Breath and Mindfulness
The focus of this post is on breathing. It is an essential skill and understanding so that we may live well. Breathing is foundational. We breath since birth and every moment since. The breath connects to life and enables us to change our life and the perception of our experience of the world.
Years ago, I evaluated a 20-year-old man in jail. He was depressed and suicidal because he was looking at prison time for manslaughter. He was afraid and did not know what to do. He had found himself in a situation, felt threatened and impulsively shot another person. Essentially, this young man’s difficulties stemmed from reactivity. An almost automatic, non-conscious series of thoughts and impulsive behaviors. Horrified and regretting his behaviors of the shooting. And now, was afraid of what might happen while in prison. He did not have any torrid or traumatic events in his childhood nor a history of depression and suicide. However, he had never learned how to breathe. He could not give himself a moment to get his head into the situation when he felt threatened. And now again, scared to death and at risk for continued reactive behaviors. So, we spent a few minutes on learning how to breathe. I explained how breathing would give him a moment for more astute perception and analysis to any situation. And give himself options to consider before merely impulsively reacting. This young man also needed to develop better executive functioning skills. However, with only a very brief time with this young man, giving him an introduction to learning how to breathe was workable.
Breathing is the foremost essential skill. There is the yogic or meditative axiom of “if you can control your breath, you can control your life.” Breathing is life. It is important to realize the difference between merely breathing and skillful breathing. Different breathing patterns link to different states of feeling, thought and behavior. Singers, athletes, snipers, speakers, craftsmen, musicians are well aware of how breathing affects performance. Once we know that different breathing patterns and their associated states (thoughts and feelings), we realize that controlling our breath is the most effective way to influence our feelings, thoughts and behaviors. Breathing is an essential skill.
You can notice your breathing, any time and any place.
1. Just notice your breath, where it is…in your chest or belly, is it fast or slow, even or irregular, warm or cool, halted or smooth and even…etc. Are there any restrictive or blocks, which nostril does the air flow better, etc?
2. Notice the more subtle flow…how does your breath flow in, how it flows out, how it changes during the day, with different activities, emotions and thoughts.
3. Where are the endpoints of the breath? The two points between the in-breath and the out-breath; and the out-breath and in-breath. flow of the breath in and out. What occurs at these two endpoints?
4. Next time you are feeling angry, upset, anxious, frustrated or irritable; notice of your breath. And then take a few deep breaths. Bring your breath deep into your belly (diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing) and notice how your feelings and thoughts change. After 2 or 3 deep breaths, notice that you are feeling calmer and thinking is more open. Diaphragm breathing changes your feelings and thoughts quickly. It lowers your pulse, blood pressure and stress response. When more calm, you are better able to engage your executive functioning; to recognize other options and make better strategic responses and decisions.
The young man above, under stress and fear, simply misperceived/misinterpreted and reacted out of the reactive survival response and shot another. When a person operates out of fear, they are reacting out of an older part of our brain that is popularly referred to as the reptilian brain. When there is a (perceived/interpreted/imagined) threat to our existence, the reptilian brain responds as if there is in immediate and imminent threat of death. Known as the five F’s; are: fighting, fleeing, freezing, feeding and fornication. Fighting, fleeing and freezing are the reactions to immediate danger. While feeding and fornication are typical when there is more of a general pervasive non-imminent threat like in famine or war. When there is a perceived immediate danger, our sympathetic nervous system jumps to a state of hyper readiness to flight, fight or freeze. However, a few deep breaths can over-ride this reactive fear response. This enables a person to evaluate is the threat; imaginary, a misinterpretation or actual? It also allows for the opportunity to assess the context, risk factors, probability and/or to find and execute other more effective solution.
In psychology, it’s known that perception, imagination and interpretation can be difficult to determine or distinguish without further executive reasoning. Simply the “brain,” specifically the sub-consciousness has difficulty determining what is real, or is a matter of imagination or mis-perception or mis-interpretation. We use these phenomena daily in advertising. It is a source of confusion, contributes to relationship issues and can be a question of psychosis. However, this phenomenon can equally be useful to help remedy malaise (we will come back to this in a later blog post).
