tuning into the breath

Do you ever get caught up and lost? 

Do you need to learn how to recollect what anchors you?

Then tune into the breath. 

I mean, I'm the one feeling to compelled to write about this mindfulness gig, your mindful life, but I still get caught up and feel lost. I find myself needing to remember to come back to the breath.

It's funny, but when teaching the breathing meditation I find myself listening to people’s experience of its practice as if I'm the one discovering this meditation for the first time. 

One participant told me that out of the meds we’ve done so far the breathing meditation is the one she ‘gets’: that is, just being with the breath. Something as simple as that experience is hard to explain, and therefore probably doesn’t need too much exploratory analysis. However, description of experience is welcome. Or perhaps I should say, submission to the poetry of its experience. The basic truth that comes with the breathing meditation is that this seemingly simple practice reconnects us with an actualised sense of life in its full flow.

When teaching it I find myself revisiting Jon Kabat Zinn’s ‘Full Catastrophe Living’ and re-reading his chapter on breathing, where he tells us that it is the ‘unsuspected ally in the healing process’. Just the notion of relating to the process of breathing as a healing process subtly shifts one’s awareness of what it is to breathe. It is more than awareness: it is meta-awareness. Kabat Zinn beautifully renders both the science and the poetry of this experience. He writes: ‘with each breath, we exchange carbon dioxide molecules from inside our bodies for oxygen molecules from the surrounding air. Waste disposal with each outbreath, renewal with each inbreath. If this process is interrupted for more than a few minutes, the brain becomes starved for oxygen and undergoes irreversible damage. And, of course, without the breath, we die'.

Of course, we know this. But, as he tells us, we also take it for granted.

Until, that is, we start to meditate.

Here are some of the key points he makes that I think are worth remembering:

In focusing on the breath when we meditate, we are learning right from the start to get comfortable with change. We see that we will have to be flexible. We will have to train ourselves to attend to a process that not only cycles and flows but also responds to our emotional state by changing its rhythm, sometimes quite dramatically.

As long as we are alive, it is always with us. We can’t leave home without it. It is always here to be attended to, no matter what we are doing or feeling or experiencing, no matter where we are. Tuning into it brings us right in to the here and now. It immediately anchors our awareness in the body, in a fundamental, rhythmic, flowing life process.

Focusing on the breath at your belly can be calming. Just as the surface of the ocean tends to be choppy when the wind is blowing, so too the “atmospheric conditions” in our own mind can influence the waves of the breath. Our breathing tends to be reactive and agitated when either the outside environment or the inner environment is not calm and peaceful. In the case of the ocean, if you go down ten or twenty feet, there is only a gentle undulation; there is calm even when the surface is agitated. Similarly, when we focus on our breathing down in the belly, we are tuning into a region of the body that is far from the head and thus far below the agitations of our thinking mind. It is intrinsically calmer. So tuning into the breath at the belly is a valuable way of reestablishing inner calmness and balance in the face of emotional upset or when you have a lot on your mind.

There is the practice. The practice. The practice. But remember too the teaching. The art that captures the essence of what is. 

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living, Chapter 3

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