Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Following the Breath

Breath awareness is the foundation technique for mindfulness practice. It is the first technique we learn and, no matter where our path leads, we continue to come back to the breath regularly.

I use different guided imaginings to teach the concept of mindfully paying attention to the breath so I'll provide a sampling here for discussion. These meditation principles may be practiced just as they are to receive the physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness but be aware that I leave out several details taught in my classes--only for the sake of brevity.

Sit with posture erect and hands resting comfortable in the lap. Hold the head erect and close the eyes. Breathe normally and pay close attention to what it feels like to breath. You may notice the rush of air past the nostrils or the expanding chest cavity or the movement of the abdomen. Movement in the abdomen is very important since abdominal breathing (noted by the slight expansion of the belly when breathing in) is the most efficient method of breathing. If your breathing causes a lot of movement in the upper chest and very little movement in the abdomen, you should practice breathing into the belly.

That's it. We're done.

Well, not exactly done. Paying attention to breathing is all we're doing with this meditation technique but we find that our minds are constantly busy thinking up very interesting ideas that tend to grab our attention. The thoughts may be pleasurable, although studies show that most often they are not, but no matter what the thought (or emotion) our minds get carried away with the story the thoughts are telling. At some point we realize we are 'thinking' and we intentionally let the thought go and bring our attention back to breathing.

You might think of thoughts as soap bubbles that come floating into view from the dark recesses of the mind. The bubbles shimmer with attractive colors and we begin paying attention to them instead of our breath. When we become aware of the distraction, we allow the bubble to pop and concentrate on our breath once more. The process repeats. Eventually, we find that we have fewer distracting thoughts and longer periods of time between them.

It takes practice. But don't be discouraged. Mindfulness is described as paying close attention, without judgement and without striving. That means we don't criticize ourselves for being distracted and we don't try really, really hard to stop thinking. We can't stop thinking anyway, no more than we can stop breathing.

Here's another piece of visual imagery that is popular with my students. A pebble falls into a still pool of water. Ripples disturb the surface of the water. The pebble falls straight to the bottom of the pool where it nestles snugly into the wet sand. Here the pebble is supported, stable and it abides for a while, for a long while in fact. The ripples on the surface of the water break up the light and patterns of shadow move across the surface of the pebble. Debris from the bottom of the pool is thrown up at impact and swirl around the pebble. Yet, through all this, the pebble is not distracted from the act of being a pebble. The pebble remains a pebble.

When you seat yourself and close your eyes, you become the pebble falling into the water. At first, the mind disperses debris in the form of thoughts into the pool of your mind. The thoughts swirl around but you pay no attention to them and just like that pool of water, the debris will settle down again and all will become still and quiet.

Just be you. Just be the pebble. Don't be the bubble.


  • Don't try to stop your thoughts, simply notice your thoughts and bring attention back to breathing
  • Don't criticize yourself for not "doing it properly"
  • Don't try to stop thinking
  • Determine how long you will meditate and stay seated in practice for that specific time
  • Eventually your mind will get the message and remain relatively quiet until you open your eyes

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Imagine Breathing

Tich Nhat Hanh, one of the best know and most respected meditation masters in the world today, tells us that the breath is a bridge connecting our physical living body to consciousness.

We generally are not conscious of breathing. After all, it's easy to "forget" about something we do every minute of every day of our lives. When you pay attention to the sensation of exhaling and inhaling, you are connecting with a basic and vital part of you. When you focus your attention completely on breathing, you are reminded of something that is truly important in life--the present moment and the fact that you are alive.

When we allow our minds to get carried by thoughts and emotions, we lose touch with the most important aspects in our lives. A recent study conducted worldwide involving tens of thousands of people in about 50 different countries, found that by far most of our thoughts, the ones that get our mental attention, are negative and stressful. By making a conscious effort to pay more attention to our breathing every day reduces the effects of stress and actually prevent a lot of the stress in the first place.

For the next few days, in addition to practicing a basic breathing meditation once or twice a day, make an effort to pay attention to your breath no matter what you are doing:  whether you are eating, showering, commuting to work or buying the groceries. Really feel the sensation of the air rushing in and out of your mouth and nose. Notice the movement of your body with each inhalation or exhalation. Notice too that not only your chest moves but so does your tummy. In fact, if you don't feel movement in the abdomen when you breath, then your internal organs, including your brain, are not benefiting as much as they should. Search for the posting concerning abdominal breathing on this blog site.As you practice paying attention to your breath, you might want to try one of the exercises below:


  • Imagine breathing in white light and breathing out the stagnant or negative energy in your body.
  • Imagine breathing in healing energy through your crown chakra (at the top of your head) and breathing compassion out through your heart for the whole world.
  • Imagine a mantra (a word like peace) every time you breathe in and breathe out.
  • Take a deep breath thinking, I am powerful.
  • Take a second deep breath thinking, Life is truly wonderful.
  • Take a third deep breath thinking, I am enough for anything that comes my way

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Many Are One

Back as far as our written records take us, mindful practices around the world have insisted on the sameness of all things. We are told that we are all alike and that all the diversity in the world is not many but one. To paraphrase Shakespeare's analogy, all the world is one stage and we are all actors playing our part in one great play. Whatever we do on stage directs the course of the play and will affect every actor, not just a few.

Back as far as our written records take us, we human beings have seen ourselves as a small troupe of actors playing our parts on a local stage. Other people in the world are strange actors playing questionable parts in theaters that are in competition with ours and might possibly be a threat to our play. We know that our play--our way of living--is good and worthy and right but we suspect that the other is not as good and may even be bad or unwholesome. Ignore it if you can, dominate it if you must.

Modern neuroscience has tools to actually map the neural dimensions of empathy--the resonance we feel with the experiences of others, even an inner experience like grief, shame, or loneliness. This resonance center lights up when we identify with another's pain or joy. When we harshly judge another person or another culture, that resonance center shuts down. Without the understanding that we are all the same, it is easy to accept that other people are not like us, lacking the full complement of human traits perhaps, not quite as worthy of respect and acceptance.

This lack of understanding and the fear that arises from a perceived threat, even a non-existent threat, may cause us to react impulsively, lose our emotional balance, and fall short of moral reasoning. The culture of violence we hear so much about today is made stronger when we get caught up in base reaction to the alarms raised by the brain's fight or flight center. Perhaps this is why so many spiritual practices around the world teach us to treat others the way we want to be treated. A simple concept but not easy to practice without the proper tools.

Mindfulness is a process through which we learn how our minds work. We learn to pay attention to the emotional stories arising from our fear centers and we are able to remain rational and respond with greater compassion and understanding. Mindfulness is a powerful tool that allows us to treat others as we would be treated because we understand that we and others are the same.