17 min read

Applied sitting meditation: building a foundation

image of people sitting in meditation in a large square in New York City, USA. A park and skyscrapers are visible.
Flash-mob sitting meditation in Union Square, New York City, USA (2015). photo by Rob Walsh.

My sitting meditation practice is in constant evolution and change, but what is consistent is that it helps me build a foundation for applying mindfulness in my life.

What style of meditation I choose and how long I practice shifts regularly. Sometimes I sit consistently on a daily basis and other times I don’t. Lately, with a more diligent sitting practice, I’ve been seeing the direct connection between what I practice on the cushion and the skills I develop off the cushion in daily life. This is why the title of this post is “Applied Sitting Meditation.”

Applied Mindfulness

Before diving into sitting meditation, I want to circle back to the term “Applied Mindfulness.” To help me get started, I’ll borrow some words from Thich Nhat Hanh, from a 2009 talk he gave, in which he described Applied Mindfulness (I first quoted these words in this post). To help guide us to explore today’s topic, I’ve broken his description into the “what,” “why,” and “how” of Applied Mindfulness.

The “what”

“...like applied mathematics, applied science... there is something that can be applied in every circumstance - in order to solve the problem, to shed light on the situation.

The “why”

“... To handle (the situation) in such a way that suffering can be relieved.

The “how”

“And the way you handle (it) should be the way of compassion and understanding.”

(Nhat Hanh, June 21, 2009).

This frames how I think about mindfulness and meditation practice as a whole. The reason I keep meditating is that I have seen first hand that it is applicable and helpful in my life.

One example is my relationship to myself. In the following sentences, I’ve italicized the words that connect to the above definition.

  • I am applying the practice more and more to support me to develop understanding (and love) for myself.
  • This helps me to see what I can do to relieve some of my suffering (e.g. restlessness, stress, anxiety, frustration, sadness, difficulty, etc.).
  • I try not to run away from my suffering, but to look at it and myself with the eyes of understanding and love. And when I say this, I mean my whole self, even the parts of me that I’d prefer weren’t there (e.g. the habit of self-criticism).

This post is about sitting meditation specifically, so let’s turn to how meditation supports the intention above in practice.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s systematic guide to meditation

Recently, I started (re)reading The Blooming Of A Lotus by Thich Nhat Hanh (2022). I’m referencing the 2022 version in this post, but I believe the first version was published in 1993. The book guides us systematically to practice sitting meditation. Throughout the book are guided meditations followed by brief commentaries on the exercises offered. Thich Nhat Hanh describes the purpose of these meditations in the introduction:

The guided meditations in this book have different purposes. Some exercises are done simply to nourish the joy of being alive. Others help us be in touch with life, help us heal, look deeply, or let go. Some exercises combine two or three of these functions at the same time.
(Nhat Hanh, 2022, p. ix)

The first meditations offered in the book are guided meditations typically used at the start of a mindfulness retreat. Exercises are presented to help “nourish our body and mind” (Nhat Hanh, 2022, p. x). These assist in reducing distraction and focusing the mind, slowing down our non-stop thinking, and they serve as a foundation for the rest of our meditation. With meditation, we also learn to look deeply, allowing us to “look into the heart of how things are…so that you are no longer driven or oppressed by it” (Nhat Hanh, 2022, p. x).

Letting go of a goal

The intro to the book promises a lot! I’m not going to lie, I’m pretty into the idea of no longer being driven by my habits. The trick here is to do my best to let go of any end-goal ideas. When I practice meditation in a way that accepts and smiles to whatever is happening in the present moment, without a grasping for some future goal, I find it to be much more effective both in the short and long term.

In the short term, I enjoy the meditation much more. I try to let go of the idea of being successful or not successful.

If I hold on too tightly to an end goal, every moment that I’m not reaching the end goal is a moment of potential frustration.

In the long term, when I do not water the seeds of frustration in myself, I am more at peace.

This is a concrete way that I practice compassion for myself. I suppose I could just stew in anger about all of my shortcomings, but then I would only be strengthening anger and frustration within me. I’ve seen how that goes…maybe you have too, dear reader?

