You Breathe 22,000 Times A Day
by Dr. Danny Penman, author, The Art of Breathing
Your breath is the greatest asset you have. It is naturally meditative and always with you. It reflects your most powerful emotions and helps you either soothe or harness them. It helps you to feel solid, whole, and in complete control of your life while grounding you in the present moment, clarifying the mind, and unshackling your instincts.
There is an art to breathing correctly. One that many of us have forgotten. This comes at a huge cost because incorrect breathing creates anxiety, stress, and exhaustion while deepening unhappiness.
How Breathing Works
Breathing relies on the big, powerful muscles of the diaphragm, the abdomen and the intercostal muscles that lie between the ribs. It is helped along by the smaller secondary muscles of the neck, shoulders and upper ribs.
When you are upset, anxious or stressed, the abdomen tenses and prevents the big primary muscles from working. Instead, they begin tugging against each other, leaving the secondary muscles to do all the work. But the secondary muscles are only designed to shoulder 20 percent of the burden, so they become stressed.
If this continues, it can lead to chronic tension in the shoulders and neck, to headaches and fatigue, and to increasingly shallower breathing. It’s a vicious cycle that lies behind much of our anxiety, stress, and unhappiness. But there is an equally powerful virtuous cycle that you can cultivate by learning the art of breathing.
The art of breathing lies in paying attention to your breath in a very special way. It’s the heart of mindfulness and as old as meditation itself. You can learn the basics in just a few minutes although mastering it takes a little longer.
Try this little mindful breathing meditation with me. All you need is:
Sit on a straight-backed chair.
Place your feet flat on the floor (with your spine 2–3cm from the back of the chair).
Be comfortable (with a relaxed but straight back). Place your hands loosely in your lap.
Close your eyes.
Focus your mind on your breath as it flows in and out. Feel the sensations the air makes as it flows in through your mouth or nose and into your lungs. Feel the rising and falling of your chest and stomach.
Where are the strongest feelings? Nose, mouth, throat, stomach, chest, shoulders? Pay attention and explore the feelings, especially the way they rise and fall. Don’t try to alter them in any way.
When your mind wanders, bring it back to your breath. Be kind to yourself. Minds wander. It’s what they do. Realizing that your mind has wandered and bringing it back to your breath IS the meditation. It’s a little moment of mindfulness.
After five or ten minutes, gently open your eyes and take in what you can see, hear, feel and smell.
You can download or stream this Breathing Meditation from www.franticworld.com/aob
Understanding Mindfulness and Your Mind
Mindfulness meditations are very simple but people often make them difficult and complicated. Mindfulness is simply full conscious awareness of whatever thoughts, feelings, and emotions are flowing through your mind, body, and breath without judging or criticizing them in any way. It is being fully aware of whatever is happening in the present moment.
The aim of mindfulness is not to intentionally clear the mind of thoughts. It is to understand how the mind works. To see how it unwittingly ties itself in knots to create anxiety, stress, unhappiness, and exhaustion. It teaches you to observe how your thoughts, feelings, and emotions rise and fall like waves on the sea. And in the calm spaces in between, lie moments of piercing insight.
You come to learn that happiness is fleeting whilst unhappiness lingers. Psychologists call it the ‘Negativity Bias’. It skews perception and makes the world seem far harsher and more competitive than it actually is.
The Negativity Bias ensures that it takes five positive experiences to balance a single negative one of equal magnitude. Thankfully, you can restore the balance and gain a happier and more accurate picture of the world. It’s no more difficult than periodically tuning into the breath while paying attention to the little pleasures of daily life. It means noticing the sights, sounds, smells, and textures that surround you and soaking up the tastes and aromas of everything that you eat and drink. And while you do so, gently remind yourself that most of life’s difficulties are only half as bad as they appear, while the good things are two or three times as intense.
Listen To Your Body
Through mindfulness, you will come to learn that thoughts, feelings, and emotions are created by the body as much as the brain. It’s called Embodied Cognition.
Mindful breathing will teach you that your most powerful states of mind are reflected in the body as physical sensations. Be aware of these sensations. Each one is a message. If you ignore them or suppress them, then they will become ever more insistent and distressing until you can resist them no longer. It’s one of the most powerful sources of unhappiness and distress.
But there is an alternative. If you consciously listen to these messages by actively feeling them in your body then something miraculous can happen. You come to realize that they rise and fall like your breath. And before long they’ll begin to melt away of their own accord, leaving behind a calmer, happier, and more insightful mind.
Meditate Under The Stars
You’ll probably spend thirty-six minutes worrying today (most people do). Perspective dissolves worry. Instead of worrying, why not go outside and breathe instead? Even better, gaze at the stars.
Take off your shoes and socks. Feel the ground beneath your feet. Look upwards. Breathe… See the stars streaming off into infinity in every direction. Not just unimaginably big but true, never-ending, ever-expanding, infinity.
Focus on your breath as it flows in and out. Feel the soles of your feet touching the ground, the cool night air washing over you. Feel the stillness, infinity itself . . . Look at the stars. Those twinkles may have taken billions of years to reach you.
Breathe . . .
Love, love the arriving of the light . . .
Breathe . . .
For centuries, people have practiced the art of breathing before contemplating such ideas. The state of mind it engenders has countless other benefits too. It enhances creativity and clarity of thought while promoting a sense of peace and well-being. It encourages a sense of wonder, of awe, of curiosity — the very foundations of a happier and more meaningful life.
It soothes the inner critic and allows your true self to bubble through to the surface. It gives you the courage to accept yourself with all your faults and failings. To treat yourself with the kindness, empathy, and compassion that you truly need . . . so you can look outwards and embrace the world.
And when you do this… you’ll discover the secret to living mindfully.
Danny Penman, Ph.D., is a meditation teacher and award-winning writer and journalist. After gaining a Ph.D. in biochemistry, he worked for The Independent and the BBC. He is the co-author with Mark Williams of the million-selling Mindfulness. He lives in England and can be reached at www.franticworld.com.