would like to be but as we actually are. This is an expression of our innate wisdom and compassion.


We usually introduce the sitting meditation practice in the second class of the MBSR curriculum. People practice it for homework for ten minutes once a day in the second week, in addition to the forty-five-minute body scan you will encounter in the next chapter. Over the weeks, we increase the sitting time until we can sit for up to forty-five minutes at a stretch. As we do, we also expand the range of experiences we invite into the field of awareness and attend to in the sitting.

For the first few weeks, we just watch the breath come in and go out. You could practice in this way for a very long time and never come to the end of its richness. It just gets deeper and deeper. The mind gradually becomes calmer and more supple, and mindfulness—moment-to-moment non-judgmental awareness—stronger and stronger.

In the domain of meditation instructions, the simplest practices, such as mindfulness of breathing, are as profoundly healing and liberating as more elaborate methods, which sometimes people mistakenly think are more “advanced.” In no sense is being with your breath any less advanced than paying attention to other aspects of inner and outer experience. All have a place and value in cultivating mindfulness and wisdom. Fundamentally, it is the quality and sincerity of your effort in practicing and the depth of your seeing that are important, rather than what “technique” you are using or what you are paying attention to. If you are really paying attention, any object can become a door into direct moment-to-moment awareness. Remember, it is the same awareness, no matter what the objects of attention may be to which we are according primacy in any particular practice. Nevertheless, mindfulness of breathing can be a very powerful and effective foundation for all the other meditation practices you will be encountering in MBSR. For this reason, we will be returning to it over and over again.

As the MBSR curriculum unfolds over the eight weeks of the program, we gradually expand the field of attention in the sitting meditation in a stepwise fashion to include, in addition to breathing, body sensations in particular regions, a sense of the body as a whole, sounds, and finally the thought process itself and our emotions. Sometimes we focus on just one of these as the primary object of attention. At other times we may cover all of them sequentially in one practice period and finish by sitting with awareness of whatever comes up, not looking for anything in particular to focus on, whether it be sounds or thoughts or even the breath. This way of practicing is called choiceless awareness or, alternatively, open presence. You can think of it as simply being present with and receptive to whatever unfolds in each moment as you rest in awareness. Simple as it may sound, practicing in this way requires developing at least a degree of stability of mind, including a relatively strong calmness and attentiveness. These are qualities of mind that are best cultivated, as we have seen, by choosing one object, most commonly the breath, and working with it over a period of months and even years. For this reason, some people might benefit most by staying with the breath and a sense of the body as a whole in the early stages of their meditation practice, especially if they are taking more than eight weeks to work their way through the MBSR curriculum. You can practice the awareness of breathing on your own without using a CD or its audio program equivalent for guidance.

When we introduce the sitting meditation in the second class, there is usually a lot of shifting around, fidgeting, and opening and closing of the eyes as people get accustomed to the idea of not doing anything and learn to settle into just being. For those people who come with pain diagnoses or with anxiety or ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), or who are exclusively action-oriented, sitting still may at first seem like an impossibility. They often think, not surprisingly, that they will be in too much pain, or too nervous, or too bored to be able to do it.

But after a few weeks of practicing on their own in between the classes, the collective stillness in the room is deafening—even though by that time we may be sitting for twenty or thirty minutes at a stretch. There is very little shifting and fidgeting, even among the people with pain and anxiety problems and the “go-getters” who usually never rest for a minute. These are clear signs that they are indeed practicing at home and that they are developing some degree of intimacy with stillness, both of the body and of the mind. Before long, most people discover that it can be quite exhilarating to meditate.

Sometimes it doesn’t even seem like work. It’s just an effortless opening and releasing into the stillness of being, accepting each moment as it unfolds, resting in awareness. These are true moments of wholeness, accessible to all of us. Where do they come from? Nowhere. They are here all the time. Each time you sit in an alert and dignified posture and turn your attention to your breathing, for however long, you are returning to your own wholeness, affirming your intrinsic balance of mind and body, independent of the passing state of either your mind or your body in any moment. Sitting becomes an easing into stillness and peace beneath the surface agitations of your mind. It’s as easy as seeing and letting be, seeing and letting go, seeing and letting be.