Breath and Focus
Breath is a tool to develop the skill to focus. The skill is to develop the ability to focus on a single thing and exclude all else. Vipassana mediation has two modes to develop. The first mode is the development of “one pointed mindfulness or concentration. The breath is a natural and readily available place to start. As noted above, notice the subtleties of your breath. In the beginning, your thoughts and feelings will intrude and drift with whatever comes in to your awareness. When your awareness drifts to other things besides only being aware of your breath; simply re-focus on the flow of the in and out of each breath. Repeatedly, your thoughts or feelings will wonder into your awareness. And again, re-focus and become aware only of your breath. Initially, you will wonder around from thought to thought and feeling to feeling. Do not fight the wondering, but merely re-focus on your breath. If you fight, get upset, impatient or irritated; you will continue to whirl around in your thoughts and feelings. The hard part is to remember, “oh yea, focus on the breath; be present with the breath going in and out. “ After you have gained the ability to maintain your focused attention on your breath, the one pointed mindfulness (concentration); you then develop the second mode.
Insight and Equanimity
The second mode is insight. Once you can maintain a state of one pointed concentration, then you are in position to attend to insight. Initially, you are aware of the subtleties of different mental and emotional states associated with different breathing patterns. However, the insight mode is only observational. You maintain a position much like just watching the clouds float by in the sky. It is not an evaluative posture. With each cloud, i.e., thought and feeling; refrain from making any judgement, evaluation, categorical, descriptive or attachment. Just let each cloud float by but with equanimous observation. The difficulty is that we have trained our consciousness to evaluate, judge, describe, categorize and attach to what is valuable or appropriate for survival and all matters of daily life and interactions. And this default awareness of daily life is quite difficult to ignore, shut down and suspend. “Oh what a pretty cat, it must be friendly, maybe it’s hungry and wants to be picked up. Or that dog is mangy, feral and probably dangerous. We do these descriptive and evaluative observations thousands of times a day. There is also the subtle attraction or repulsion/recoil depending on our experience and mindset. These subtleties have a connection with the breath; its flow and patterns. So, what the heck can we do?
The observational position involves both concentration and insight; but merely make the statement “isn’t this interesting” while continuing to abide in a non-judgmental and non-attached observational awareness of being a witness. Merely to observe the flow of whatever cloud passes before you and continue to abide in a state of equanimity.
Watch the patterns. Where does the cloud come from? How is does it appear? Float by, what shape does it become? Change into and where does it go or vanish? All of this is basically the statement of “isn’t this interesting.” Thus, from the equanimous position of being a witness (without judgement or attachment), whatever appears before you; you will see its patterns (remember pattern recognition). Learning to recognize patterns. The patterns will reveal the insights that are perennially emerging or being revealed. You are using the one-pointed concentration like a laser and focusing it on the object (thought/feeling). As the object heats, it releases the hidden patterns. The equanimous witness is to observe without evaluation, attraction or repulsion or attachment.
Once adept at vipassana, recognizing patterns, you will notice opportunities to reach out and grab or influence the pattern and change its path. (A quick side note: One needs to be morally and ethically astute as to your intentions of whether to engage in these opportunities, when and how it may affect both yourself and other sovereign beings. This is not to be taken lightly or without deep consideration.) Many of the insights are the realization it is your bias, interpretation and response that creates your experience. That it is ultimately you, that determines your experience. This is much like the “Serenity Prayer.”
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
Vipassana enables a person to move beyond an impulsive reactive and/or fear- based responses via insight or pattern recognition. You are no longer led around by trauma, drama or chaos. With the capacity to see through the storm and abide in the hurricane’s eye, you have gained the skills to control your thoughts, feelings, behavior and experience of life. You can observe the germination, emergence, blossom, fruit and renewal.
Breath literally and metaphorically connects you to life on this planet. Your breath has a tremendous influence on how and what you experience during your life. So far, the discussion of breath and mindfulness has been primarily analytical, instructional and given us glimpses of opportunities. In the next blog post, we need to take a slight detour before we dive into the opportunities of “conscious entanglement.”
Note: There is a vast amount of eastern knowledge in the study of breathing referred to as pranayama.
Peace love and light!