August 16, 2021

Mastering Stress through Mindfulness of Breath.


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Getting absorbed in a book is always accompanied by a slowing of breath or its momentary halting—and not without good reason.

As our attention focuses on anything that engages our mind, our everyday thinking mind slows and is brought to bear, at least momentarily, on whatever it is we are doing. As our thinking mind slows, breath slows, and this allows us to grasp the essentials of the task at hand; whether it be something we are putting together, a movie scene, or a few sentences tying previous paragraphs of a novel neatly together.

Basically, we are all familiar with meditation, but many of us have not realized it. The pleasure of being absorbed in something like a novel is a taste of meditation. If we develop the skill to stretch that momentary engagement, it is meditation. As the duration of absorption stretches out in time, so does its depth.

One can imagine an earlier period, before books and machines and gadgets caught our attention, when what we may now call a “mundane activity,” sparked a deep interest and curiosity in some. People used to be intrigued about their ordinary experiences; they created things like spears, fishing hooks, or simply gazed at their own reflection in a puddle of rainwater. The mundane wasn’t undermined.

With all our technological sophistication and learning, we are still missing something. As a global population, we are not even astute enough nor humble enough to acknowledge that our approach is wrong, and in fact, destructive. And that if happiness and well-being are taken as the benchmark for success, it is the yogis who got it right.

We get out of our own way by practices such as mindfulness of breathing, which is watching the breath.

The breath is a great teacher and will lead the mind who watches the breath and listens to the breath to realise that seeking outwardly always leads to dependencies, which burden and bind our nature which is, in essence, free. When we finally give it up, we become vulnerable, and everything comes to us. The best way to stop fighting with oneself is to surrender—and breath awareness helps us to do that.

It is not so important which technique one employs to accomplish the task of absorption into the breath, there are many. In B.K.S. Iyengar’s book, Light on Pranayama, for example, several dozen methods are meticulously explained. Many of these methods pivot on varying time ratios, regulating inhalations, retentions, and exhalations. The simplest is called “sama pranayama,” which means an even pranayama, wherein one’s inhalation and exhalation would be the same duration. For example, we might inhale 20 seconds and exhale 20 seconds. A variation of “sama” breathing would be adding a retention between each exhalation and inhalation of the same duration as the breaths. The many other techniques of pranayama so clearly indicated by Iyengar are variations of these ratios.

Most Buddhist approaches are simpler, and some of the best ones are found in “Mahamudra, the Quintessence of Mind and Meditation,” by Lobsang Lhalunpa. This wonderful book is required reading for all Tibetan monks of the Kagyupa lineage of His Holiness Karmapa, and though not specifically about using breath as a meditation topic, has within its pages probably the most authoritive information on the subject.

The difficulty will never be in the method of practice we choose but rather our dedication. It requires time and perseverance to succeed, and our willingness to give that time will determine the outcome more than the complexity of the method. In practice (and from the testimonies I have read), most masters have used either simple awareness of breath, or the most basic regulation of it, sama pranayama.

The value of so-called “advanced” techniques (whether it be breath mastery or other forms of meditation), is a lure to hook those who need to feel challenged. But the locus of enlightenment is not in some advanced practice.

Why do so many Zen monks make those beautiful rock gardens? If we hadn’t complicated our lives so much, we would not need any meditation techniques. But since complicating our lives is the cause of our falling, we certainly don’t want to complicate the task of awakening by thinking there are techniques of meditation that are more advanced than others, and then stressing ourselves out pursuing those.

The breath is always with us to be mindful of wherever and whatever we are doing. We can preempt much of our stress by dedicating time to breath awareness alone. It need not be a difficult resolve to make unless we make it one.


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