breathing

The miracle of being here

The main quality we’re cultivating when we meditate is mindfulness. Mindfulness is just another word for observing. To observe our experience we have to be present with it. Part of the mind has to be standing back a little from what it’s observing. So in a way, mindfulness is very simple. But it can take us a long way—to acceptance, living with self-compassion, and an appreciation that every moment of life is a miracle.

Where we start

Usually we start by paying attention to the body, observing the physical sensations that are arising there. We are not thinking about the body. We’re not visualizing the body. We’re simply observing the body’s sensations, paying attention to them in a relaxed way.

In particular we notice the sensations of the breathing. These are the most dynamic and obvious part of our experience of the body. We can notice the sensations of air flowing in and out of the body, the rise and fall of the chest and the belly, and even the ever-changing contact our skin makes with our clothing. But we may well notice other things as well—the sound of a passing truck, a breeze, our buttocks touching our seat. This is fine. We’re not trying to exclude anything.

Practicing acceptance

The mind will still create thoughts, and from time to time some of those thoughts will be compelling enough that we shift our attention fully or partly from our direct sensory experience, and back into the world of mental experience. We find ourselves planning some task, remembering and rerunning in our mind a conversation, or fretting about whether we’re doing the meditation practice properly. This is natural, and it’s not something we can stop from happening. But whenever we realize that we’ve been caught up in compelling trains of thought, we let go of them and return our attention to the body, the breathing, and anything else that presents itself to our senses.

Practicing self-compassion

Relative newcomers in particular tend to become disappointed and frustrated with the amount of thinking that’s going on. But accepting that it’s normal for us to become distracted is a self-compassionate act that helps us to be patient and accepting. We’re not failing when we get distracted; we’re just being human. Every time we realize we’ve been distracted is an opportunity to be kind to ourselves. It’s an opportunity to bring our attention gently back to the breathing again. Sometimes I suggest to meditation students that they be gentle in the way that they would if they were returning a baby kitten to its mother when it has strayed from the nest. Our distractions give us an opportunity to practice self-compassion.

In fact we have an opportunity to practice self-kindness and self-compassion just in the way we’re sitting. One way we can be unkind to ourselves is to hold the body in a tense and rigid way, or in a posture that we’re not able to sustain without discomfort arising. Often, for example, people will want to sit in a cross-legged posture even though they aren’t flexible enough to do this comfortably. But we don’t need to impress anyone, and there’s no one “perfect” posture that we have to sit in. We want to be comfortable.

At the same time we don’t want to slump, in the way we do when we’re relaxing in an arm-chair. Slumping compresses the chest in a way that makes it hard for us to breath effectively. And poor breathing causes the brain to be poorly oxygenated and makes is hard for us to be attentive. So, look for a posture that feels both relaxed and upright. One simple thing that sums this up nicely is the idea of sitting with a sense of dignity.

Lying down is another posture that makes is hard for us to be mindful. We’re likely to find that this makes the mind drowsy at best, and at worst it’ll send us to sleep. If you have some kind of injury that makes sitting upright impossible, then by all means meditate lying down. The sleepiness is something you’ll just have to learn to work with.

Seeing the miracle

As the Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donahue said, “It is a strange and magical fact to be here, walking around in a body, to have a whole world within you and a world at your fingertips outside you. It is an immense privilege, and it is incredible that humans manage to forget the miracle of being here.”

Mindfulness helps us to appreciate the simple miracle of being here. It helps us to become a kind and compassionate presence for ourselves. And this is something we do not just in meditation, but in every area of our lives.

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A taste of mindfulness

Vidyamala’s online course, Mindfulness for Women: Declutter Your Mind, Simplify Your Life, Find Time to ‘Be’, starts Jan 1. Click here now to enroll!

Get yourself into a comfortable posture. You can be sitting or lying down, it’s up to you. Relax for a moment to allow yourself to settle. Now, notice how your body feels. What physical sensations are you experiencing at this moment? Maybe you feel pressure between your bottom and the chair you’re sitting on or the floor beneath you. What does this feel like? For a few moments, just be open to any sensations in your body, experiencing them with an attitude of kindly curiosity.

Now take a moment to listen to any sounds you can hear. Observe their quality, register and volume, and how you instinctively respond to them. You may feel an urge to try to identify where they are coming from, but try to park that for a moment and instead simply notice the sounds as sounds.

Your mind might also ‘fly out the window’ towards the sounds. See if you can let the sounds come towards you instead, keeping your awareness inside your body as the sounds flow in through your hearing sense. If you’re in a very quiet environment, then notice the silence.

