Wildmind Buddhist Meditation

Mindfulness of Breathing

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I find I’m controlling my breathing

flower and stonesI recently received an email from a visitor to Wildmind. Ken asked:

When practicing breathing, I find that I can not seem to not control it to some
extent.

How can I feel more comfortable with the breath and prevent myself from
controlling it?

Should I just be aware of the fact that I am doing this and continue on?

This is a very common experience. We get so used to being in control, or thinking that we’re in control, or simply thinking that we ought to be in control, that the conscious mind starts to interfere with the act of breathing — something that’s normally handled unconsciously by the autonomic nervous system.

For most animals the breath is controlled entirely by unconscious parts of the brain. Dogs and cats don’t think about their breathing as far as we know. In a few creatures — such as whales and dolphins — breathing is entirely under conscious control and they have to take each breath as a deliberate action. These animals have a clever way of sleeping with only one half of the brain at a time so that they don’t drown. In humans breathing mostly takes place unconsciously (we don’t stop breathing when we fall asleep) but we can also take conscious control of our breathing when we need to. This is a handy talent — it means for example that we can hold the breath when we’re submerging ourselves in water or walking past an obnoxious odor, and that we can consciously take deep breaths when necessary.

In mindfulness meditation we don’t generally aim to control the breath consciously. Certainly there are times when we may wish to do this for short periods — for example taking a few deep breaths at the start of the practice in order to settle the mind, or slowing the breath when we realize that we’ve become excited — but the words to emphasize here are “short periods.” We only control the breath for a specific purpose and for few breaths, and then we let the breathing return to autonomic control.

Ideally we’re simply letting the breath flow in and out of the body at its own pace, and the job of the conscious mind is to observe the sensations of the breath. Ideally. This doesn’t always work out as we’ve planned, and sometimes beginners to meditation find that they’re controlling the breath. In its mildest forms there may be a slight sense of stiffness or awkwardness about the breathing, but in more extreme cases the muscles involved in the breathing, such as the intercostals (the muscles between the ribs) may become very sore indeed. People sometimes hyperventilate and feel dizzy. None of this is usually dangerous, but it certainly doesn’t help our meditation practice.

So what can we do if we find that we develop a habit of controlling the breath?

As Ken suggested in his email, we can just be aware of the fact that we are controlling the breath and simply carry on with the practice. Eventually if we do this we’re likely to find that we’ve forgotten to control the breath consciously. But this can take a long time and this isn’t a very effective approach.

One time, when I was very new to meditation, I found that I was controlling my breathing. The more I noticed that I was controlling the movements of my ribcage and abdomen, the harder it was to let go and simply breathe. My chest muscles were working against each other and as a result they became very sore. The more sore they became the harder it was to just let go and breathe. I was caught in a vicious cycle.

Luckily I had a creative realization that I didn’t need to focus on my chest at all, and I started to pay more attention to the breath in the nostrils, and particularly to the sensation of the breath as it passed over the rims of the nostrils. It occurs to me now that it’s possibly to be aware of the breath in the nostrils but not to control it there. Anyway, I noticed that the more I directed my attention to the nostrils, the less I noticed the pain in my chest. From time to time my focus would slip down to my aching ribcage and I’d sense the discomfort there, and this experience became an incentive to notice the nostrils even more keenly. Eventually I became very concentrated indeed and my chest muscles began to relax and return to unconscious control.

Another approach that can be very useful is to lighten up by bringing more of a sense of playfulness into our experience. One way to do this is to imagine that you’re floating on warm, buoyant water that’s rising and falling in time with the breath. You can really enjoy the rhythm of the waves as they rise and fall.

A similar approach is to imagine that you’re sitting on a swing that’s moving in time with the breathing. You can call to mind the sense of enjoyment that you may have got from this activity when you were a child, and get a sense of pleasure from the rise and fall.

One thing that’s going on here is that we’re bringing a sense of enjoyment and playfulness into the practice. This can be very helpful if we tend to take a dry, dutiful, and willful approach to meditation. Another thing that’s happening is that the driving force for the breath is being imaginatively located outside of ourselves, in the waves or in the motion of the swing, and so we’re learning that we don’t have to have conscious control of the breath. Just as the motion of the water or swing is outside ourselves, so the control of the breathing is outside of the conscious mind.

So these are a couple of approaches to dealing with the difficulty of simply observing the breath without consciously controlling it. There are no doubt other approaches but these are ones that my students have found to be most useful.

Comments

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Comment from Sam
Time: August 12, 2010, 12:25 am

Can you possibly give me some more ideas on how to let go of controlling the breath?
At the moment it seems that as soon as I am aware of breathing I’m trying to control it and it seems forced.
Even if that be awareness in the nostrils or floating on rising and falling waves, if I thinking about it, then I am still trying to control it.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: August 12, 2010, 10:04 am

There are other approaches, Sam. One is just to keep going with the practice. Eventually you’ll realize, with some surprise, that you’ve become so absorbed with the breath that you’ve forgotten to control it. From then on breathing naturally comes, well, naturally.

You can also use your controlling the breath as a basis for insight. You can drop the question into your mind, “Who is controlling the breath,” or “Who is breathing.” Is it “you” (your conscious mind)? If it’s an unconscious process that you’re not in control of, then in what sense is that “you”?

I’d also suggest that you pay attention to a broad range of sensations rather than focus narrowly on the breath. Begin your meditation by becoming very aware of the space around you, with its light, sounds, etc. While maintaining this broad, open, spacious awareness, become aware of the sensations in the body generally, and then lightly focus on the sensations of the breath while maintaining an awareness of all of the above. You can notice that there’s not much going on that you can actually control. Sounds some and go, for example, and you simply have to allow them to pass; you can’t make them do anything. This reminds us to simply remain receptive rather than feeling we have to be in charge.

