“The breath is the current of life, connecting body and mind… it helps to have a focus for your attention, an anchor line to tether you to the present moment and to guide you back when the mind wanders, the breath serves this purpose.”– Jon Kabat-Zinn
The significance of the breath
When we are born, we take our first breath (inspire) – and with our last breath, life withdraws from the body (expire). The same is true for all mammals, birds and reptiles. We can survive for weeks without food, days without water, but only a few minutes without the breath (respire). Think about it. Breath is life.
This importance of cultivating the breath is echoed across most spiritual traditions*. Daoists call it qì, yogis call it prāṇa. Through the breath, we gain access to the subtle life force that flows through our bodies.
A bridge to deeper layers of the mind
An interesting property of the breath is the way it straddles the fine line between voluntary control and autonomic function.
Reflect on the fact that the breath goes on whether you are paying attention to it or not. The body takes care of the respiration as part of the autonomic nervous system. Like the heart beat, it keeps you alive year after year. Day in and day out. Day and night. Awake or sleeping.
Now, let’s do an experiment. Take a deep breath. Feel the inhale all the way in. Feel the exhale all the way out. This is an example of how we can apply conscious control over our breath. By doing so, we affect our physiology (e.g. heart rate, nerves, diaphragm, etc.) and mind (e.g. quality of attention and calmness).
Even without applying conscious control, our awareness of the breath begins to change it. Scientific studies clearly show the profound effects of mindful breathing on our physiological and mental wellbeing**. Simply paying conscious attention to the body breathing calms the mind and reduces stress by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. In other words, the autonomic nervous system is not entirely involuntary and/or unconscious.
Being the only vital functions that works in this way, the breath provides a unique link between the body and the mind. This link offers a fascinating opportunity to bridge the conscious and unconscious part of the mind.
The breath is the master
The fact that the breath is ever-present makes it a well-suited anchor for meditation. There are many styles of meditation – although different schools offer different techniques, they all agree on the importance of the breath. So how do we breathe to support mindfulness?
The tendency of the mind to control and chase after peaceful states of mind is what gets in the way of meditation. For this reason, mindfulness meditation (vipassanā) does not include breath control. We do not manipulate or force the breath in any way. We do not absorb into the subtle breath through will or effort, but by applying attentive awareness and curiosity.
The breath is the master. By absorbing into the natural flow of the breath, it guides us into increasingly subtle levels of awareness and takes us beyond the ego’s intentions.
Outer breath, inner breath
As our attention stabilises on the natural flow of the breath, we become aware of what is often referred to as the “subtle breath”. Or, in other words, we move from the “outer breath” to the “inner breath”. This distinction is not for intellectual understanding but points to a direct experience.
As we abide with the subtle breath, we start sensing the respiration as a circle – the inhale and exhale being part of the same process. We may feel the breathing slowing down or seemingly stop altogether. We are no longer sure if we are breathing air or breathing energy. We no longer have to concentrate; the breath and awareness flow together, naturally and continuously. We are right there. We are one with the subtle breath.
Learning a meditation technique is the easiest way to establish a habit of conscious breathing. Get started right away by listening to the 6 minute guided breath meditation
Mindfulness of breath, 6 minutes
* Similar concepts are found across a wide range of cultures and traditions, including qi (China), sahala (Indonesia), hasina (Madagaskar), ka, (Egypt), pneuma (Greece), wakan (North America), baraka (Sufism), jesod (Kabbalah).
** “Everyone around the water cooler knows that meditation reduces stress. But with the aid of advanced brain-scanning technology, researchers are beginning to show that meditation directly affects the function and structure of the brain, changing it in ways that appear to increase attention span, sharpen focus and improve memory. One recent study found evidence that the daily practice of meditation thickened the parts of the brain’s cerebral cortex responsible for decision making, attention and memory. Sara Lazar, a research scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital, presented preliminary results last November that showed that the gray matter of twenty men and women who meditated for just forty minutes a day was thicker than that of people who did not.…What’s more, her research suggests that meditation may slow the natural thinning of that section of the cortex that occurs with age.”
(How to Get Smarter, One Breath At A Time, Lisa Takeuchi Cullen. Time, January 16, 2006, p. 93.)
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