mindfulness of 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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Students drawn to mindfulness on campus

wildmind meditation newsMichaela Paul, The Vermont Cynic: At UVM I always hear the term “mindfulness,” yet I never have a complete understanding of what it is and how I too, can practice it.

Mindfulness practices are actually informed by Buddhism, said Lindsay Foreman, director of Engage Mindfulness for Living Well.

But, she explained, one does not have to be Buddhist to engage in mindfulness.

“Actually, many people of different religions practice the techniques of mindfulness to deepen their spiritual experience,” she said. “There is no dogma or belief system, so one does not have to have any …

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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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Set up a rock-solid daily meditation habit!

blogOur 14 Day Mindfulness Meditation Challenge (May 1-14) is an introductory 14 day meditation event. It is an opportunity to experience the benefits that come from setting up a rock-solid daily meditation habit. We’ll be exploring the practice of mindfulness.

Signing up for this 14-day event gives you access to:

  • Daily emails with practice suggestions
  • Four guided meditations
  • Support, encouragement, and connecting with like-minded people in our online community

This event is suitable for people of all levels of experience, including complete beginners.

Register today to begin the daily habit!

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Join Bodhipaksa in Portland, Maine

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Burning candles on dark background

This is short notice, I know, but I’m leading a workshop exploring the mindfulness of breathing practice this Saturday, September 12. The workshop is taking place in Nagaloka Buddhist Center in the heart of Portland, Maine.

It’ll be a light, playful, but potentially life-changing event.

Please contact Nagaloka Buddhist Center to register, although you can also just turn up on the day, assuming that there are spaces left.

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New beginnings

Green seedlingThere’s a 50/50 chance that you made some New Year resolutions a couple of months ago; there’s an even better chance that you’ve already abandoned them. Or perhaps you’re one of the people who never makes New Year resolutions because you’ve learned through experience that they’re forgotten almost as soon as they’re created.

Whether we make resolutions or not, we see each new year as an opportunity for new beginnings: not just new years, but new months, new weeks, and new days. Our lives are full of new beginnings. But the most significant new beginnings take place at a much finer scale.

When we meditate, for example, we’re forever catching the mind having gone off and become distracted. We find, for example, that we’ve been mulling over some old hurt, or worrying about some upcoming event, or telling ourselves stories about how we think other people feel about us.

Those moments in which we’ve realized that the mind has become distracted are important new beginnings. Each time we notice that we’ve been caught up in a spiritually unprofitable train of thought, we have a crucial opportunity to let go of it, to reconnect with our present moment experience, to start over.

Sometimes there are so many of these new beginnings that it seems like we’re making little progress. But each time we let go of an unskillful train of thought, returning mindfully and compassionately to our present moment experience, we’re changing who we are. We’re changing our habits, weakening unskillful patterns and strengthening skillful ones. We’re even, at a cellular level, rewiring the brain. Each new beginning may not change us very much, but, as the Buddha said, “Drop by drop, a water pot fills.”

An ongoing commitment to moment to moment change such as this is more powerful than any number of New Year resolutions, precisely because they involve such small steps. We can’t climb a mountain in one bound — thousands of small steps over time are what’s needed.

Sometimes we might feel that our practice is repetitive. You realize you’re distracted, let go and return to the breathing, realize you’re distracted and return to the breathing. You breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out, repeat. But in fact each experience we have is a new beginning. No two breaths are the same.

Try noticing your next in-breath. See how it comes into existence, is present in your experience, and then comes to an end. Try that again with the next out-breath. Now follow each in-breath and out-breathe with an awareness that you’ll meet this breath only once in your entire existence. Follow the whole cycle of your breathing: beginnings and endings, endings and beginnings. See how precious each breath, each moment, is?

Now as you observe your in-breaths and out-breaths coming into existence and passing away, notice how each breath is composed of a series of moments. There’s this moment then this moment then this moment — no two the same, and none ever returning. There’s just this endless series of new beginnings and new endings, intersecting in time, each one precious and deserving of our full attention.

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Conscious breathing to regular breathing

Partha Pratim Bose, The Hindu: A 65-year-old alcoholic with irregular heartbeats was subjected to a rehabilitation programme. He was subjected to cognitive behaviour therapy and trained on this breathing technique to control his mind.

Have you observed that when you tickle your own armpits you do not feel ticklish. If another person does the tickling, however, you feel ticklish. Why is this? Recently, it has come to light that when you move your bodies, the cerebellum, related to physical movement, suppresses emotions. We also now know that emotions are suppressed even at times when the results …

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Energize, Inspire, Enjoy

Young woman enjoying sunlight with raised armsRecently I offered a mantra that can accompany the out-breathing: Relax, Rest, Reveal. These words encourage us, respectively, to let go of unnecessary tensions in the body, to let go of unnecessary mental effort, and to be open and receptive to whatever is arising in our experience.

