I held my breath trying to resist the present, to be.. present. As if me holding my breath would postpone what I didn’t want to experience. And then afterward.. the tears.. and the attempt to not cry as loud.. or as much. What happened was that we had to put our cat down. She had reached the honorable age of almost 18 and a half human years. An old lady full of love..and of pain. So we had to say goodbye.
Our breath is with us every second until we die and then all of the sudden stillness. Sometimes we are able to actually spot that stillness in the middle of our own life, the tiny pause between breaths. Where everything just is what it is. We can also receive clues about our mental and emotional state if we are mindful about how we breathe.. or try not to.
Every day we breathe somewhere between 17 000 and 30 000 times. So we certainly have a lot of opportunities to practice mindful breathing.
Mindful breathing does not mean forcing our breath, rather observing it. Our breath has so many clues and insights to share with us.
How we breathe tells us about our body, if we are stressed or relaxed. If we are tense in our body we tend to breathe very much in the upper parts whilst if we are relaxed we can feel it in the lower belly. In the beginning of becoming aware of the breath, we can put one hand on the upper chest and one on the belly and feel the breath move in and out of the body.
Just this small act can actually bring a sense of presence and care. We feel the breath enter the nose.. how the lungs expand and how the belly moves out.. and then that tiny, tiny pause… where the breath turns around… and how the belly moves in again.. the lungs collapse and the air leave the body through the nose. This happens all the time, only we don’t really think about it.
As a spiritual path, I find breathing to be a wonderful way of feeling connected. One of my teachers said: “Can you feel it? You are being breathed”. Yes indeed the air longs to contribute to us and we also to contribute to it. The realm of air.
The breath is also something that keeps us alive. And funnily enough, it just happens by itself. But we can also control our breath. That is so exciting. A way for us to contribute to our well-being.
In mindfulness practice, we can use this flow of life force and attach it to words to help the mind keep focus. Some people like to add IN while breathing in, and OUT while breathing out. The mind, as we all know, has a tendency to fill up empty space with all kinds of thoughts, ideas, illusions and fantasies. So if we feel like our mind is busy, counting the breath or using words can be really helpful.
Another of my wonderful teachers says: “As I am breathing in, I am aware of my breathing. As I am breathing out I am aware of my breathing. In. Out. In. Out. “ This can bring forth a sense of connectedness between body and mind.
Practicing mindfulness of breathing can be boring. I am going to be very upfront with that.
The “breath” really has nothing new to say. It does not make plans. Nor does it stay the same. It flows. And as we let go of the air we don’t actually pay any more attention to that “portion” of air. We don’t attach thoughts to it nor do we cling to it. And that is one of the greatest teachings in this practice. What keeps us alive in this moment is not the conclusions we have or the fears we create, no it just is. Mindfulness practice is a practice in being present with: “what is” rather than what we wish it to be.
In counting the breath we become aware of the extent to which the “monkey mind” is alert and willing to contribute to us. We exercise our ability to focus and we cultivate a state of calmness when in distress. We become aware of the impermanence of everything we experience, a feeling or a thought.
We can practice being present with for example boredom. Like the great teacher, Jack Kornfield once stated “Bring it! Let me be bored to death!” (or something like that). I practiced that during my last meditation and I almost fell over laughing. I then realized I was taking my practice too seriously, this was a great break.
We also have a tendency to cling to what we find pleasant. So if nothing unpleasant shows up during meditation we often just continue in our lala-mind-land until the bell rings. It is mostly the unpleasant that awakens us.
For those of you finding it hard to focus with a lot of thoughts or emotions going on it might help to just state “thought” or “feeling” when something arises. To acknowledge what is present often takes away the aversion or attachment to it. And also it is a great way to learn how to be aware of when a thought or emotion has captured you.
A teacher of mine, Bodhipaksa, imagined thoughts to be like bubbles. I imagined it to be a blue bubble but feel free to create your own. This bubble surrounds your head and you only see that bubble and what’s in it. You are not even aware you are in it. But if you can use your practice to become aware it is a really great way to enhance your life.
Once, a little while ago, I got stuck in my bubble. Unaware my husband uttered a word, almost like a code word, when he stated: “You are impossible”. That really ticked me off. I was furious. My heart was pounding and I swear with some certain camera filter one might have seen fumes come out of my nose and ears. I was certainly not present enough to stop fierce words from leaving my mouth. It was an instant outburst of anger.
Afterwards I had to look at what had happened. I felt like a failure as a Mindfulness practitioner, teacher and Buddhist. I was expected to be present at all times and certainly not bring on suffering to others – and yet this anger came over me like a storm!
This is called the autopilot and it does get better with practice – I promise.
I also have three adorable children to practice with. Particularly patience. I used to be very impatient. I always wanted things my way, and at once. I wanted them to get dressed when I decided they should, sleep when I said they should and so on. Now after being a parent for the last decade I realize patience is a virtue. And if I allow them some space they most often actually do get dressed on time.
The breath can certainly be used consciously as a means to practice patience or become aware of where you are in the present moment. These are some opportunities that you can use to become more mindful.
- When you wake up in the morning stay for a few minutes in bed and feel the breath. Feel the tone in the body. Perhaps you want to keep your eyes closed and put your hands on your belly and connect with the body. We tend to before we even get up, rush into the day in our heads creating it and the body just has to come along. If we allow the breath to connect us with the body we feel more whole and complete in the day and it can be a really friendly and kind feeling to offer ourselves.
You can also practice some Loving Kindness and Compassion here and offer yourself some kind words: May I be happy, may I be at ease. Be your own best friend before you let all the energies of the day enter your mind.
- When the phone rings put down your hands from what you are doing and take a mindful breath.. feeling the air enter your nose… the soft touch of the air.. hot or cold.. or just a flow.. and follow it all the way through the lungs and feel the belly and then exhale and feel all the air leave the body. Then put on a smile :)- If you have to stop for a red light you can count how many breaths it takes until the lights shift.
- As you start a new task, such as, doing the dishes, brushing your teeth, taking a shower or getting into the car connect with the breath. Connect to the present moment. Where are you? How do you feel? Are you in your mind already on your way to the next thing? Perhaps you wish to practice noticing mindfully what you are experiencing. The water feels cold or hot.. My feet against the tile are feeling tingly.
Use your breath to connect with your body and invite the experiences and perceptions without judgments. Life is really so rich and precious.
Mindful breathing is never about rushing our breath or forcing it. Deep breaths are not better than shallow. All are breaths. In.. and out… we breathe. May you be happy! May you be at ease!