Now notice your breath. What does it feel like? What parts of your body move as you breathe and how many different movements can you feel? See if you can rest your awareness ‘inside’ the movement and sensations of breathing, rather than observing them as an onlooker. Is it pleasant or unpleasant to inhabit your breathing in this way?

Now allow your awareness to focus on your emotions. How would you describe how you are feeling overall? Are you happy, content, sad, irritated or calm – or is it hard to be entirely sure what you are feeling? Take note of any thoughts that pass through your mind. Ask yourself, what am I thinking? Rest your attention on your thoughts for a few moments: see if you can look ‘at’ your thoughts as they flow through your mind rather than ‘from’ them.

Now spend a few moments resting quietly as you allow your awareness to rest inside the sensations and movements of the breath in your body; and any thoughts, sounds and feelings as they come and go. There’s no need to look for a special experience. Simply notice what is actually happening, moment by moment.

OK, so this may not have been the most extraordinary of experiences, but, if you have engaged with this exercise to any level, congratulations – you have just had your first experience of mindfulness, and have started your journey towards enhancing your awareness of life. The implications of this are immense. It means you can move from ‘autopilot’ – being driven by habits as you drift from one thing to the next – to experiencing life as a stream of creative possibilities and choice.

Vidyamala’s online course, Mindfulness for Women: Declutter Your Mind, Simplify Your Life, Find Time to ‘Be’, starts Jan 1. Click here now to enroll!

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Mindfulness, controlled breathing reduce anxiety symptoms

wildmind meditation newsJesse King, The Daily Universe: People can make changes in their breathing and physical awareness to combat negative thinking and chronic stress, according to a recent article published by BYU professor Patrick R. Steffen, and BYU clinical psychology doctorate students Tara Austin and Andrea DeBarros.

This study showed chronic stress, which is related to depression and anxiety, can be lessened through biofeedback and mindfulness.

Steffen, the director of the clinical psychology program at BYU, said people with anxiety experience worry and concern for the future, but often their worrying is focused on the fear of …

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The hottest new office perk is a quiet room

Amy X. Wang, Quartz: In a corner of Etsy’s new 200,000 sq ft (18,581 sq m) headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, there is a room meant only for breathing.

Save for the lack of furniture, “A-901: Breathing Room” appears as an ordinary conference room. It sits squarely within the rest of the office, which buzzes with the steady meetings and conversations that characterize most corporate buildings. Soft mats, for sitting, are piled to one side of the room. Digital devices are not allowed.

A few times a week, dozens of employees gather in the …

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When in doubt, breathe out – the power of breathing properly

woman breathing

Vidyamala’s online course, Mindfulness for Women, starts March 1. Click here for details.

Breathing properly is immediately helpful because the first thing most of us do when experiencing stress and pain – be it mental, emotional or physical – is inhibit our breathing. Try this short exercise:

Make a fist with one hand. Notice what’s happened to your breathing. You’ll probably notice you’re holding it. Now imagine breathing into the fist. What does it want to do? You’ll probably find it wants to release a little.

The fist in this exercise is a metaphor for any kind of discomfort or stress. When we are not aware, we automatically tense against the stresses of life with associated breath holding. Then follows a vicious cycle of more tension, more breath holding, more discomfort, more tension etc, perhaps physical symptoms such as headaches and tension in the neck, back and shoulders or gut problems. Many of these can be eased by simply becoming aware of your breathing patterns and consciously directing the breath into the cycle of contraction. Gradually the tension will gradually soften and the stress will ease.

Breath holding manifests in a range of ways and shallow breathing, breath-holding or over-breathing are the most common dysfunctions. At the keyboard, for example, we tend to breathe as if permanently in fight/flight/freeze mode, causing all the hormonal imbalances that come with this. You could think of it as ‘screen apnoea’. Like sleep apnoea, a condition characterised by pauses in breathing while asleep, it alters our breathing; in this case causing shallow breathing from the upper chest or infrequent breathing. Unsurprisingly, this has negative consequences for health.

You may live with a lot of perceived pressure, perhaps in the workplace, or you may just have poor posture and ergonomics; sitting for hour after hour with your shoulders hunched. Or you may just be desperate for a break! Whatever the cause, breathing-pattern disorders can result.

Breathing is the number-one physiological function that humans do, affecting your heart rate, your gut, your blood pressure, your digestion and your musculoskeletal system. Therefore, changing your breath consciously, using mindfulness and awareness, is one of the most powerful things you can do to assist your body’s physiology. It can have a massive impact on your health; reducing headaches and shoulder pain and strengthening your core.