A transferrable skill

What if, every time I felt some degree of upset, I was able to be compassionate and understanding with myself? What if, every time I sensed someone else feeling some degree of upset, I was able to be compassionate and understanding with them? Imagine how much love I would feel directed inwards and outwards!

Thich Nhat Hanh has a wonderful sentence from his loving kindness meditation:

”May I learn to look at myself with the eyes of understanding and love.”

This is a wish we can all make. This is what I orient myself towards on the path of meditation. I can have the ultimate goal of transmitting and receiving true love all the time, and at the same time I recognize my limitations. As I recognize my limitations, I try to love those too, and use them as fuel to continue forwards.

It is inevitable that as I go, I will come across bumps in the road. The question is, how do I interact with those bumps in order to support the relief of suffering in a compassionate way? This is what I practice while I sit.

Within the safe and calm setting of a sitting meditation, I practice engaging with the roadblocks that arise, so that when I encounter the chaos of life I have the capacity to engage with it.

This is the transferrable skill. This is the path of a meditator. It’s always a work in progress for me.

Key word meditation

Throughout Thich Nhat Hanh’s systematic guidebook are key word meditations. Many of them have been developed and honed over the last 40 years of Plum Village. Typically, there are two lines, one to pair with the in-breath and one with the out-breath. These are followed by key words that “restate the main intent of the two preceding lines and help the practitioners concentrate on them” (Nhat Hanh, 2022, p.xii). After noting the key words, the invitation is to practice silently with those words and intentions. We can think of one set of key words as an “exercise,” and the meditation as being made up of all the exercises listed.

I’ve been practicing the very first meditation in this book for the last two weeks every morning. Below I reproduce it in its entirety, and throughout the rest of the post I comment on each exercise.

Dear reader, I invite you to take a few minutes to practice with this meditation before continuing with the rest of this post. You may discover something within it that I have not seen.

As a reminder, please try not to get caught in the words or any end-goal you have in mind. I can orient myself in a certain direction, in the same way that a compass orients me towards true north, but I do not necessarily expect to arrive at the destination of “north.” In this way, I am kind to myself even in my moments of “failure.”

Please, enjoy.

"Exercise 1. Returning to My Body in the Present Moment"

  1. Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.
    Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.
  2. Breathing in, I am aware of the whole length of my in-breath.
    Breathing out, I am aware of the whole length of my out-breath.
    whole length of in-breath
    whole length of out-breath
  3. Breathing in, I am aware of my whole body.
    Breathing out, I relax my whole body.
    my whole body
    I relax
  4. Breathing in, I calm my body.
    Breathing out, I smile.
    calming body
  5. Breathing in, I dwell in the present moment.
    Breathing out, it is a wonderful moment.
    present moment
    wonderful moment

(Nhat Hanh, 2022, p. 2)

1. Breathing in, out

Exercise 1:

1. Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.

This is the first exercise in the guided meditation, and therefore it is the exercise that my mind wanders the most during. When I am forgetful and not practicing mindfulness, my mind tends to be quite busy. I might be planning what I’m going to have for dinner, deeply analyzing a project, or ruminating on something that happened yesterday. So, when I first sit down to meditate, the degree of distraction is quite high.

As a result, I’ve learned to treat the 1st exercise as a time to get in touch with how dispersed my mind is.

Yes, the idea here is to bring some awareness to the fact that I’m breathing in and out, but I don’t think I have ever sat down and immediately been 100% successful in maintaining that kind of concentration.
I treat this as a warm-up.

As I “warm up,” I can experience a “win” right away. Even just with the awareness of one in and out breath. I can also experience the success of noticing when my mind has wandered elsewhere – this is, in fact, present moment awareness, and so it too is a “win.”

Don’t get caught laser focusing

By starting in this way, I get in touch with my breath, my body, and my mind. I try not to get caught in being “laser” focused on my breath only. I have tried this in the past, and it often results in me trying to push away everything else that “interrupts” my meditation (for more on laser focus, see my earlier post on intensity and breadth).

