Both Ajahn Brahm and Ajahn Brahmali told meditation students that a common mistake of most beginners practicing breathing meditation is rushing to observe the breath before they properly set up mindfulness & clear comprehension. As a result they continue to struggle with a restless wandering mind.
Occasional meditators would be familiar with the unruly monkey mind hopping all over the place, and invading thoughts assault awareness non-stop.
Sometimes I make use of Paul Simon’s popular song The Sound of Silence as an aid to reinforce mindfulness & clear comprehension. I modified the first verse of the very familiar song (which is probably an ear-worm for people of a certain age and easy to recall). The original lyric is:
> Hello darkness, my old friend > I’ve come to talk with you again > Because a vision softly creeping > Left its seeds while I was sleeping > And the vision that was planted in my brain > Still remains > Within the sound of silence
My modified version is:
> Hello breathing, my old friend > I’ve come to sit with you again > Because a stillness softly creeping > Left its seeds while I was sitting > And the stillness that was planted in my mind > Still remains > Within the sound of silence
To sit with an old friend is a pleasant experience. No word is necessary. Just pay attention to your old friend. The sound of silence should be cherished. Let stillness emerge naturally.
With regards to Mindfulness, be on guard about the in- & out- breaths. Don’t forget to bring the breath back into focus as it wanders away.
Clear comprehension would know (1) the purpose of sitting down is to cultivate stillness of mind, samadhi. (2) The breath is a suitable tool to cultivate stillness of mind. (3) The breath itself is the domain, ie. do not abandon the subject of meditation, the breath. (4) Be aware that in reality & true nature, there is no “I”, no such thing as “my meditation”. It is merely a process.
Just one tool in the meditation tool chest to calm the mind down. Enjoy.
I discovered Ajahn Brahm’s little booklet ( still the best on his style of meditation ) “The Basic Method Of Meditation” decades ago.
It produces some really beautiful states, but many people have trouble with the technique.
I think a core overlooked issue is taking into consideration what the state of mind the person is starting off with.
My guess is that Ajahn Brahm developed it in a comparatively serene environment. On a hardcore meditation retreat in the jungles of Thailand, etc, etc.
I think the time to use his technique is when the mind is less agitated.
I can’t imagine coming to his technique and just passively sitting alert when grieving for a deceased loved one, just having gotten out of an argument, etc… During those times I think it is more effective to clear of agitation with an more active technique that block out that mental activity: mantras repeated out loud, metta meditation statements, complex breath counting schemes etc.
Then when the mind is comparatively settled, THEN let the mind settle further by simply being alert to the present movement.
Some people are totally not ready to practice meditation. I have gone to retreats where some attendee’s emotion is out of control. At a 7-day Zen retreat decades ago a woman was shouting out loud uncontrollably, sounding quite hysterical. After the retreat when observance of silence is over I heard that she behaved like that before. Why did the Zen Master allow her back? No idea. I heard that her son was there too.
At a 10-day Vipassana retreat years ago someone sobbed & cried uncontrollably by the end of the 7th or 8th day. That went on for quite some time. Again, that person was not removed from the hall until much later. I have heard of more serious problem at another 10-day Vipassana retreat where an attendee ended up in psychiatric hospital.
On a recording of a recent retreat, Ajahn Brahmali explained during Q&A that some people have unresolved psychological issues that could come to the surface as the mind settles; it can bring about serious outburst and cause significant mental trauma. They should not try to meditate before resolving these problems, probably should go see a psychiatrist first.
The breathing meditation method such as recorded in MN-118 was taught by the Buddha to monks who were totally ready to undertake the training. Their sila is good. The teaching could not be clearer: find a quiet place first! Avoid the crowd. Build up the necessary condition such as ethical behavior to sit quietly. Set up mindfulness and clear comprehension first. etc.
There was the famous story when the Buddha asked a grief stricken crazy woman who just lost her entire family to first find a family who had never experienced death. That’s the cooling period for her to calm down. The Buddha did not tell her to just sit down and meditate. So the lesson is also very clear if we read the suttas.
Personally I find “mantra” antithetical to “sound of silence” & stillness. Like other ear-worms, trying to get rid of the mantra might be more troublesome later on.