I’d like now to offer a corresponding mantra for the in-breathing: Energize, Inspire, Enjoy. As with the previous mantra, each of the words has a specific function.

“Energize” connects us with the natural energy of the in-breath. Inhalation is dominated by the sympathetic nervous system, which isn’t always about “fight or flight” but is involved in any physical or emotional arousal. It’s no coincidence that we take a sudden in-breath when we’re startled, and the sympathetic nervous system is activated.

In our normal (non-startled!) breathing pattern, the sympathetic nervous system is active. Each time we inhale there is a subtle but noticeable sense of energy. The body becomes oxygenated and the heart beats a little faster. The body becomes more open and upright, and is more ready to act.

Saying the word “energize” as we inhale is a way of encouraging us to notice the gentle but arousing physical effects of the in-breath.

Saying “Inspire,” connects us with the same physiological processes, but it directs our attention more to the qualities of the mind and how they change as we breathe in. Just as the body becomes more alert and energetic on the in-breath, so does the mind. There’s a subtle but perceptible increase in our alertness, and the mind becomes brighter.

The word “Enjoy,” as you might expect, reminds us to appreciate any pleasure and happiness that are arising in our experience. This brings together everything: the out-breathing and the inbreathing; the body and the mind. Relaxing on the out-breath can be very enjoyable; so can feeling the energy of the in-breath. Resting the mind can be delightful; so can feeling the mind becoming brighter. Saying “Enjoy” as we breathe in encourages us to appreciate what’s positive in our experience. It encourages us to let happiness arise in response to the simple act of noticing the rhythm of our breathing.

Don’t try to do anything as you say these words. Don’t try to make anything happen. Just say the words, and let them have an effect.

Paying attention only to the out-breathing is calming, but in the long-term it tends to make us dull and sleepy. Paying attention only to the in-breathing is energizing, but we can easily become over-excited and distracted.

So if you’re going to use these two sets of mantras, use them skillfully. You may want to start a meditation with the mantras of the out-breath—especially if you need to calm the mind—and then move on to the mantras of the in-breath. But since this latter practice can lead to excitability, there will come a point when we need to drop the mantras and focus just on the breathing, and when we need to focus on the continuity of the breathing process—sensing it as an unbroken stream of sensations—without particular emphasis on either the breathing-out or the breathing-in.

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Mindfulness of Breathing: another guided meditation MP3

I’m currently co-leading a retreat with Sunada on the topic of Freeing Your Creative Potential with Meditation.

This morning Sunada led a body scan meditation, and I led a session of mindful breathing meditation. This version is loosely based on the four stage form of the practice that I normally teach, but since we were already in the swing of things thanks to Sunada’s meditation we didn’t include any counting.

The emphasis here is more on relaxing into a complete awareness of the breathing in its four-dimensional nature; that is, being aware of the full spectrum of sensations taking place in three-dimensional space, and also being aware of how the arising of sensation is changing moment-by-moment.

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On doing a variety of practices

Sometimes I have meditation students who have problems learning a particular meditation technique because it appears to be fundamentally different — even contradictory — to other approaches to meditating that they’ve learned.

In fact, I’ve had experiences myself that are similar in some ways to this. I once went on a retreat run by teachers who have a different approach to me in order to learn more about their techniques and perspectives, and I found that some of the things they said plunged me into doubt and confusion — and aversion.

I found myself in my meditation continually arguing about things that they had said and about how I thought they made no sense. There was one statement in particular that I thought was contrary to the Buddha’s teaching. A teacher said, “In vipassana we don’t try to get rid of the hindrances” — the hindrances being a traditional classification of distracted states of aversion, craving, and confusion. This threw me into turmoil for two days! I kept thinking of all the suttas (discourses of the Buddha) where he talks about the necessity of overcoming the hindrances. In the face of this (and other teachings), the advice not to try to rid the mind of the hindrances seemed positively un-Buddhist.

This turmoil went on until I had a chance to talk to the teacher who had made this statement. And when I told her I was confused, she replied, “Oh, I didn’t really mean that — it’s just something I say to the beginners.” The intention was to help beginners not to see it as “bad” that they were experiencing the hindrances: to help them avoid the trap of developing aversion to the hindrances and trying to push them away or suppress them.

So sometimes these confusions are apparent, and if you dig deeper you find that two seemingly different approaches aren’t as different as they might seem.