Do feel free to let me know how you get on. It would be great if you could post a follow-up comment in a week or two.

All the best,
Bodhipaksa

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Comment from Sam
Time: August 17, 2010, 7:42 pm

Thank you so much for these ideas.
I will start trying them out.

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Comment from Sam
Time: August 23, 2010, 4:30 am

Thanks Bodhipaksa,
I have found that being generally aware of all the things around me that I have no control over gets me in a place where I can allow things to be that way, and then I have found when I gently look at the breath, I am allowing it just to be. Its great. There is still a tiny little bit of me that wants to creep back in and control it, but i can let it go by being more generally aware of things again. Its a start, and I’m pleased. Thank you.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: August 23, 2010, 8:21 am

I’m glad you found that suggestion helpful, Sam.

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Comment from mike
Time: March 11, 2011, 12:50 pm

What about focusing on the breath? Doesn’t focusing on the breath even though your manipulating a little help.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: March 11, 2011, 12:59 pm

I don’t think I fully understand your question, Mike. Do you mean is it still beneficial to be meditating on the breath even though the breath is being controlled? I’d say that except in extreme cases of control (you do get some people who can make themselves sick by almost suffocating themselves or by hyperventilating) there are still benefits from the meditation. In fact they may not be able to get beyond controlling the breath without learning to relax and let go — through continued meditation practice. So it’s a question of just keeping going, and working through those control issues.

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Comment from mike
Time: March 11, 2011, 1:02 pm

Thanks for the answers. I don’t control it to the level that i get pulled muscles or hyperventilate. I am aware of the in and out breath. I guess i don’t control it as bad as i thought

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Comment from Max
Time: May 28, 2011, 1:10 pm

I figure the best way to look at breathing is to compare it to the heart. Your heart beats without yourself thinking about your heart beating. If you view the lungs with the same thought as how you view the heart, you can start to imagine your lungs as just another organ, that functions on it’s own without any type of intervention. You don’t count the breath to literally keep count, but you use the count to remove yourself away from the breath; to observe the breath objectively, as a function to pull oxygen into the lungs. Once you see the team work between the heart and the lungs, you realize that it’s a team that doesn’t need the help of the conscious brain. It’s all about realization, even to the most simplest parts of the body.

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Comment from Charlene
Time: September 6, 2011, 8:50 pm

Thanks Bodhipaksa. You’re suggestions are really practical & effective. I would like to post it in my blog if you don’t mind.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: September 6, 2011, 10:08 pm

Sure, although please remember to link back. If you could include the word “meditation” in the link I’d be most grateful. It helps with Google.

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Comment from Tom
Time: November 2, 2011, 8:27 am

Hi,

I started practicing mindfullness meditation about half a year ago, and I practice about 40-45 minutes a day. I would expect that by this time I should be able to breath and feel the breath properly, but unfortunately none of them is true. I do not have particular issues with focusing on anything else, but I cannot focus on something that I do not feel at all.

My question is that is there anything else that could replace the breath as being the main anchor? I have read several books about minfullness meditation and they all recommend having the breath as the main anchor, as if nothing else could replace it. What is your opinion?

Thank you,
Tamas

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: November 2, 2011, 10:04 am

Hi, Tom.

Don’t think about the object as being “the breath” but as being “the breathing.” There are a gazillion physical and easily noticed physical sensations connected with the process of the breathing, and I’m sure you’ll have no difficulty noticing them. If by “the breath” you mean “the experience of the air touching the inside of the air-passageways as it moves in and out of the body,” then this is just one particular sensation connected with the breathing. I wrote an article recently about the various sensations connected with the breathing, and you might find that useful.

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Comment from Tom
Time: November 2, 2011, 10:43 am

Thank you very much for the quick reply! Very useful article, it does help a lot!

I was a bit hesitating to ask this question, as it seems a rather silly one: if I really did not feel the breath, then how would I know if I am inhaling or exhaling? And yet, I just stubbornly tried to focus on my belly, instead of the other areas that you mentioned in your article.

Thank you!

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: November 2, 2011, 10:52 am

You’re welcome, Tom.

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Comment from Palaniappan
Time: January 8, 2012, 6:10 am

Hi,

I joined the mindfulness meditiation today in my city and we had a 3 hrs class, but all throughout the class, where we had to observe our breathing, I found it difficult. I felt an inability to discern my breathing, when I closed my eyes and started to observe my natural breathing, I did not feel like breathing. I know the breathing happens, but I’m not able to feel it unless I take conciuos effort to inhale and exhale. But I have been told not to forcefully inhale and exhale always. But if I dont do it, I dont feel like breathing and am not able to observe anything. This makes me feel agitated and worried about how to practice. Would you help me please?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: January 9, 2012, 9:53 am

Hi, Palaniappan.

Are you saying that you’re unable to feel, for example, your ribcage moving as you breathe? Are you not able to feel the muscles in your belly moving? These are, for most people, I would imagine. sensations that are not difficult to detect.

If that is indeed what you mean, then I’d suggest just persevering. As we practice paying attention to the breathing, we gradually learn to notice more subtle, less obvious, sensations, and the experience of observing the breath becomes richer. If you’re starting from basically not being able to sense the body at all, then this may take a little longer. But the gentle and patient effort to notice sensations in the body will be helpful in many ways.

But I wonder if in fact you’re ignoring the more obvious sensations of the breathing, and making it harder for yourself by trying too early to find the more subtle sensations. In that case, just stick with what you can feel, and in time your experience will become richer.

