open awareness

Let the breathing observe you

I’d like to suggest a very different way of meditating.

Normally in meditation we think about observing the breathing. Actually a lot of people think about and practice observing the breath — air flowing in and out of the body’s airways — but I point out that it’s far more useful to observe the breathing, which is a much richer experience. When we’re observing the breathing we’re potentially observing the entire body, and how it participates in and responds to the process of air flowing in and out of our passageways.

In taking this approach of observing the breathing it’s useful first of all to relax the muscles around the eyes. This brings about a change in the way we observe internally, so that we can be aware simultaneously of a wide range of sensation in different parts of the body. With the muscles around the eyes in their default, activated state, we can only observe one small part of the body. I’ve described this as being like switching from a flashlight, which can only illuminate a small area, to a lamp, which sheds light in all directions.

Once you’ve become aware of sensations from all over the body, it’s possible to simply rest there, with thoughts still arising but no longer capturing your attention. Less effort is required, and so there’s less of a sense that you’re doing anything in meditation. Your meditation practice is just there.

You can let go even further, though, by allowing yourself to sense that you are being observed by the breathing just as much as you are observing it. You can be aware of the body as a living, breathing, animal presence — a presence that has its own intelligence and awareness.

And just as you are aware of the body, the body is aware of you. Allow yourself to be seen.

Perhaps at first it may be a little uncomfortable to do this. After all, being observed can be uncomfortable. But think of this observation not so much as visual and more as felt, as sensory. And think of your body as a warm, loving presence that enfolds you intimately in its embrace.

This gives us an opportunity to surrender even further, and to sense our meditation practice from a place of deeper receptivity. There’s now nothing to do. We don’t even have to be present for the body, since the body is always present for us. When we come back to mindful awareness after a period of distraction we find that the body is still there, sensing us, and we can realize that it’s never stopped doing that.

This may sound fanciful, or even absurd. I just suggest that you give it a go, and see what happens. It may change your meditation practice, and perhaps even your life.

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The body-wide wave of breathing

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

When I’m teaching a refresher course on meditation, I’ll often ask people first of all just to meditate for a few minutes to arrive, paying attention to the breathing as they normally do. After letting them settle in to their meditation practice for a few minutes I’ll ask that they take one hand and — as they continue to pay attention to the breathing — “draw” in the air over the body the outline of whatever it is they identify as “the breathing.” You might want to try that right now, before reading further.

I wonder what kind of shape you drew on the body, and where? Most people end up inscribing a very small area. Sometimes they show that they are paying attention to a column of air moving up and down their airways. Most often they draw a small oval, perhaps the size of an open hand, in the center of their chest.

It seems that many people, when they hear the suggestion to observe “the breathing,” take this as a suggestion to observe “the breath.” But the breathing and the breath are two very different things. The breath is air (or the sensation of air) flowing in and out of the body. The breathing is all and any sensation connected, however indirectly, with the process of air flowing in and out of the body. This potentially includes sensations from the whole body, since indirect sensations connected with the process of breathing can be experienced even in the hands and feet. But it at least involves the whole of the trunk of the body: the front, sides, and back of the chest and abdomen, sensations on the skin that covers those parts of the body, the shoulders, the spine — and of course air flowing through our airways.

When we’re paying attention to the breathing in this more expensive way, the practice becomes much more interesting. Focusing on just a small area of the breathing just doesn’t give the mind enough to do, and because the mind doesn’t like being under-occupied it invents distractions for itself. When we pay attention to many different sensations the mind has plenty to do, is less likely to go wandering, and is more engaged and absorbed.

This absorption can go even deeper than simply noticing lots of different sensations. Once we open ourselves to noticing sensations of breathing over the entire body (or at least a large part of the body) we can notice how those sensations are connected with each other and move together.