Other times meditation practices may actually be based on quite different premises. There are practices where you’re very definitely trying to bring particular states into being. For example you may be cultivating lovingkindness in the metta bhavana. There are other practices in which you may be just allowing your experience to arise, without interfering with anything. Those are very different approaches, but it’s not that one or the other is wrong: they’re just different tools.

When we cling to the idea that there’s one “right” way to meditate, and that new approaches are “wrong,” this isn’t very helpful. If you hear anyone saying that there’s only one way to meditate, I suspect they’re misinformed, caught up in clinging, or selling something.

The Buddha taught many different meditations: anapanasati (mindful breathing meditation) leading to jhana, meditations leading to the formless spheres, metta bhavana and the other brahmaviharas, six element reflection (and four- and five-element reflections), simply paying attention to the impermanence of our experience in meditation, etc. He taught visualization practices. He offered us a rich tool box of approaches to working with our experience.

These approaches are all valid and complementary, and the practice of one can enhance the experience of the others.

Some people might argue that in doing a number of meditation practices you’re digging many shallow wells rather than one deep well. But since meditation practices are different tools meant to accomplish specific tasks, it’s more like using a variety of tools to dig one deep well. Sometimes you need a shovel, sometimes you need a pickax, sometimes you might need a pry-bar, sometimes you need to take a rest (that’s a tool, too). You’re taking many different approaches — but to one end. There’s really only one task.

There are just two things I would add to this. One is that we need to be clear what the task is; what is the well you’re digging? And second, we need to use the right tool, or combination of tools.

That task, the well we’re digging through Buddhist meditation practice, is what I call “unselfing.” Any practice you’re doing is reducing the sense of having a fixed and separate self that leads us into suffering. Some of the approaches are “samatha” (i.e. they’re aimed at developing and strengthening positive qualities such as mindfulness and lovingkindness) and some are “vipassana” (i.e. they’re aimed at changing, on a fundamental level, how we see ourselves and our relation to the world) but all meditation practices involve unselfing.

Simply paying attention to your breathing — letting go of distractions as they arise and returning over and over to the breathing — unselfs us by quieting the constant thoughts we have that involve comparison, aversion, and clinging (activities that reinforce out sense of self).

Cultivating lovingkindness unselfs us by expanding our sense of concern beyond ourselves and into the lives of others, so that we see others’ joy and pain as being part of our concern. In a way we expand our sense of self, and thus dilute it.

Six element meditation unselfs us by helping us to see that there is no separate self. We’re not physically separate from the world, so there’s physically no “me.” Our consciousness is also not separate from the world either. There’s nothing to grasp onto; there’s not even a “me” to do any grasping.

“Just sitting” practices that lead to experiences of non-duality lead to unselfing by reducing our sense of separation.

Any meditation in which we’re observing the arising and passing of our experience is likewise unselfing. We train ourselves to see more and more clearly that there is no part of “us” that is stable. How, therefore, can there be a stable, static, separate self?

So we need to have a coherent sense of what it is that we’re actually doing. Deep down, there’s no conflict between these practices, because they’re all unselfing. Because the practices I do are all doing the same thing, but in different ways, they’re all complementing each other.

Then there’s a question of which tools to use, and in which combinations. For me, some form of mindfulness of breathing and some form of developing lovingkindness or compassion are crucial. These two practices are complementary to each other, and also essential. We need mindfulness. We need lovingkindness. And this may be all we do for a few years.

But eventually some form of vipassana approach is necessary as well, whether it’s six element meditation or simply observing the impermanence, non-self, or unsatisfactoriness of our experience (or doing all three).

I’m not too good at dealing with complexity, so two or three regular practices is about all I can manage, although when I’m on retreat I’m happy to explore other approaches. But I’d guess that for most experienced meditators something like three to four practices is enough to be getting on with. Precisely which ones

You may find it’s useful to have a schedule, and to plan out what practice you’re going to do on any given day: body scan on Monday, Mindfulness of Breathing on Tuesday, Metta Bhavana on Wednesday, etc. That might give your mind permission to be content with what you’re doing on any particular day. Or if you don’t suffer from the torment of not knowing which practice to do, you can just play it by ear. At times you might have to be disciplined so that you don’t avoid a practice you don’t think your “good at.” Other times you need to give yourself the flexibility to work on what needs to be worked on.

So to cut a long story short: don’t assume there’s only one right way to meditation. Be clear about what the well is that you’re digging, and see how the various tools available to you help you to dig that well. And lastly, choose the most appropriate meditative tools, and use them as wisely as you can.

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