All the best,
Bodhipaksa

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Comment from Palaniappan
Time: January 9, 2012, 10:58 am

Thank you, my dear Bodhipaksa for prompt response and time. I feel glad to have recieved your guidance.

To explain it in detail (please apologize if it is long enough):

I sit cross legged with erect spine and close my eyes. Now that I have closed my eyes, there are two things possibly that can be performed, one – take effort to inhale and feel the sensation of the body. But I was advised not to take effort inhaling but just observe the natural breathe. This I’m not able to feel. When I close my eyes, I dont feel the breathe going in and coming out UNLESS I take the conscious effort to inhale by myself and feel the breathe. But if I dont do this, I hardly could feel the breathe going in and out.

Not sure if the explanation did help you understand my problem. As you suggested, I will keep trying and stick with what I can feel and may in time, I might be able to feel it?

Thanks in advance once again,
Palani

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: January 9, 2012, 11:09 am

Hi, Palani.

Yes, controlling the breath by deliberate breathing is not recommended. It leads to tension and hyperventilation. But you could start your meditation with two or three deep breaths, and then let your breathing return to normal.

So, it sounds like you’re not able to feel the ribcage or the belly moving as you breathe (you didn’t mention this explicitly, but I’ll take the omission to mean that you don’t). You might want to spend some time, perhaps when lying down, placing one hand on your abdomen and the other on your chest, breathing normally and noticing the sensations of those movements. Then try taking your hands off, and seeing if you can still find the sensations in the body. You could also try with one hand at a time, in order to isolate the sensations in the belly and chest.

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Comment from Palaniappan
Time: January 9, 2012, 11:15 am

Thank you Bodhipaksa. Yes you are right, am not able to feel the belly moving. I sometimes wonder if i breathe at all :)

But if I inhale by taking a deep or medium breathe, am able to feel the ribcage and the belly moving.

Thanks,
Palani

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: January 9, 2012, 11:31 am

Well, if you try out the exercise I suggested, then start off with a few deliberate breaths, and then let your breath return to normal. Every so often, try taking a few deeper breaths again. Once you’ve found it easier to notice the breathing, then this article on exploring the breath might be useful.

Good luck!

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Comment from Palaniappan
Time: January 9, 2012, 11:35 am

Sure Bodhipaksa. I shall definitely try and let you know. Thanks once again for your continuous help.

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Comment from Tom
Time: January 9, 2012, 5:41 pm

Hi Palaniappan,

I am just writing because I had the same problem and wondered for a while if something is wrong with me, as no one else seemed to have this issue. Then I tried to follow Bodhipaksa’s advice (you can find it somewhere above) and focused on ANY sensations that are connected to breathing, not only in the belly. Then I noticed 2 things: if I focus on the nose, I do not control my breathing so much, and if I try to relax and accept that I just cannot feel breathing the way others do, then I started feeling some other sensations (not in the belly, but I guess that is not important) that are not too vivid, but detectable. So while I still think there is something bizarre about the way I breath (sometimes all I can feel is some subtle pain), I can definitely feel some sensations.

I am not sure if this helps at all, but at least you can see that you are not alone with this thing.

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Comment from Palaniappan
Time: January 9, 2012, 10:21 pm

Thank you Tom for providing your experience to me. What you have said is what I had been going through as well. Because it seemed for everyone they are able to feel the breathe and count but I couldnt sense anything and yeah I also had the subtle pain while trying my mind to focus on the breathe.

Well I will try the advices given by Bodhipakha and guess at this time what I need more than breathe is to keep my mind positive and not give up the practice.

Thanks again Tom, appreciate your time for me.

Regards,
Palani

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: January 9, 2012, 10:24 pm

The pain probably happens because you’re trying to control the breathing. Control prevents the normal pattern of movement of the intercostal muscles, which can lead to discomfort. Sometimes the pain can be quite intense.

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Comment from Palaniappan
Time: January 9, 2012, 10:40 pm

That is true Bodhipaksa. May be I should just let go off my breathe control and try relaxedly to see whatever I can feel.

By the way I did try lieing down flat and then kept one hand in the belly first, I could sense the breathe movement for just sometime and gradually it becomes subtle and disappears and the same happens for the chest region too. I could sense the breathe movement for sometime and then gradually it disappears and becomes still.

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Comment from Dan
Time: January 16, 2012, 5:51 pm

hi bodhipaska..
thankyou for a reassuring article. i seem to have a problem where i find myself controlling my breathing 24 hours a day.. it’s very tiring and distressing. it has been going on for about 4 months now without even a day off. my body and concious mind won’t seem to just let go of controlling the breathing. do you have any advice or exercises for me. i would like to have my life back on track asap.

thanks

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: January 16, 2012, 6:28 pm

Hi Dan.

You don’t say whether you’ve put into practice any of the advice from the article and, if you did, what the effects were.

All the best,
Bodhipaksa

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Comment from arayan
Time: January 30, 2012, 3:37 pm

hi, i have been practising daily for a few months now, a few hours a day. probably because i misread instructions, but at the beginning of each session i would purposefully slow my breath down – I found it quite a useful calming mechanism, and it fit into the definition of ‘calm abiding’. after a few weeks, i began to notice, that at times I would keep on looking at the clock, or after a session i’d immediately want to get up and snack. My sensitivity also decreased dramatically. My guess is that the slowing down of the breath was actually a suppression, because once i stopped slowing it down, my sensitivity came back, and things began to take a ‘texture again’.