By allowing my attention to be broad at the start, I take stock of the state of my body and mind. This helps me to meet myself anew during every sitting meditation.

This morning, when I was practicing this exercise, I noticed that I was still feeling some upset from the day before. Some residual anxiety and frustration was still present. In the past, I might have tried to “just focus on my breath” in response to this. However, I have come to see that this is not truly possible (my mind usually wanders back to the story behind the feelings) and the attempt to ignore alienates a part of myself.

So, when I notice some upset this morning, I say hello to it and I invite it to come along for the ride of the meditation. My anxiety, my frustration, and “me” walk the path of the meditation together.

When I become aware of my in and out breath, I invite my inner child of anxiety to become aware of my in and out breath too. The same with my frustration.

Every part of me is soothed by the breath.

This is my current practice of non-violence with myself. I see all of these parts of me as myself, and therefore when I practice the meditation, I bring my entire self along for the ride. For more on the concept of non-violence in mediation, see this earlier post.

I see this practice of “going in” as directly transferrable to “going out” and interacting with others’ suffering.

I know that my capacity to make space for myself (and arrive home within) has resulted in an increased capacity to make space for others.

2. Aware of the whole length of my breath

Exercise 2:

2. Breathing in, I am aware of the whole length of my in-breath.
Breathing out, I am aware of the whole length of my out-breath.
whole length of in-breath
whole length of out-breath

As I described above, I find that when I first sit down to meditate, my mind is often quite distracted. If I try to practice the exercise of paying attention to the entire length of a breath as my first exercise in a meditation, I frequently find myself moving towards self-criticism faster. I am not yet ready to dive so deeply into concentration.

During the first exercise, typically I am only able to concentrate on the guidance for, say, 10% of the time. This is ok, the guidance simply invites me to be aware of the fact that I’m breathing, so I only need to be aware of a small portion of the in breath to know that I’m breathing in. This low expectation can be quite helpful for me, especially at the start of a meditation.

During this second exercise of this meditation, I have a chance to apply the concentration I started to develop during the first exercise.

Maybe now I can pay attention to the sensation of the in-breath and out-breath for 50% or even 75% of the time that they are occurring. This can be very relaxing.

Again, I bring any feelings I’m experiencing along for the ride. Once again, the full “me” is soothed.

An indicator of the state of my body, feelings, mind

This second exercise is also a great time to become more aware of the quality of my breathing – the length, depth, and speed of the breath.

This is a clear indicator of the state of my body, feelings, and mind, and there is scientific evidence to back this up. When we are in a state of rest and digest (feeling safe and at ease), the body decreases muscle tension and slows the breath. When we are in a state of fight or flight (unsafely, anxiety, worry), the body increases muscle tension and quickens the breath. There are extreme ends of this (e.g. a panic attack) and also a spectrum in between.

So, when I become aware of the full length of my in and out-breath, I can quickly notice the state of my body, which is a reflection of the state of my feelings and mind.

During this stage of the meditation, I simply try to notice. I try not to force a change, like a deeper or slower in-breath. I try to simply shine the light of awareness on myself. This alone is healing.

Thich Nhat Hanh says this, about mindful breathing:

Wherever the breath may be in the body, feel the calm it brings. Just like drinking cool water on a hot day... When practicing meditation, if the body is calm, then the mind is calm. Conscious breathing makes the body and mind one.
(Nhat Hanh, 2022, p. 3)

With this kind of mindful awareness, my ruminating thoughts about the past or the future have a chance to ease a bit more. It’s not that I force them to “not” be there, I simply notice them when they arise, and gently re-orient my attention to my breathing with kindness, inviting any feelings along for the ride.

I enjoy the “cool water” of the sensation of breathing when my mind is “hot” and busy.

3. Aware of my whole body, I relax

Exercise 3:

3. Breathing in, I am aware of my whole body.
Breathing out, I relax my whole body.
my whole body
I relax

While practicing this exercise, I often scan through the body once or twice and then expand my attention to my whole body. As I do this, I again bring my feelings along for the ride.

