When we bring our attention to our breath, we might find that other points of focus seem more compelling or important. It’s our stubborn sense of “what’s important” that makes meditation difficult. The exam we have to take tomorrow, the trip we’re going to go on, the bill we have to pay – all of these might seem more pressing, more urgent than our current breath.

We’ve been breathing all our life, and we know that our cycle of breathing will continue whether or not we pay attention. So how urgent could it be to concentrate on our breathing? But if we stop thinking about that upcoming exam, maybe we’ll regret our lack of foresight? If we don’t imagine how poorly it could go tomorrow, if we don’t consider what more we could do to prepare, perhaps we’ll fail?

Threat awareness always seems more important than breath awareness. So meditation challenges our very concept of importance. It surfaces a conflict between 1) our intention to focus only on our current breath and 2), our idea of what’s critical and threatening in our life right now that demands our attention.

We already know how breathing works – inhale, exhale – there’s nothing new to learn here. But we don’t know how that upcoming trip is going to go – there might be something new to learn in imagining it. If we take the time to consider what we’re going to pack and what we’re going to do when we arrive, maybe it’ll all go better? Why would we instead give our attention to familiar old breathing?

Indeed, meditation can seem like a waste. Rather than preparing for future dangers, we’re sitting in a chair doing nothing. Yes, we know that idleness, in the form of sleep, is necessary for health, but if we’re getting enough sleep why would we need to meditate – again being idle – on top of that? If we can use our waking awareness to get ready for the novel challenges that lie ahead, why would we squander that awareness on the most familiar, repetitive thing there could be?

Reframing the situation helps. If it’s hard to maintain your focus on your breathing because other things seem more important and pressing, try this: think about your ability to breathe. 

There’s your current breath – the inhale or exhale that’s happening right now – and there’s the ability it represents. 

Now ask, what is more important, the exam I have to take, the trip I’m going to go on, the bill I have to pay, or my ability to breathe?

Of course, if you couldn’t breathe you wouldn’t be taking that exam or planning that trip or getting ready to pay that bill. It should be clear that your ability to breathe is more “important” than pretty much anything else that might be on your mind. And quite likely, any threat you’re facing in everyday life is not a threat to your ability to breathe.

If you fail the exam, or the trip goes poorly, or the bill is paid late, guess what? You’ll still have your ability to breathe. You’ll still have the thing that’s most important.

And when you take the exam, go on the trip, pay the bill, if you can maintain some awareness of your breathing throughout, you’ll probably feel calmer – you’ll perform better and make better decisions. So if those things – the exam, the trip, the bill – are really important, then cultivating a skill that will help you navigate them – the skill of breath awareness – must be important too.

There are some situations, it should be said, where breath awareness is not a path to calm. When our breathing is uncomfortable, labored, or hyper, we might find it triggering to think about the importance of the ability to breathe.

But when we do feel secure in that ability – an ability so basic we take it for granted throughout much of our lives – we can use that security as the foundation of our practice. Confident that our breathing will continue, we can perceive any other thing that might clamor for “importance” in our mind as secondary to that life-giving ability. And when we as meditators recover from a distraction, we can be sure that whatever distracts us is not more important than our next breath, because our next breath is a prerequisite to the one after that, and every other one that follows. ■

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