Watching the breath

By Jane Powell

Once we have found a suitable position in which to meditate, we have to get on and do it. There are very many different types of meditation, developed in different religions over the centuries, but the standard Buddhist practice involves calming the mind by bringing it gently and repeatedly back to a single point of focus. This could be anything at all – a word or phrase, the flame of a candle, a spot on the carpet – but traditionally the approach is to watch the breath.

Why the breath? There is a great deal to be said on this topic, but perhaps as good a reason as any is that it connects us with our bodies, linking us in to a rhythm that is both automatic (we don’t have to remember to do it) and under our conscious control. It tends to have a calming effect, and it’s something we can link into at any time of the day. Having said that, it’s common for people to report that watching the breath actually stirs up anxiety that is counterproductive. In that case it is a good idea to find a body sensation that is more neutral, such as the pressure of the buttocks on the seat, or the feet on the floor.

Assuming we are watching the breath, there are many different ways of doing it. The simplest is perhaps to count the breaths. You count one on an outbreath, breathe in without forcing the pace, breathe out again on a count of two, and so on. When you get to ten, start again. If you find you have lost concentration – it can be very hard to get past two or three sometimes – just start at one again. Alternatively you can count the inbreaths.

Another method, possibly more interesting, is to follow the breath in through the nose and mouth, feel how the rib cage expands, feel the diaphragm move down and the abdomen expand, and then follow the breath back out again. With practice you might feel subtle movements in your back, shoulders, and indeed your whole body if you are sensitive enough. This can be a good practice for working with anxiety or distress, as it brings us out of the thinking mind which causes us so much trouble, and links us into the immediate and yet mysterious experience of the body. It’s an opportunity to feel pleasure and gratitude that our breathing, which we barely understand or pay any attention to most of the time, works so well to keep us alive.

Yet another way is to choose a particular point in the breath, maybe the cooling of the nose on an inbreath, or the rise and fall of the abdomen, and keep returning to that. You may notice that placing your awareness lower down in your body has a more grounding effect which may be helpful sometimes, while placing it higher up is better for staying awake. Experiment and find what works for you.

As the meditation progresses, if we keep coming back to the breath, we are likely to find that the mind becomes calmer and our awareness deepens, bringing a sense of wellbeing. At some point, we can let go of watching the breath and simply rest in the space of the mind as thoughts come and go. It’s important to note however that it might not work like this at all. Our minds may be so agitated that we don’t see much change in half an hour or even an hour, or we may unconsciously place expectations on ourselves that produce tension and amplify our anxieties, or we may rebel and daydream our way through the entire session, only realizing at the end what we have done. This doesn’t mean that we have failed. It is all practice, and eventually we will get some insight into how our minds work and become a little more at home with ourselves.

Meditation instructions on the breath usually focus on the meditation aspect, taking the breath for granted. However there is a lot to be said for working with the breath as an end in itself, because how we breathe makes a difference to how we feel. We tend to breathe in a very shallow way, into the upper chest, and making a conscious effort to relax the chest and breathe right down into the abdomen can really make a difference. Singing is a good way of getting us to use more of our lungs and can really lift our mood, and there are many traditional and modern techniques for working with the breath to improve our general functioning. If anyone knows of any good ones, please let me know and I’ll post links here

Finally, see our News page for details of a work/meditation retreat at CAT and a Mindfulness course in Aberystwyth.

Jane Powell

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