During the first two exercises, I set the intention to broaden my awareness. Nevertheless, at this point, there is usually still some habit of laser focusing. So, when I start this third exercise, rather than attempting to broaden my attention to my whole body right away, I find it a bit easier to start by allowing my attention be mildly laser focused.

I start with a scan of each part of my body, noticing: head, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, torso, hips, legs, feet. I might go through the entire body briefly in 2–3 breaths. I say the labels of those body regions silently as I scan. This is a kind of “warm-up” within this exercise.

After my warm-up, I slow down my body scan. Instead of just bringing my awareness to my head, for example, I become aware of my scalp, my brow, my jaw, eyes, and sub-occipital area. As I scan through my whole body like this, I invite/allow any tension I notice to relax, even if just by 5%.

When I’m done going through the whole body like this (maybe 6–8 breaths total), I broaden my attention to my whole body at once, and include in my awareness any sensations that are present (including my breath). Only after I’ve scanned through the body once or twice does this whole body awareness feel natural and possible. This can be very refreshing.

4. Calming, smiling

Exercise 4:

4. Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
calming body

By the time I get to the fourth exercise, my body and mind are usually calmer than before I started the meditation. This is not to imply that I always feel “perfectly” calm, or even that a feeling of “calm” is dominant. I would, however, say that some degree of calm is frequently possible.

With practice, I have come to trust that this guided meditation will water the seed of calm within me.

Calming body

When I practice this fourth exercise, I find it useful to take a concrete approach to calming my body.

Dear reader, maybe you have experienced the soothing touch of a parent, a partner, or a friend? During this exercise, I imagine myself as that soothing presence, offering care to myself.

If I’m feeling anxiety or frustration, I imagine a “mini-me” that I can place my hand on to soothe and calm. I think that for many of us, it can feel easier to offer compassion and friendship to someone else. If that is the case for you, dear reader, use that as a direct experience to draw from as you allow calm and care to be applied inwards.


The smile that I practice during this exercise is a half smile. I gently allow the corners of my lips to turn upwards. Sometimes I consider this to be a bit of “mouth yoga” (thanks Sr. D. for that one).

The half-smile helps to allow the muscles of my face and brow to relax. So, it has a physiological impact on my body.

The half-smile can also be a response to however I’m feeling at that moment. How I’m feeling can be different from day to day, moment to moment, so this practice is very dynamic. I might smile because I’m really enjoying the calm that I’m feeling. Alternatively, I might smile a smile of kindness and care towards myself when I’m not feeling calm.

I always find it fascinating to notice the reaction to being invited to smile. So many people that I encounter express to me that it feels fake or prescriptive, like we are being forced to smile. I have felt this in the past too. Maybe this is from some interaction we had as children. It might feel like we are being invited to ignore some part of ourselves and just smile.

I treat the smile in this meditation exercise as an opportunity to, once again, truly embrace my full self, wherever I am at that moment – calm or anxious.

It is a smile of true love.

5. Present moment, wonderful moment

Exercise 5:

5. Breathing in, I dwell in the present moment.
Breathing out, it is a wonderful moment.
present moment
wonderful moment

With this final exercise, I invite myself to become aware of the present moment. I notice all the conditions that have come together for me to be sitting, wherever I am, in meditation. I can become aware of something simple in my space, like the cushion beneath me or my grandmother’s blanket over my knees. I can become aware of the fact that I am breathing, and therefore I am alive. I can even become aware of some past moments that make this present moment possible, like all of my meditation training and teachers.

In becoming aware of these things, I can recognize that this is a wonderful moment. Thich Nhat Hanh very often says that we “already have enough conditions for happiness right here and now.”

The practice is to recognize what I might often take for granted, and appreciate its support.

Not everyone in the world has the same conditions as us. At an extreme end, there is active war and persecution in the world as I write these words. Many do not have a roof over their heads.

