I used to practice and teach mindfulness of breathing largely as if it were “mindfulness of the breath.” The difference is that when we think about “the breath” we think about the stuff that flows in and out of our airways, and the physical contact the body makes with it, while if we think of “the breathing” we are free to consider “the breath” but also any other physical sensations that arise as we breathe in and out. These sensations include:
- The contact the body makes with the breath in the nose, head, throat, and lungs
- The movements of the abdominal muscles, not just on the front, but on the sides and back of the body, all the way back to the spine.
- The changing pattern of contact that the skin on the abdomen, side, and lower back has with our clothing and waistband as we breathe in and out. This can include not just touch, but temperature.
- The rise and fall of pressure within the abdomen.
- The movements of the ribcage, all the way from the sternum, around the sides of the body, and on the back — all the way to the spine.
- The changing pattern of contact that the skin on the front, side, and back of the ridcage has with our clothing (and perhaps with our arms) as we breathe in and out.
- The rise and fall of the shoulders.
- Movements felt inside the shoulder joints.
- Movements in the arms, and (possibly) changing contact between the chest and the arms.
- Changes in the length and flexion of the spine.
There may also be sensations that arise all the way down through the legs, perhaps all the way to the toes, and sensations all the way down through the arms to the tips of the fingers. These sensations aren’t necessarily imagined! Your heart beats faster when you inhale and slower when you exhale, and this affects the blood pressure throughout the body in a rhythmic way, with a decline in blood pressure during inhalation and an increase during exhalation. It seems, in some people, or perhaps in everyone under relaxed and attentive conditions, that these changes can be felt throughout the body.
So when I’m meditating I try to pay as much attention to as many of those sensations as possible. This creates a kind of “perceptual stretch” where my mind is so occupied with noticing the ever-changing sensations of the breathing that it doesn’t have any resources available for inner chatter. So the mind almost instantly becomes very quiet.
You could call this “Full Contact Mindfulness of Breathing.” It’s the way I do and teach the practice these days.
This morning one of my meditation students happened to mention that she liked this “three dimensional” approach to mindful breathing. Now I don’t know if she meant “three dimensional” in a metaphorical or a literal way, but I like the phrase “three-dimensional” with regard to the breathing meditations. It reminds me that I find an awareness of the literal three-dimensionality of the breathing to be very helpful. The more sense I have that my body is moving in three dimensions, the more engaged I am. Even just being aware that as I inhale my chest is moving both forward (on the front) and backward (at the back of the ribcage), and that as I exhale it’s moving forward (on the back) and backward (on the front) seems to give my mind much more to stay engaged with. And that’s only engaging with two dimentions.
When I have a sense, say, of my ribcage expanding and contracting in three-dimensional space, like a balloon that’s inflating and deflating on every in-breath and out-breath, then my mind is even more engaged. The talking part of my brain basically just shuts down, and my mind is very happy to be paying attention to my breathing.
I suspect that this awareness of three dimensional space forces us to draw on the resources of the right brain, and shifts resources away from the left brain, which is more verbal: hence the reduction in inner chatter.
So I’d recommend that you explore not only the technique of Full Contact Mindfulness of Breathing” but of “Three Dimensional Mindfulness.” You might find that it gives you deeper, quieter, and more fulfilling meditations.