After all, the breathing is one process. No matter which sensations we observe, they’re all part of a single wave of movement driven by the movements of the diaphragm. Air flowing in and out of the nostrils, the rise and fall of the shoulders, the ever-changing pattern of sensation where our clothing moves over our skin, the movements in the spine, and of course the movements of the rib cage and of muscles in the abdomen — all of these are part of a wave of sensation, surging back and forth through our entire being.

Paying attention to the breathing as a body-wide, dynamic, rhythmic flow is far more engaging than observing just one small area of the breathing, and even more fascinating than observing several sensations at the same time. It brings about a deep level of absorption in which we can be content, calm, and fully engaged with our sensory experience.

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The flashlight versus the candle: how to calm your mind, quickly and easily

We can use our attention in two ways: either as a flashlight or as a candle.

Flashlight attention is where we have a narrow, focused beam of awareness. We observe one aspect of our experience, and because our focus is narrow, we don’t notice much else. This is how we tend to use our attention during the day. You’re almost certainly using your attention like a flashlight right now as you focus on these words. You’re mostly aware of one word flowing after another, building up a pattern of meaning in your mind. You’re probably not aware (until I mention it) of the feeling of your bottom on your seat, or your shirt touching your back, or the air flowing through your nostrils.

A candle, unlike a flashlight, throws its light in all directions. When we use our attention in this way, we allow ourselves to be aware of everything that’s arising. So we can be aware of the whole body, the breathing, sounds arising from the outside world, and so on. Our perceptions will tend to be less detailed than with the flashlight form of attention, but a candle-like awareness can bring about a sense of calmness very quickly.

This is a form of attention that very few of us have experienced. Mostly in our daily lives we shine the flashlight of our attention on one thing after another, whether we’re in conversation, working on a computer, checking social media on our phones, or eating. To compensate for this narrow field of attention, we move the focus of our awareness rapidly from one thing to another. This can be quite exhausting.

I don’t mean to imply that when we have our attention focused on one thing, that’s strictly all that we experience. But it’s approximately true. We might be thinking about something while driving, and the driving is on automatic pilot. We might we watching TV while eating, and we barely notice our food. We might be reading, and not hear our children or spouse talking to us.

Often people try to meditate using a flashlight-type awareness, so that when we’re being mindful of the breathing, we focus on just a very small part of our experience. When I ask people, during meditation, to indicate what extent of their bodies they are paying attention to, most of them indicate a small area in the center of the chest.

Now the problem is that meditating by paying attention to such a narrow range of sensations isn’t easy. When we notice a thought coming along, the tendency is to switch the flashlight onto the thought. Now all we notice is the thought, and we’re completely caught up in the story that was enfolded within it. Then something jogs the flashlight, and we realize we’ve been distracted, so we move the flashlight beam back to the small part of the breathing that we’d been observing before. We end up doing this over and over.

The candle approach involves, first, softening the eyes. Literally let the muscles around the eyes go soft. Let your gaze rest on one spot without moving them around or focusing on anything in particular, and let yourself become aware of everything in your visual field. Become aware of sounds, smells, and anything other sensory information that’s arising from the world around you. Then begin to notice the body: everything at once, from where your body is touching the floor, right up to the crown of your head.

You can become aware of the breathing, but now instead of noticing just the center of the chest (or whatever else it is you normally focus on) you’ll notice a vast array of sensation, potentially from the whole body.

Your sense of the body won’t be as detailed as it is when you’re shining a flashlight of awareness around, examining one sensation or part of the body after another. Your impressions will be fuzzier and more general. And that’s OK. The important thing is that your experience will be richer and more interesting.

Also significant is that when thoughts arise, you’re now perceiving them as just one part of the vast landscape of sensation that the candle is illuminating. And because your attention isn’t focused on your thoughts, they don’t catch your attention in that way they normally do. You find that you can just let them drift through your sphere of attention like clouds through a blue sky. Thoughts don’t stop: they just stop bothering you.