So again, this exercise is not to deny any suffering and difficulty in ourselves or the world. This is simply an invitation to broaden our attention to also include the wonderful things in our lives right here and now. This appreciation can help us to have the stability to face the suffering within and without.

The meditation as a whole

When I break this meditation down into its parts to analyze, I can see many trainable qualities in myself that support me. I can see how each exercise develops concentration, curiosity, and calm.

The title of this post is about application. To circle back to our what / how / why of Applied Mindfulness from above, I can see how each exercise helps me develop some understanding and compassion for myself.

I also know that as I develop understanding of myself, I learn to love myself better (to borrow from Sr. Annabelle’s ideas in my previous post titled, “Understanding is love”).

Practicing this meditation helps me to develop a foundation that I can draw from in my daily life. It makes daily application possible.

In moments when I feel some distress throughout my day, I can draw upon the skill of bringing awareness and curiosity to how I am feeling. When I can do that, I know how to respond to the situation – I know “what” to do.

In moments when I am engaging with others, I can draw upon my capacity to bring awareness and curiosity to a situation. I can, for example, try to be fully present for a friend going through a loss. I’m not always fully successful, but,

The concentration I develop during my sitting meditation is the very same concentration that I apply when I’m being there for others.

This is what allows me to be as present as possible for those that I love. If that is the only outcome, then I am happy.

When sitting meditation is not calming

Sometimes sitting meditation does not calm my mind. I often hear Plum Village friends say that during moments of intense anger or sadness that walking meditation is more helpful than sitting. Thich Nhat Hanh himself frequently practiced walking meditation during really difficult moments of his life.

So, try as I might, I am sometimes so restless that I need to move my body. I know this about myself, and so I have a daily morning yoga routine that is about 5–7 minutes long. The idea for me is to have something very short that is hard to make an excuse not to do (despite being a physiotherapist, I’m not always the best at keeping up regular exercise).

When my mind is quite restless, movement is typically the medicine I need.

Body flows, mind flows

The routine I have is memorized, so it is a motor pattern that my body knows well. I like to flow through it with the following phrases paired with my in and out breath:

  • body flows
    mind flows

While practicing yoga, I feel my body fluidly moving, and I invite my mind to move along with my body.

The movement of my body is quite dynamic, which is an easy object of attention for my non-stop thinking and analyzing mind.

Sometimes, I’ll repeat “body flows, mind flows” over and over as I move. Breath by breath, this can help to make the body and mind one.

When I practice yoga, I also know that I am being kind to my body and caring for my physical health. I’ve chosen a sequence of Yoga poses that I know helps to align my shoulders, stretch my tight calves, and release my lower back. This knowledge can be soothing in and of itself.

Every yoga pose is like offering to myself that same gentle hand on the back that I offer to a friend going through something difficult. I can do this everyday as another practice of arriving home within myself.


Dear reader, I hope that some of these practices might be useful for you as well.

I invite you to reflect on what daily practice you have to arrive home within yourself.

What activities serve to build a foundation to support you in interacting with yourself and others?

As you reflect, I invite you to return to (1) the “what,” (2) the “why,” and (3) the “how” of Applied Mindfulness:

Is your practice developing a capacity that (1) you can apply in some circumstance to (2) relieve suffering with (3) understanding and compassion?

If the answer is yes, I’d imagine it’s helpful. If the practice is not quite fulfilling any one of those three, I’d invite you to bring some curiosity to either the practice itself or how you are approaching the practice.

I revisit my practice all the time to investigate this question. If my practice becomes static, it often withers. In bringing a “beginner’s mind” to every meditation, I maintain some freshness and meet myself wherever I am in that present moment.

If you are interested in exploring Thich Nhat Hanh’s systematic guide to meditation, I’d encourage you to buy the book referenced in this post! Reference below.

Nhất Hạnh, Thích (2022). The Blooming of a Lotus (Revised & Expanded): The Essential Guided Meditations for Mindfulness, Healing, and Transformation: Beacon Press.

Reminder: the resources page is always here for you. It is where I collect all the links, resources, and references from every post.

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