How is your breathing at this moment? Commonly, when we are stressed, we fail to exhale completely. So, try it now:

  • Breathe out fully, and feel the little pause at the end of the exhale.
  • Spend a few moments with the breath, allowing it to flow naturally all the way in and all the way out of the body. Notice what it feels like.

To help you remember to do this throughout the day, stick a green dot somewhere around the house where you’ll see it regularly. Or if you work at a computer you could stick the green dot to the side of the screen. Every time you see the dot, breathe out. Relax your jaw. Breathe in through your nose and then out of your nose. Pause. Allow the next in-breath to gather naturally, like a wave gathering in the sea before it flows up the beach. Breathe in and then breathe out fully. Repeat a few times.

Click here for details of Vidyamala’s online course, Mindfulness for Women: Declutter Your Mind, Simplify Your Life, Find Time to ‘Be’

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Happy New Breath

woman in water

Every breath can be the beginning of a new year. One breath at a time can seem a long time for people in recovery. Many people are afraid to connect to the subtle sensations in the nostrils and on the upper lip, that we label as the breath. Connecting to the subtle sensations of breathing means we have to slow down and become aware of our body, thoughts and feelings.

Those of us with addictions are often trying to flee the body, feelings and thoughts. Instead of coming back to the body, we are trying to have out-of-body experiences, get high, have altered states, and not be in touch with everyday reality.

The Buddha taught the four foundations of mindfulness. The contemplation of the body, feelings, thoughts and mind objects (like hindrances, six senses, the five skandhas and the seven factors of enlightenment).

This is what the Buddha taught. He taught the practise of anapanasati to help us contemplate these four foundations. He taught us how to breathe again. This is the essence, the pulse of this practice. Inhaling and exhaling, aware of the length, and sensation of each breathing moment. Allowing breathing to soothe the body, to soothe mental formation, to liberate the heart, and relinquish all habits.

A whole lifetime passes in each breathing moment. What we do in each moment impacts the next. With every inhale there is an exhale until the last breathing moment.

The past connects to the present, and the present connects to the future. Just like the inhale and exhale. By having awareness of every breathing moment we can impact this flow of reality.

How many of us are aware of breathing? Have you ever tried to be attached to breathing? Attachment only arises when we have the difficulty of breathing. When we don’t inhale enough oxygen it causes us to choke, have asthma attacks, or struggling for another inhale and exhale.

When we experience excitement or upset, our bodies can contract, we interrupt the flow of breathing. Rarely do we experience the full capacity of inhaling and exhaling. We need to be aware that lack of oxygen to the brain and heart befuddles our mental states and at worse brain damage. On an emotional level when our brain and hearts do not receive enough oxygen, we strangle our hearts and mind, and cause damage to our whole body. Anger, hatred, ill will, and even obsessive love is the cause of emotional brain and or heart damage.

The Buddha teaches us to become aware of breathing, because this is the antidote to the poisons of the heart like, greed, hatred and delusion. The Buddha rediscovered the way through breathing.

You could ask yourself, “When did I stop breathing?”

Take some minutes to reflect on this question, perhaps repeating it to yourself several times. I stopped breathing the day my biological mother left me somewhere and never came back. As a 6 week old baby, I most probably learned to scream, kick, and cry, blocking the flow of air, hoping this would soothe my pain.

So let’s relearn breathing.

Inhaling, I know I am breathing in. Exhaling I know I am breathing out. Give it a go, ten minutes and see what happens.

Happy New Breath.

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For a free sample of the first chapter, book study and 21 meditations of “Eight Step Recovery – Using The Buddha’s Teachings To Overcome Addiction,” please email: eightstepsrecovery@gmail.com

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Meditation should be more mainstream

Thomas Pollick, The Daily Northwestern: The first time I really learned about meditation was during my sophomore year of high school in an Eastern Religions class. A Buddhist speaker came in to talk about his experiences. Following the talk, I asked him how I could incorporate meditation into my everyday life. He said that every day right after I get up, I should sit on the side of my bed for five minutes and focus on my breathing.

That’s all it was. Just five minutes, focusing on my breathing. Contrary to what I expected, there was no talk of spirituality or references…

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Mindfulness: Week 3 – The amazing three-minute breathing space

John Alex Murphy, The Province: Week 3 has been a breakthrough week for me. When I started my eight-week mindfulness meditation course, I suspected that it would eventually help alleviate my chronic pain. However, I did not expect that help would come as soon as this, and in such a dramatic fashion.