My only problem now is to discern what exactly is ‘normal’ breathing. I’ve got it down to two ‘modes’ of breathing. One is continuous – almost immediately after the outbreath the inbreath starts. The other has a delay in between the outbreath and inbreath. Although the latter feels calmer, I notice I also lose sensitivity. Would I be write in thinking the latter probably has some very subtle levels of control and force going on? And that perhaps it’s normal to breathe in almost as soon as you’ve breathed out? many thanks

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: January 30, 2012, 4:01 pm

How rich and varied human experience is!

“Normal” breathing varies a lot, depending on what mental and physiological state you’re in. If you listen to someone who’s asleep, for example, you’ll be surprised often how long the gaps are between breathing. And some people, when they get deeply into meditation, find that the breathing slows a great deal. I don’t generally keep track of exactly how long the breaths are.

I’d suggest that you distract yourself from paying so much attention to the length and the rhythm of the breathing. Try seeing how many sensations connected with the breathing you can notice at the same time. There’s much more going on than most people notice (I have some pointers here), and it’s a real challenge to experience all of this. Actually, you don’t have to notice everything, just to pay attention to so many sensations that it’s a “stretch” and so that your mind becomes quiet. If you give your mind enough to do, it won’t be fretting about whether you’re breathing correctly, and at some point you’ll probably realize that you’ve not been controlling the breathing at all.

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Comment from John C
Time: September 22, 2012, 3:46 pm

Hi, I was just searching the internet trying to find answers to my meditations and the connection to breath when I found this site and have a question. I find when I meditate my relationship with breath changes totally. Each breath becomes conscious to take or not to take. I lie still and once the air finally leaves my lungs I experience no tension or hyperventilation and feel no pressure to take the next breath. I have no intention to see how long I can stay this way for and choose to breathe but I do wonder. Last week after a meditation this experience stayed with me for a peroid of time even during a trip down to the local town. I kinda felt detatched but driving the body. Is this a common experience. John

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: September 22, 2012, 10:06 pm

Hi, John.

It’s not uncommon for people to find that they control their breathing during meditation, but it’s not what we’re aiming to do. What you describe sounds rather peculiar, and even concerning. On a purely physiological level, there should be a desire to take another breath after exhaling, so I’m puzzled about what’s going on there.

I’d strongly suggest just allowing the body to breathe, and simply observing. If you do find yourself controlling the breathing, then see if you can just let it be.

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Comment from John C
Time: September 23, 2012, 6:03 am

Hi Bodhipaksa,

Thank you for your reply and comments. There still is a desire to breathe but the relationship with this breath changes. Maybe it simply slowes but I wondered about the lack of pressure to grasp that breath as I would if I ceased breathing during normal activities. And also this senstation did remained after comming out of the meditation last week with the same lack of obvious pressure and I was still connected to breath and choosing when to breathe but carring on normal actitivies. I don’t feel concern just a little puzzled also.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: September 23, 2012, 12:01 pm

It could be that you’re somehow expecting that you will control the breathing consciously, while it’s actually (as is normal) being handled by your autonomic nervous system. So you exhale, there’s a pause (which is normal), then you expect that you should be experiencing a “hunger” to breathe in, even though your body doesn’t actually need to at that moment, then your autonomic nervous system causes you to inhale. All that’s happening is that you have an expectation that’s out of line with physiological reality.

If this is what’s going on, then that would explain your sense of being “detached” from the process of breathing.

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Comment from Adam
Time: October 15, 2012, 9:57 pm

I’m having this problem right now and I’m finding that I take hours to get to sleep because I keep gasping for air and going into a panic. I also can’t honestly say that I have ever been aware of my breath (or related sensations) without feeling like I was controlling it at the same time. I always feel like I am breathing, never ever that breathing is happening.

I’m finding it a big enough problem that I might drop the counting/following breath sensations completely.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: October 15, 2012, 10:10 pm

That sounds like a good plan, Adam. You can focus on lovingkindness or some other form of meditation for the time being.

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Comment from JamieHoey
Time: November 16, 2012, 12:39 pm

Hi I have trouble controlling my breath also, but I have a another problem which seems to be linked with it and seems to really have disrupted my practice. I focus on the breath, my mind doesn’t think to much about other topics, however I notice that most of the time I”m actually thinking about the breath and evaluating, and trying to to get to the breath and not actually experiencing it. I try to notice that I am “thinking” about the breath, and then go back to the actual experience, and then I either end up controlling, or saying “there it is” which leads me to just it or I just go back to thinking about the breath. Its all very confused :-)

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: November 16, 2012, 1:05 pm

I think it’s good to remember that you don’t need to make the sensations of the breathing happen. Sensory data from all over the body is flooding into the brain all the time, in every moment. The reason we don’t notice this is because (sensibly enough) we tune it out in order to focus on those few things that we think actually need our attention. Since those sensations are already arising naturally, there’s no effort involved in finding them. What’s involved is a non-effort, simply seeing what’s there. You don’t need to make an effort to see the scene in front of your eyes, do you?

Trying to find the sensations of the breathing is often counter-productive. The trying in itself can get in the way. Just relax. Allow yourself to notice what’s there.

If you find yourself thinking about the breathing rather than experiencing it, just let go of the thinking, without judgment. Do this as many times as you need to.

It can take a while to unlearn this habit of “over-doing” in meditation, so keep going and be patient with yourself.

One more thing. Consider it “the breathing” that you’re noticing, not “the breath.” I’ll leave you to figure out the difference :)

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Comment from Will
Time: December 2, 2012, 7:24 pm

Hi,

Is it advisable to watch automatic breathing as if you were watching a stranger? At some point during my meditation, I purposefully try to watch my body as another material. This helps me to notice my breathing better, but I’m not sure if this should be done or avoided?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: December 2, 2012, 9:01 pm

To do what you’re doing, Will, is very much in tune with the Buddha’s teaching, which encourages us to recognize, with regard to every experience we have, “This is not me; this is not mine; I am not this” (Taṃ netaṃ mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā). So as long as there’s no unhealthy depersonalization, then I think this is fine. In order to avoid depersonalization, it’s important to practice lovingkindness. The unhealthiness of depersonalization seems to lie in the lack of a positive, caring, kindly awareness of our experiences, and in fact there’s often anxiety and a deadening of feeling.

