In mindfulness practice we most often start with the breath. The breath is pretty powerful, think about it… we can live for days without food or water, but without the breath, we only last a few minutes. The breath is our bridge between the ‘outside’ and the ‘inside’; we breathe in air from outside, bring it inside our body and it is absorbed into every single cell, our whole body is bathed in it. The word ‘breath’ in Latin is ‘spiritus’ which also means inspire (or inspiration= to take in energy from the world), expire, and also sprightly (to be animated and full of life); in the Hebrew Bible one word for breath is ‘nefesh’ from a root which also means blood, life, soul, person; and another is ‘ruach’ which describes breathing from the mouth or nose, and also means courage, disposition or spirit.
Isn’t it Boring?
When people hear about meditation that solely involves ‘paying attention to the breath’ they often feel kind of disappointed; like they are receiving remedial instructions… they want the ‘real’ stuff, not the elementary school version. We tend to think that the breath is pretty boring, mundane, and that’s why most of us don’t pay any attention to it at all. We take it for granted, this totally miraculous process of breathing. We just do it automatically, without thinking about it, although we also have the power to direct our breath if we wish. We like to forget that someday all of us, every single one, will take a final breath. Have you ever sat with someone as they were dying? Those who have speak of a profound experience. Imagine, when you focus on your breath for a few minutes sometime, what it would be to take your last few breaths? Or go in the other direction and try to bring to mind what it feels like for a newborn baby to take his very first breath. Now maybe the idea of paying attention is a bit more interesting!
(This cool animated gif was created by Eleanor Lutz)
In mindfulness of breathing, the breath becomes a focal point in order to train the mind. There are other focal points that can be used as well in mindfulness practice – sensations in the body, sound, and thoughts, for example - however the breath is the most commonly used starting point. According to the teachings that these practices emerged from, it isn’t actually necessary to move beyond the breath in order for profound understanding to emerge.
Physical, Emotional, Mental: The Breath Knows it All!
One way this works is because the breath is tied so closely to both our emotions and physical states; our breath can tell us so much about our experience when we begin to really pay attention. We often breathe faster under stress, or more shallowly because we are holding some of the muscles involved in breathing more rigidly, for example. When we feel good and are at ease, the breath becomes more relaxed and we take longer breaths. Certain moods may bring with them particular patterns of breathing for each of us. When I am really stressed I’ll often find myself holding my breath without realizing it! So when we start to tune into the breath, and its various subtleties, we can start to learn a lot about ourselves, just on that level. We start to notice these patterns… the interesting thing is that when we notice what’s happening, and we can alter our breath and have more of a conscious impact on not only our physical experience, but also potentially on our mind-states (like when I notice I’m holding my breath in stressful situations, I can stop and take a long, deep breath and it can have the effect of centering and grounding me.) Often times, when we become tuned-in to ourselves in this way we start to recognize patterns of reactivity that we hadn’t noticed before – at least not until long after they’d arisen and had their way with us! We recognize things sooner because we’re paying attention to a more subtle layer of experience.
Taking Up Residence
When we begin training with the breath we start with an intention to stay close to the sensations of breathing in one location in the body – without trying to manipulate or control it - usually at the abdomen in the secular MBSR curriculum. (Using this location can help us to become more focused within the body.) We stay with the direct experience, take up residence with it – the natural sensations of rising, falling... expanding, contracting - all in that one location. We don’t follow the breath throughout its whole course through the body; this way we have a smaller area to focus on and anchor to. When we stay put like this we start to notice the sensations that are involved with each momentary experience of breathing in and breathing out. This idea of an anchor is important. We are training the mind to stay present and we want to give ourselves a safe place to settle back on whenever we get lost! Our ability to stay ‘with’ the breath can seem discouraging at first; we find our minds don’t like to stay present so they jump around all over the place. Most people starting out find they can’t stay fully present with the breath for more than one and a half breaths! … and what we tend to begin to notice in this initial experience is what our unruly mind is busy doing so much of the time:
“Somewhere in this process you will come face-to-face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday. It has always been this way and you just never noticed.” (Bhante Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English)
This process of returning back to the breath over and over again is an important part of the practice. We begin to see a whole microcosm of experience in what we might’ve previously imagined to be boring and monotonous and paid no attention. Not only does it train the mind to return to the present, but also often results (eventually!) in a mind that is able to come to a center; to be calm.
We learn so much about ourselves, physically, emotionally and mentally, when we allow ourselves to settle in with the breath. The very simple breath, as it turns out, can be a key to the whole universe! Carl Rogers, the renowned psychologist, once said, “What is most personal is most general.” The breath is immanently personal; and yet it is also our connection with everything else.
So, go ahead and give the breath another look! Try some mindfulness of breathing.