First, a quick update on my ongoing struggle with scheduled daily meditation times. I have decided that it actually worked better for me to not have a schedule. This past week, I have been doing my daily meditations when the need arises and when time allows. It’s working fine so I will …

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Exploring the breath as an adventure of discovery

One of my Skype workshop participants recently wrote with a request for advice, which (slightly edited) was as follows:

I am aware during my meditations that sometimes my awareness of the breath is quite superficial, distant and coarse. And I suspect that part of the reason for this distance is that my brain filters out the finer physical details of the experience, and just works with the coarse-grained concept of the breath – which is basically a fixed construct in memory rather than a direct experience of change happening now. I’d appreciate any tips on how to deal with it.

Here’s my reply (also slightly edited to include one point I forgot to mention, and polished up a little).

I think what you’re describing is very common. In fact I think it’s what almost everyone does, and what I’ve done a lot of the time over the years. In certain sense it may not matter too much, as long as you’re still keeping up the good fight by letting go of hindrance-driven thinking and coming back to the breath, or at least a token representation of it. It quiets the mind, and brings happiness.

But in the long run I don’t think it’s very satisfying to meditate in this way, and I’ve found that it’s useful to develop a sense of curiosity about where the sensations of the breathing ends.

You can start from where you normally pay attention to the breathing in a token manner, and then ask, what’s just outside that experience?

You might start by noticing the movements of the muscles on the abdomen, but then you notice that there are sensations within the abdomen as well — the movement of the diaphragm, the changing sense of pressure in the internal organs. And then there are sensations on the skin, constantly changing as the contact with your clothing changes.

And then the abdomen isn’t just the front of your body! You start to notice what’s at the edge of what you’ve been focusing on, and you realize that you can feel the movements of the muscles and the sensations of the skin on the sides of the body. And on the lower back; the entire lower back is moving as you breathe in and out.

And to you can do the same with the chest. You can move from feeling the sensations of the ribs on the front of the body rising and falling, to sensing the entire ribcage expanding and contracting, not just on the front of the body but on the side and the back. And you can notice the skin on those areas, too. You can feel the chest move against the arms, which are often lying against the chest wall. And there’s all that skin, moving against your clothing – the temperature, the sense of touch…

Then as the chest is rising and falling, so are the shoulders. Can you notice them, internally and externally? Can you feel the sensations inside the shoulder-joint itself? Can you feel the arms move slightly as you breath in, as the shoulders rise and fall, and as the ribcage moves them? Can you feel anything in the hands? The fingers?

The whole spine is moving.

You can keep doing this through the whole body — the neck, the head, the hips, the legs, the feet.

And I haven’t mentioned the internal sensations of the air touching the inside of the passageways! Where do they end? There’s no sharp edge to those sensations, and you can notice them “blurring out” into your body.

So there’s a huge amount there to pay attention to. You can in fact end up experiencing the breathing everywhere. The whole body can feel like it’s involved in the breathing process, which on some level it is.

Of course noticing all this isn’t what we usually do. What we typically do is pick some token sensation and try to pay attention to that. It’s coarse and very, very selective. And it becomes a habit to notice just that sensation, and to ignore everything else. We convince ourselves we’re paying attention to “the breathing” when it’s more like “a bit of the breathing connected with the muscles on the front of the abdomen,” or “one small aspect of the breath moving through the pharynx.”

We notice so little of the breathing process that the mind’s actually bored, and we find that lots of thoughts are arising to fill the vacuum in our experience.

But if we start exploring what’s around those token sensations, with a sense of curiosity and openness, then we’re starting to pay attention to “the breathing” and not just a token representation of it. And as we notice more of the breathing, then the mind’s less bored. It’s actually quite interested! And often our attention is so full of the sensations of the breathing that there’s no room in there for thinking, and the mind becomes quiet.

It’s worth emphasizing as well that this exploration needs to be done in a spirit almost of playfulness and wonder. It’s not a checklist — yeah, been there, done that. It’s OK to take my suggestions as “things to look for” but I’d suggest you don’t take it as an exhaustive list, because it isn’t. If you for look just what I’ve suggested, then you’ll miss stuff that’s going on, I’m sure. I’m probably missing a lot. You’ll probably miss important stuff if you follow me too closely, and not have the thrill of discovery. But it’s handy to have some suggestions for where to start looking.

Anyway, that’s my suggestion for breaking out of having a token representation of the breathing, so that there’s more of an open sense of mindfulness and even of adventure. You’re leaving the familiar and rather dull territory of the known, and pushing out into the wide ocean of experience.

I’ve been finding this a rewarding thing to do. It might be what you need as well.

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