I don’t want to stress depersonalization as a danger, because it seems to affect only a small number of people. Overwhelmingly, studies of meditation show benefits, and most of these studies involve forms of insight meditation which encourage us not to identify with our experiences, along the lines of the quote I gave above.

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Comment from Ipg
Time: February 10, 2013, 11:08 pm

Dear Bodhipaksa
Good day!!!!
I am practicing vipasana since 5 months and I am able sit calm and without any distractions for almost 30 min. But, while doing the in-hale my full attention is with in-hale breathe and while exhaling I can feel the (air ) going through out of my nostrils. When I give my full attention attached with in-hale breath ( i can feel/sense) my mind is almost empty or are fully concentrated on the in-hale. Am I doing correct?? is this right step?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: February 11, 2013, 3:48 pm

This sounds fine.

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Comment from Nastja
Time: February 24, 2013, 1:18 pm

Dear Bodgipaksa!

I have a similar problem with controling breath but this is actually happening now for 2 years. And I suspect that I have psychosomatic dissorder because of this… I have a pain in diaphragma, loungs, and headache, even weird feelings on throat and face.. i think i have a blocade in diaphragma.. i try to relax it with spontaneous breathing but it gets on my nerves because I cant get rid of controling my breathing. This pain is sometimes really unbearable and because of this i also cant do things during the day. And i’m really worried about and it makes me depressed.
What do you suggest? practicing your techniques?

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Comment from Cheri
Time: March 12, 2013, 1:09 pm

Does it matter when meditating that one breaths in & out through the nose, or should one breath in through the nose & out through the mouth? Thank you

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: March 12, 2013, 1:14 pm

It’s normal to breath in and out through the nose. I’m not clear why anyone would want to breath out through the mouth, unless perhaps the nose is blocked in such a way that exhaling is restricted. And if that’s the case, then breathing out through the mouth is a necessity.

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Comment from JamieHoey
Time: March 14, 2013, 2:15 pm

Thank you so much, I’ve come a long way with not trying and gotten some great experiences, however you say that unlearning this habit can take a lot of time. Have you come across this before?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: March 15, 2013, 11:47 am

I suspect most people have gone through a phase of finding that they control their breathing. Only a few people seem to get “stuck” doing so, though.

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Comment from Sarah
Time: April 29, 2013, 5:00 am

I have great difficulty with this – I have an anxiety disorder and find that I am controlling my breathing not just when meditating but all the time. My diaphragm is tight, I feel that I am not taking in enough air, I can’t breathe out fully without forcing it, I usually try to breathe ‘normally’ for a while but end up leaning forwards and taking big gulping breaths or yawning. I end up feeling dizzy and very distressed and it is generally a nightmare. I have been practising meditation on my own for several months and still very much struggle with this. I use a guided meditation which always says ‘your body knows how to breathe itself’ but I’ve never managed to let it do so! I have read a lot of confusing information about the best ways to breathe, and am practising yoga using a DVD, which has more information still, and I end up very confused about where I should be breathing from. My belly, diaphragm and chest all feel restricted when I try to breathe in, and to breathe out fully I feel the need to consciously tense my stomach muscles. When I try not to control my breath, I just seem to stop breathing entirely and hold my breath. I have tried just allowing this to happen, but I will then seem to breathe in an extremely shallow manner until I start to feel very dizzy and faint, and will need to take a big, conscious breath again.

It does seem a little easier when lying on the floor, so maybe I should just stick to that for a while?

I found your post very helpful though, and am looking forward to trying those things out. I just closed my eyes for a while and tried a combination of focussing on the breath in my nose, and imagining that I am floating on waves in the sea, and it did seem to help, and it was very useful to read some of the comments here. Thank you!

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: April 29, 2013, 10:33 am

Hi, Sarah.

I think you may be pursuing a practice that you’re not quite ready for. I’d recommend that you focus on lovingkindness meditation rather than on anything involving focusing on the breathing, for now at least. It strikes me that you’re exploring “the best way to breathe” and also trying to be mindful of your breathing (which essentially just lets the breathing take care of itself — and these two things are doing very different things and are in a sense contradictory. So I’d suggest laying these practices to one side for now, focusing on a completely different practice, and then when you come back to paying more attention to your breathing pick mindfulness breathing meditation (with the aim of having no control) and not try to combine this with notions of “proper breathing” or yogic pranayama exercises.

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Comment from Tom
Time: April 30, 2013, 4:53 am

Hi Bodhipaksa,

I wonder why the breath is the most popular object in meditation. After about 2 years of meditation I started focusing on different objects (I start with the sounds, and then later the whole body) rather than the breath, and my meditation practice became more natural and relaxed. I still feel my breath when I focus on my body (probably better than before), but now I can be neutral, there is no controlling or anxiety.

So my guess is that there are traditional reasons to focus on the breath and not practical ones -or am I wrong?

Tom

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: May 1, 2013, 12:26 pm

Well, there are different approaches to mindfulness of breathing, some of which (including the approach I most often teach these days) start with an awareness of sounds and space, and then move more into a general sense of the breathing in the body. In the Buddha’s anapanasati instructions, there’s “I breathe in sensitive to the whole body … I breathe out sensitive to the whole body.” So we’re not being mindful of “the breath” (which is the term you used, and one I used to use a lot although I’m trying not to!) but of the “breathing” and (at least at times) how the experience of the breathing relates to the body.

