The Issue at Hand

The Issue at Hand

Chapter 12: Mindfulness of Breathing

When mindfulness of breathing is developed and cultivated, it is of great fruit and great benefit. When mindfulness of breathing is developed and cultivated, it fulfills the four foundations of mindfulness. When the four foundations of mindfulness are developed and cultivated, they fulfill the seven enlightenment factors. When the seven enlightenment factors are developed and cultivated, they fulfill true knowledge and deliverance. – Majjhima Nikaya 118.15

Mindfulness meditation usually begins with awareness of breathing. In fact, breath is the foundation of many forms of Buddhist meditation practice. My Zen teacher in Japan said that mindfulness of breathing is enough, in and of itself, for a person to become fully awakened.

The repertoire of religious practices of the world contains a wealth of useful breath meditations. Many involve patterns of conscious breathing: breathing long and deeply; emphasizing the exhalation over the inhalation; breathing fast or slow, through the nose or mouth; intentionally pausing between breaths; directing the breath to different parts of the body. In mindfulness practice we are not trying to change the breath. We are simply attending to the breath as it is, getting to know it as it is, regardless of how it is: shallow or deep, long or short, slow or fast, smooth or rough, coarse or refined, constricted or loose. For the practice of mindfulness there is no ideal breath. If we impose a rigid pattern on our breathing, we might miss how our own particular physical, emotional, and spiritual patterns are expressed through breathing.

Because of the mind’s tendency to be scattered and easily distracted by daydreams and thoughts, we use the breath to help anchor us to the present. By repeatedly coming back to rest in the breath, we are countering the strong forces of distraction. This trains the mind, heart, and body to become settled and unified on one thing, at one place, at one time. If you are sitting in meditation and your mind is on what you did at work today, your mind and body are not in the same place at the same time. When we are fragmented in this way we easily lose touch with a holistic sense of ourselves.

Mindfulness of breathing can be a powerful ally in our lives. With steady awareness of our inhalations and exhalations, the breath can become an equations constant through the ups and downs of our daily life. By resting with and perhaps even enjoying the cycles of breathing, we are less likely to be caught up in the emotional and mental events that pass through us. Repeatedly returning to the breath can be a highly effective training in letting go of patterns of identification and holding that freeze the mind and heart.

Since our breath is not independent from our mental and emotional life, often our emotions, attitudes, and concerns are expressed in the way we breathe. Patterns of breathing change with our varied emotions. With fear and sadness the breath can be constricted. With anger it can be strong and forced. With peace and calm it can be easy and relaxed. The etymological root of the word anxious is “choking”, and choking or constricting the breath is how we sometimes control or hold back excitement or energetic states of being. Remember that in mindfulness practice Mindfulness of the body, when developed and cultivated, is of great fruit and great benefit. we simply notice what is happening without adding our judgments about how our breath, our inner life or we should be.

However, attention, just like other mental states, can affect the breath in its own way, often by slowing and calming it, but sometimes by releasing it from our holding. Remembering to be aware of the breath can lubricate difficult situations. This is because the power of attention itself is helpful in any situation, and also because attention directed to the breath can keep our breath and us from becoming rigid.