Sitting with the Breath

  1. Continue to practice awareness of your breathing in a comfortable and dignified sitting posture for at least ten minutes at least once a day.
  2. Each time you notice that your mind is no longer on your breath, just notice what is on your mind. Then, whatever it is, let it be as it is and once again feature the breath sensations in your belly center stage in the field of awareness.
  3. Over time, try extending the time you sit until you can sit for thirty minutes or longer. But remember, when you are really in the present moment, there is no time, so clock time is not as important as your willingness to pay attention and ride the waves of your breathing as best you can, moment by moment and breath by breath.


Sitting with the Breath and the Body as a Whole

  1. When your practice feels strong in the sense that you can sustain some continuity of attention on the breath, try expanding the field of your awareness “around” your breathing and “around” your belly to include a sense of your body as a whole sitting and breathing.
  2. Maintain this awareness of the body sitting and breathing. When the mind wanders, noticing what is on your mind, and then gently bringing it back to an awareness of sitting and breathing.


Sitting with Sound

  1. If you feel like it, try featuring hearing itself center stage in the field of awareness during periods of formal sitting meditation. This does not mean listening for sounds, but rather simply hearing what is here to be heard, moment by moment, without judging or thinking about what you are hearing—just hearing sounds as sounds. Imagine the mind as a “sound mirror,” simply reflecting whatever arises in the domain of hearing. You can also experiment with hearing the silences within and between the sounds as well.
  2. You can practice this way with music too, hearing each note as it comes and also hearing as best you can the spaces between the notes. Try breathing the sounds into your body on an inbreath and letting them flow out again on the outbreath. Imagine that your body is transparent to sounds, that sounds can move in and out of your body through the pores of your skin. Imagine that sounds can be “heard” and felt by your very bones. How does this feel?


Sitting with Thoughts and Feelings

  1. When your attention is relatively stable on the breath, try shifting your focus to feature the process of thinking itself. Let the breath sensations move into the background and allow the thinking process itself to come to the foreground, placing it center stage in the field of awareness—observing thoughts arise and pass away like clouds in the sky or like writing on water—allowing the mind to function as a “thought mirror” simply reflecting and registering whatever comes, as it comes, and whatever goes, as it goes.
  2. See if you can perceive these thoughts as discrete events in the field of awareness, arising, lingering perhaps, and then passing away.
  3. As best you can, note their content and their emotional charge while, if possible, not being drawn into thinking about them, or thinking the next thought, but just maintaining the “frame” through which you are observing the process of thought.
  4. Note that an individual thought does not last long. It is impermanent. If it comes, it will go. It is helpful to be aware of this observation and let its import register with you in awareness.
  5. Note how some thoughts keep coming back.
  6. It can be especially instructive to take note of those thoughts that are centered on or driven by personal pronouns, especially I, me, or mine thoughts, observing carefully how self-centered the content of those thoughts may be. How are you in relationship to those thoughts when you simply note them as thoughts in the field of awareness and don’t take them quite so personally? How do you feel about them when you observe them in this non-judgmental way? Is there something to be learned from this?
  7. Note those moments when the mind creates a “self” to be preoccupied with how well or how badly your life is going.
  8. Note thoughts about the past and thoughts about the future.
  9. Note thoughts that are about greed, wanting, grasping, or clinging.
  10. Note thoughts that are about anger, disliking, hatred, aversion, or rejection.
  11. Note feelings and moods as they come and go.
  12. Note what feelings and moods are associated with different thought contents.
  13. If you get lost in all this, just go back to your breathing until the attention stabilizes itself, and then, if you care to, reestablishing thinking as the primary object of attention.

Remember, this is not an invitation to generate thoughts, simply an invitation to attend to their arising, their lingering if they linger, and their passing away in the field of awareness. This exercise requires a degree of stability in your attention. It might be best to practice this for relatively short periods of time in the early stages of practice. But even two or three minutes of mindfulness of the process of thinking can be extremely valuable.


Sitting with Choiceless Awareness

  1. Just sit. Don’t hold on to anything. Don’t look for anything. Practice being completely open and receptive to whatever comes into the field of awareness, letting it all come and go, watching, witnessing, attending in stillness. Allow yourself to be the non-conceptual knowing (and the not-knowing) that awareness already is.

Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Full Catastrophe Living (Revised Edition): Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness (pp. 60-75). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.