“The breathing” as an object allows us to pay attention in a very general way (“the whole body”) or in a very specific and focused way (for example being aware of air touching the rims of the nostrils). This flexibility makes mindfulness of breathing a good vehicle not just for calming the mind, but also for cultivating jhana, which in turn helps us cultivate insight.

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Comment from Tom
Time: May 1, 2013, 3:07 pm

Thank you for the clarification!

Tom

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Comment from Michelle
Time: June 11, 2013, 10:21 am

Thankyou so much. I found the nostril excercises helpful and the accepting this controlled breathing as a thing As something I can live with. And not to worry about it and blow it out of proportion has helped me. I havn’t controlled my breathing much for over half an hour, this is an achievement as i’ve been conscious of my breathing all day non stop even during my exam. the muscle pain goes away really quickly once you stop doing it. you also need to be optimistic, it will go away eventually in the meantime just carry on with your life

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Comment from Walter Graham Rice III
Time: June 18, 2013, 10:13 pm

What a wonderful wealth of wisdom. Thanx to all the questioners and answerers. You brighten and lighten my life. I can’t wait to try some of the don’t try ideas.

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Comment from Raj Singh
Time: November 8, 2013, 11:37 am

please help me or otherwise i think i will die. i am controlling my breathing all day long.
the problem is that my chest is paining a lot and i am unable to sleep at night. the moment i try to sleep i start thinking about my breathing and controls it. sometimes i feel that there is lack of air for breathing inside me. i am unable to find my natural breathing.
i have tried lovekindness meditation but nothing happened. please solve my problem. please i am in great pain

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: November 8, 2013, 12:27 pm

Hi Raj.

I’m glad you reached out for help, but you might want to try something like hypnosis. It sounds like you’ve got yourself into a cycle where controlling your breathing causes pain, which makes you notice your breathing, which makes you control it. I don’t think I’m in a good position to help you.

All the best,
Bodhipaksa

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Comment from Max
Time: November 8, 2013, 7:31 pm

Have you tried breathing from your mouth? Open your mouth wide and inhale as deeply as you can. And than exhale as deeply as you can. Do this a few times until you notice your breath calming down. Focus on the naval chakra the whole time. It sounds like you actually have a lot of pent up energies from focusing on your breath in one spot for too long, for instance, someone who inhales through the nose will find that they are now chest breathing too much, which is a shallow breath focused in the head winds. Deeper breathing loosens up the winds of the body.

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Comment from Max
Time: November 8, 2013, 7:32 pm

It’s like saying “ah” for a doctor, don’t force your mouth to wide, just be relaxed when doing it.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: November 8, 2013, 10:45 pm

Also, Raj, there are several suggestions in the article above. You didn’t say that you’d tried any of them, so I’m assuming you didn’t. And then the question becomes, is asking for help just a way of distracting yourself from actually making changes?

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Comment from Angela
Time: November 30, 2013, 10:05 pm

Hello I’m just wondering what i should do if I constantly think about my breathing and feel like if I don’t manually breathe I stop breathing? This feeling occurred about five days ago when I felt like I couldn’t take a deep breath and ever since I’ve been controlling my breath. I got my lungs examined and everything’s fine but I can’t get the idea out of my mind that I can’t breathe automatically. I know I do so when I’m sleeping or else I would die but my whole day is consumed by my breathing. It’s taking a toll on my family and i and I feel like I’m going to be this way forever. As I’m typing I’m manually breathing . It’s almost like I forgot how to let go and let nature take it’s course. Is is ocd? Or anxiety? I’m going to seek a therapists help because I’m afraid I will be this way forever and it scares me greatly. Please any help would be appreciated.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: December 3, 2013, 1:52 pm

Hi, Angela.

This really isn’t about your breathing. It’s about feeling anxious. So try noticing the sensations of anxiety that arise in the body, and pay mindful attention to them. Tell yourself “It’s OK to feel this.” Notice any thoughts that arise from your anxious state, let go of them, and return your awareness to the sensations of anxiety. Notice where your anxiety is located. What size and shape is it? Does it change over time?

Try placing a hand on the part of the body where the anxiety seems to be centered. You can rub your hand in reassuring circles, and say to your anxiety, “I love you, and I want you to be happy and at peace.” If your mind rebels at the thought of wishing your anxiety well, remember that it’s just like soothing a frightened baby. You don’t want to get rid of the baby; you want to give it love and reassurance so that it’s no longer anxious. In wishing your anxiety well you’re encouraging your own mind to be at peace.

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Comment from Joseph
Time: February 21, 2014, 6:11 pm

Good evening,

I have a question about the breath, not only during meditation but also outside of it. Some history of me, I have suffered from generalized anxiety disorder/ panic for about 4 years, and depersonalization for this past year. But I can happily announce that I am almost fully recovered without medication.

Anyway, meditation has helped me have these creative insights which stay with me and helped me recover. A few days ago, I noticed when I settle into a deep meditative state after about 30 minutes, my breathing finally becomes very subtle and automatic. I reached that stage enough that now I can tap into it almost 24/7, and the fact that I am (this will sound oxymoronic) willfully not controlling my breath has brought my anxiety symptoms to almost zero.

So, there is only one problem/ question. When I let my body take over the breath, I feel almost like a slight suffocating sensation, like I am not getting enough air. My reaction used to be to start controlling the breath again. But now I let it be, but it stays with me about 50% of my day. Might this be my body readjusting to me finally letting go of controlling my breath after years? Or is it something else?

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Comment from Mattias
Time: March 1, 2014, 12:33 pm

Hello.

