As you breathe in, be aware that you are breathing in.
As you breathe out, notice that you are breathing out.
– Thich Nhat Hanh
Learning Mindful Breathing
We exist in a world that is constantly in motion, change is perpetual. From when we are born until when we die our bodies are in a constant state of chemical reaction and transition. We grow rapidly at first, then gradually morph into our adult selves, going through various stages of the ageing process before a steady or sometimes brisk decline into decay. Our brains are constantly active from cradle to grave through waking and sleep, alpha to theta cycle of each brainwave.
Whilst we are awake we are bombarded by pressures and demands from our own body, from the depths of our consciousness and from our surroundings. We must react, and through this constant need to react we get further and further away from stillness. Life can be full on and fast paced, events and other people can wear us down. Learning mindfulness techniques, especially breathing, can be a gentle way of building up resistance to mental suffering.
Practising with the In-breath and Out-breath
Each in-breath fills our lungs with life-sustaining oxygen and can be thought of as drawing in energy. As we breathe out we can relax and feel a sense of calm and contentment. To focus on drawing in the air we breathe is to realise that we are alive. In order to hone mindfulness, we need to practice paying attention to our breathing. This is best done at first when we can sit quietly for a few minutes at a time and focus on nothing but the breath.
To start, take a few deep breaths. Get a sense of the air around you in the room, or the environment if you are outside. Then feel the sensation on your lips and nostrils as you breathe in. Close your eyes, if you like. Trace the feeling and sensation of the air as it fills your lungs and raises your core muscles. As you exhale, follow the breath all the way out back into your surroundings. Pay attention to each breath in this way. Wherever you notice the breath most, focus on that. It is fine if it is the surface of your lips and nostrils, it is fine if it is your throat, also fine if it is your chest or belly.
You will see that thoughts arise in your mind. Every time a thought arises in the mind just acknowledge that thought and return your attention to the breath. The thoughts will come and come but do not follow them. Instead just acknowledge their presence and return your focus to the breath. If the thoughts are critical, or you feel that the practice is wrong, just notice and accept those thoughts and return to the breath. It will be hard at first to keep this up for ten minutes without becoming agitated or restless, but with repetition, your focus will improve. With practice, you will be able to sit and mindfully breathe for longer and longer periods of time.
Once you have the hang of focusing on the breath I would suggest some meditation music or sounds. There are some great apps in the app store for relaxing sounds or music – Calm for example. I would personally recommend music by Max Corbacho. In particular, the album Ars Luis. The theme of the album is light shining through cathedral windows. It is an ethereal and uplifting piece of work.
Learning how to breathe mindfully is at the root of many meditative practices. Postures, mantras, and subtle actions can also form the basis for meditation but control of one’s breathing is essential. There is no need to enter a state of deep contemplation, although that might be desirable, it is fine just to be aware of breathing in and out. Aside from meditation itself, mindful breathing can increase focus and strengthen attention levels, reduce stress and combat anxiety. It is powerful, yet still a subtle force.