How to Meditate Without Focusing on Your Breath
And Stay Calm During Quarantine
When COVID-19 anxiety started flooding my newsfeed, meditation was one of the first tools I turned to. Unfortunately, I realized that one of the most common meditation practices—focusing on the breath—was giving me more anxiety than not meditating at all. The questions, “Is my chest tight? Can I breathe? Is that asthma or the virus?” became a mantra of sorts, though not a pleasant one.
With guidance from two experienced meditation teachers and practitioners—Heidi Bourne, meditation educator and consultant with Pacific Mindfulness, and Kelton Wright, author, athlete, and director of content for mental health care app Sanvello—I’ll cover a few tips and tricks, from visualization to walking meditation, plus point you toward a few free meditation resources available during quarantine.
Focusing on the Body vs. the Breath
Sometimes it feels like almost every meditation starts by focusing on the breath. But it doesn’t have to. Breath provides a convenient way to anchor your focus, but as Kelton says, “the main point isn’t about breathing, it’s about breathing to focus your attention.” She recommends trying to “replace focusing on ‘the breath’ with focusing on a different body part or sensation during guided meditation.”
Kelton and Heidi both suggest the same alternative sensational anchors: your bottom and your feet. When Heidi walked me through a quick guided meditation, she instructed me to direct my awareness to my feet: “Notice how they feel. How do they feel in your shoes, if you’re wearing any. Are they touching the floor? Can you feel the inside of your sock? Notice your feet and sense them from the inside out. Now put your attention on your butt and really get the sense of sitting. Notice the actual pressure that your sit bones make onto whatever you’re sitting on. Shift some of your awareness there.”
Even those few sentences brought a whooshing feeling of relief into my body. When I mentioned this, Heidi wasn’t surprised. “When you shift your awareness to something that is more solid—like the feet or your butt or your hands,” she explains, “it takes the energy of whatever you’re thinking about out of the thinking mind and into the sensing capacity of awareness.” In other words, if your mind is focused on the feeling of sitting, it’s distracted from worrying about everything else.
Kelton first came to her meditation practice to manage her panic attacks after hearing about the Headspace app (where she later ended up working—talk about kismet). When I told her about my COVID-19 meditation anxiety, Kelton could immediately relate: “It’s very similar to when I started meditating with a panic disorder. All of a sudden, I felt like there were more panicked thoughts simply because I was listening to them more carefully.”
So Kelton went in search of a method that worked for her. She soon found visualization. In a visualization meditation, rather than focusing on something physical (like breathing or sitting), you imagine a tiny bead of light located somewhere in the body. Then you envision that bead of light growing slowly until it either encompasses your entire body or—for some—the entire world. Usually, the pinprick of light starts in the chest, but Kelton suggests trying the gut instead if your nerves can’t shake the “shortness of breath” worries.
Other forms of visualization meditation can include meditating on concepts like loving-kindness or ease. Can you actually send positive vibes out of your body to a friend? Debatable, but it sure feels great and calms you down. For more visualization ideas, check out Headspace’s guidance on visualization meditation.
Some active outdoor enthusiasts out there insist that cycling or climbing or skiing is their meditation, and that they wouldn’t be able to sit through a meditation requiring stillness.
While there are walking meditations—which I’ll describe shortly—it’s important to clear up a common misconception that a state of flow elicits the same experience as mindfulness meditation. These two states, mindfulness and flow, are related but not the same. As Kelton puts it, “my mindfulness meditation practice gives me easier access to flow.” She characterizes flow as “the absence of thought.” You’re completely in the moment and not thinking about anything else, including the to-do list waiting for you at home. But in mindfulness meditation, your thoughts are still there, you’re just “choosing how to react to them,” as Kelton says. Meditation is about slowing thoughts down, not stopping your thoughts altogether.
As for walking meditations, they’re actually much different than you might expect. Rather than simply going for a walk without headphones, Heidi clarified that a traditional walking meditation only involves taking about 15 very slow steps—perfect for anyone stuck in their apartment. She explains that as you’re walking, you should try to sense every micro-movement involved in taking a step, from lifting your foot to shifting it forward and placing it back on the ground. So, instead of focusing on your thoughts, you gear your attention toward the experience of movement.
As a musician, I tend to be hyper-aware of sound. When I first began meditating, I often liked to meditate in the sauna at my gym, and I found myself annoyed by the sounds of swimmers getting out of the pool or the chatter of gym-goers—until I found sound meditation.
As opposed to the meditations above, sound meditation focuses the mind outside the body rather than within it. Specifically, listen to the sounds that are naturally present around you, rather than listening to music. Is the sound high pitched? What is the timbre like? Does it sound round or thin? Is it a rhythmic sound or sporadic? Rather than experiencing sound as a constant interruption, in this form of meditation, sound becomes the focus of your practice, and thus a gift! For everyone living in noisy apartments, this meditation might be just the ticket.
Meditation Apps & Online Resources
If you’re just starting out, the easiest place to start is with a guided meditation. I don’t have exact numbers, but I estimate you’ll be 630% more likely to enjoy it. Luckily for you, there are a lot of guided meditations that have been made available during this health crisis.
Some of Heidi’s recorded meditations can be found for free online, while the Sanvello app is offering a free subscription for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic. And if you’re a health care professional (THANK YOU!), Headspace is offering a free premium subscription! You can always pay for a Headspace or Calm subscription, too.
Having a mindfulness practice allows us to understand and experience our thoughts with less judgement. The point is not to be blissed out, but rather, as Heidi puts it, “build deeper resilience and a larger capacity for kindness” which affects every aspect of our lives. By practicing mindfulness, we understand ourselves better and are able to forgive and soothe our anxious brains. And just remember, you don’t have to focus on the breath!
Originally from Arcata, California, Maggee’s career path has taken her across every time zone in the US, from the halls of the world’s top music conservatories to non-profit organizations and most recently, to Backcountry, where she focuses on company-wide initiatives. She lives with her two wheaten terriers and her husband in Salt Lake City. In her spare time, she cooks, plays traditional Irish music, and runs a 65-person Burning Man camp called “Salute Your Jorts”.