So I’ve done a lot of research lately and I’ve found that most people think that breathing with the belly or diaphragm is the best ways for humans since it is alot deeper and more relaxing.

I am normally a chest breather tho and when I’ve meditated in the passed I’ve been focusing on the chest instead of the belly.

Now I find myself being pulled between chest breathing or belly breathing, I can’t make up my mind what is best. Is it worth putting effort into learning belly breathing? To try to focus the breath more inside the abdominal wall instead of the chest?

I’ve encountered the same problem as Angela, because of the unsecurity I find myself breathing manually instead which creates a lot of stress. I just can’t make up my mind what I should do.

Any advice would be great, thank you!

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: March 3, 2014, 9:43 am

For now I’d suggest that you just observe your breathing wherever it happens to be taking place, and that you don’t try to force yourself to breath with the abdomen. Once your system slows down a bit, it may be that you spontaneously start to breathe using the abdominal muscles. But if that doesn’t happen, then you could experiment with taking a few abdominal breaths before letting your breathing fall back into its habitual pattern, or just keep some of your awareness on your belly and see what happens.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: March 3, 2014, 10:35 am

Hi, Joseph.

It can be very hard to comment on this sort of thing.

If you truly are just letting your body get on with the breathing, and you’re having this feeling that you’re not getting enough air, then I wonder if perhaps there might be something going on with your posture that’s inhibiting your breathing. I can imagine that a degree of hunching or being closed in the chest might be enough to stop your body from inhaling as much as it would like to. It’s extremely unlikely, I would have thought, that you’re actually not breathing enough. My guess — and that’s all it is — is that you’re not feeling an absence of air but your body fighting against resistance as it breathes in.

You might want to have your posture checked out by someone who is experienced in such things. A yoga teacher, chiropractor, physical therapist, or Alexander Technique teacher may be able to give you better advice.

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Comment from sak
Time: March 27, 2014, 8:56 am

Hi,

I’ve been meditating for years and have found it very beneficial. Nevertheless i still cant stop control the breathing, which gives a bad feeling in my ribcage. You adviced paying attetion on the breathing in the nostrils. Here i dont really feel it. Now my question is: is it okay to pay attention to the breath anywhere in the body? For example at the shoulders or the point of contact with the ground? Here i do feel it. And if so, is it the same kind of practice with the same benefits?

Another related question: is paying attention to sounds the same kind of practice with same benefits?

thanks in advance

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: March 27, 2014, 12:41 pm

Hi, Sak.

I’d suggest persevering with noticing the breathing in the nostrils (or in any of the passageways in the head). As you continue to work at this your brain will actually change, and you’ll develop more neurons devoted to monitoring those sensations.

But it’s also fine to notice any sensations connected with the breathing. In essence you can notice sensations over the entire body that are connected with your breathing — even in the feet and hands, although it may take some practice to notice these. The benefits of this are a bit different compared to forms of mindfulness of breathing where we develop a narrower and more intense focus. It’s not better or worse, just different. Both approaches are actually valid and complementary. It’s best to do both.

Listening to sounds can be a good practice, but again the benefits are different. Your attention is more directed outward, and you’re not paying as much attention to the body. Mindfulness of the body is a very important quality to develop, since a deeper appreciation of the body leads to a deeper appreciation of our feelings, the mind, and how the mind works.

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Comment from sak
Time: April 7, 2014, 3:04 pm

hi,
First of all thank you very much for your answer, it’s nice that there is somebody that can answer such questions (god bless the internet! :) ).

You said that it is a possibility to experience the breath through the nostrils and i will try this. But now my question is, is there a prefered place to notice the breath. The reason is that i have read so many things: 1) notice your breath in your abdomen, 2) notice the breath where it is most obvious(if it is in the chest feel it in your chest)3)Just choose a spot on your body and stick with it throughout the practice and 4)notice the breath in your nostrils.
The reason i ask this, is that i have some doubts lately about my practice (it’s been a long time since i learned it and was able to ask questions) And now i would like to have a clear guideline and continue :)

What i am doing now is focusing on the abdomen although i’m someone who breaths mainly via my chest(what i first learned). Often this doesn’t feel comfortable, but i’m not considering this a very big problem. The reason why this isn’t a big problem is that throughout my years of meditating there has always something bothering me. And i’ve always tried to mindfully accept this. In the beginning the object bothering me was being always distracted, now it is controlling the breath. This has always made my meditation uncomfortable and not relaxing as most people experience it. HOWEVER, i’ve really benefitted greatly from meditating and became less stressed, more relaxed and stable. But not during my practice.

A long explanation to ask if i should start noticing the breath in the nostrils or continue in the stomach. Or maybe where it is the most obvious.

Sorry for the bad english, i’m not a native speaker. And for the long read, finally it’s possible to out some doubts :)

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Comment from Grubby
Time: April 7, 2014, 11:47 pm

Hello,

I’ve been interested in meditation and mindfulness for quite a few years. I’ve struggled with anxiety and have found mindfulness and breathing excersizes to be helpful. Recently I was hit with a bout that was more intense than I have ever experienced before. I became “locked in”, as some have referred to it, to controlling the breath. I realize that if I became relaxed enough my breathing would settle back to normal, however I have been unable to reach that point for some months. I’ve recently found that if I block out/let go of the string of negative thoughts that accompanies the anxiety I am able to become quite a bit more present and my breathing becomes more in the background, although still not effortless. I’ve also noticed that if I take full, conscious deeper breaths I go to a place where I feel much more relaxed, but the breaths feel somewhat forced and the relaxation fades shortly after. My question is should I practice these deeper breaths during meditation although they feel somewhat forced or should I try to focus on some other sensation altogether?