This candle-like way of paying attention is restful. You can have the sense that you’re simply resting with an awareness of what’s already there, while normally it may seem that you’re having to “work” to be aware of things. In fact the remarkable thing about the candle mode of attention is that it so quickly and easily calms the mind. People who have struggled with their meditation practice for years find that they suddenly have access to calmness. It’s a simple shift in perception, but a profoundly radical one.

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The eyes have it

As you’re reading these words, begin to notice your breathing. Don’t change anything, just letting your body breathe naturally.

  • Notice where the breathing is taking place. How much of the movement is in the chest, and how much is in the abdomen?
  • Notice the rate of your breathing.
  • Notice how deep or shallow your breathing is.
  • Notice how you feel.

Now continue to notice these things, but with one change:

For a minute or two, stop focusing on the individual words, but relax your gaze and allow yourself to take in the whole screen, and then everything around the screen, right up to the periphery of your visual field.

Now that you’re back …

You probably noticed that when you were focusing on reading your breathing was shallower, mostly confined to the chest, and relatively fast, and that by contrast, when you were taking in the whole scene your breathing was deeper, involved the abdomen much more, and slowed down. You probably felt more relaxed, calmer, and happier compared to when your eyes were narrowly focused.

When we’re focusing our gaze narrowly, the sympathetic nervous system is active. The sympathetic nervous system is part of the autonomic nervous system that’s responsible for fight or flight. It looks for threats and prepares us for responding to them. Unfortunately we tend to have our sympathetic nervous systems active too much, flooding the body with stress hormones and finding ourselves in a chronic state of overstimulation. No sooner have we finished paying attention to one thing, we actively seek out something else to focus on. We get stuck in a hyper-vigilant and anxious cycle of sympathetic activity.

Relax our gaze prompts the parasympathetic nervous system to become more active instead. The parasympathetic is the branch of the autonomic nervous system that brings us back to calm, rest, and balance. This exercise helps us to consciously trigger a parasympathetic response so that we can break the cycle of permanent vigilance, and allow ourselves to relax.

This exercise brings about quite a rapid change. And it’s not difficult to do. It just requires changing the way we’re relating to our eyes — relaxing our gaze and letting the eyes be less tightly focused.

Now you probably can’t read or surf the internet with this mode of vision, but you can take breaks, hold conversations, attend meetings, walk down the street, or drive a vehicle.

And one other thing you can do with this relaxed gaze is to meditate. In fact, this is one way I often encourage people to go into meditation, in order to help their practice be more effective. Here’s one example, and here’s another.

One interesting thing is that the way we focus with the eyes affects how we focus with the mind. When our eyes are in sympathetic mode — narrowly focused — we’ll tend to focus on one thing with the mind. So when we’re being mindful of our breathing, then we’ll tend only to focus on one small part of the experience of breathing. This usually isn’t enough to keep the mind interested and in fact it leads to a form of sensory deprivation. And so the mind creates thoughts to fill the information vacuum.

Our narrow focus of attention, which is like a flashlight, tends to switch over to noticing thoughts, which are generally far more emotionally compelling than the physical sensations of our breathing. And so we end up in the all-too-familiar cycle of paying attention to the breathing, getting distracted repeatedly, and having to bring the flashlight of our attention back to the breathing over and over again.

When the eyes are more relaxed in meditation, we’re able to take in the whole “scene” of our breathing. This is a far richer experience, not just because there are more sensations to pay attention to, but because we can see the connections between various sensations. For example we can see how sensations in the abdomen relate to sensations in the nostrils, and how those relate to the sensations in the back. Our experience is revealed as dynamic, interconnected, and even sensual.

Thoughts will still arise, but since our attention is less like a flashlight, throwing out a narrow beam, and more like an oil lamp, casting light in all directions, we can be aware of our breathing and our thoughts at the same time. Thus, we can simply allow thoughts to pass through our awareness, without getting caught up in them. Suddenly, meditation becomes much easier.

So this is a simple change, but one that allows us to radically change our experience in meditation, and in life.

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