Any advice would be much appreciated, thanks!

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: April 25, 2014, 7:19 pm

Hi, Sak.

Your English is excellent. As you’ve noticed, there are varying instructions on where to pay attention to the breathing. I tend to suggest starting with noticing the breathing where it’s most prominent. But I always think that the real benefits of the practice come where you notice the breathing where it’s not so prominent. For example, if you’re paying attention to the abdomen, are you experiencing all of the skin covering the abdomen? After all, it’s constantly in motion, and there’s a changing patten of sensations as the contact with your clothing changes. So do you notice that not just on the front, but on the sides and the lower back as well? Do you similarly notice the movements of the muscles all around the abdomen — all the way to the spine? Do you notice the sensations deep inside the abdomen, including the diaphragm?

It’s also interesting when we notice the breathing in more than one place at one time. For example if you notice the breathing in the abdomen and also in the nose, what happens?

These things I’m suggesting can lead to the mind becoming calm very quickly. And once you’ve done that you can refine your focus and pay attention to just one part of the breathing, with full attention.

Sorry for the delayed reply, by the way. I had a busy week, and then was on holiday with my children. I’m only just starting to catch up.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: April 26, 2014, 12:08 pm

I don’t think that in general there’s anything wrong with consciously taking a few deep, full breaths at the start of meditation. In fact I often suggest it.

The main thing is your belief that you’re consciously controlling your breathing, which isn’t, I suspect, what’s actually going on. I think that what happens in these cases is that two unconscious mechanisms are warring over which controls the breathing.

I had three thoughts. The third one was that it might be helpful if you tried hypnotherapy, which can be an excellent way to change how your unconscious mind operates. That way you might be able to persuade that extra “module” that it doesn’t need to try to control your breathing.

The second was to wonder whether you’ve tried any of the advice above. (A surprising number of people glance at advice, don’t practice any of it, and then ask for advice. Humans are funny!)

But the first thought I had was for you to notice how other movements of the body function perfectly well without so-called conscious intervention. For example, catch yourself in the act of walking, and notice that there is no sense of conscious control being sent to the feet, calves, thighs, and hips. It all just happens, smoothly and elegantly, under unconscious control. Notice your hands as you type. Notice your hands picking things up. Notice your jaws and tongue and throat functioning in a coordinated way as you eat and swallow. Notice your body moving around as you work or cook. It’s all beautifully and elegantly happening without conscious control. Trust your body. It knows how to do stuff like breathe.

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Comment from sak
Time: April 27, 2014, 9:44 am

Thank you for your answer it is very usefull.

I have to say i have found my biggest help in a different section of your website. Last couple of months i had an unpleasant feeling during meditation because of breathing through my chest. A week ago i read the need to sit very straight, something i forgot through the years. Since i make sure i sit straight, i breath with my abdomen again and the unpleasant feeling is gone.

no question here :)
cheers

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Comment from Kaushal
Time: May 11, 2014, 12:53 pm

I m finding that I consciously control my breathing all the time means whole day. I am not able to concentrate on anything. Give me some idea and.suggestion how to get away with it.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: May 11, 2014, 1:41 pm

There are several suggestions in the article you’ve commented on, Kaushal. You don’t say anywhere that you’ve tried putting any of them into practice.

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Comment from Kaushal
Time: May 18, 2014, 5:04 am

Hi
Thnx for responding. I tried one of ur above technique nearly from last 5 days. But still I m finding difficulty to let go breathing consciously. My mind always breath consciously except at the time of sleep. I feel like my head always carry a weight and it is very heavy and in a States where no thoughts came into my mind and I am not able to concentrate on anything. I am not able to relax my body and mind. It is nearly happening from 1.5 years when I first started to meditate. So please suggest me what I can do to let go concious breathing and can meditate properly.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: May 20, 2014, 7:42 pm

I’d suggest that you find a good hypnotherapist, Kaushal. It may be that using your own resources you’re not easily going to find a way to “forget” to control your breathing.

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Comment from Dev Dhruv
Time: May 25, 2014, 2:04 pm

I have been meditating for a long time, and I have never had a problem with not able to stop controlling my breath. Recently this month though, I don’t seem to be able to breathe naturally. I find that I’m stopping my breath flow unintentionally. If I meditate for 10 minutes only, I find that I have stopped breathing normally and have to start gasping for air for several minutes. I even have to consciously take very deep breaths for a while after my meditation practice to get enough air. Before I usually meditated 20 to 30 minutes and I never had any problems with not able to breathe naturally. Now, this is happening. Also, these breathing problems don’t just stop with meditation. When I am sleeping, I sometimes wake up with a painful throat and have to breath in and out continuously to fell good again and go back to sleep. Also, when I’m awake, I occasionally start to unintentionally start noticing and stopping my breath 4 or 5 times each day. I have to then take some conscious breaths to fell normal again. When I meditate, I actually fell bad. My throat starts hurting so much. Do you know how to fix this so that I can naturally breath throughout my meditation practice?

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: June 2, 2014, 11:20 am

Hi, Dev.

I’m afraid that I don’t have any easy answer for you. I’d suggest, though, that you switch from mindfulness of breathing to lovingkindness meditation. You might also want to explore this issue with a skilled hypnotherapist, who might be able to help you train your mind to allow the breathing to happen naturally.

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Comment from Chris Sayer
Time: July 13, 2014, 1:11 pm

Hi – I have asthma, so I do not like…at all….focusing on my breathing during meditation attempts. I start to feel very tense and panicky. Can you please suggest the next best thing?
Thanks,
Chris

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: July 14, 2014, 12:48 am

I can see how that could be a problem, Chris. The next best thing would probably be a body scan…

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