There’s a certain internal coherence that breath awareness creates, which is likely due to the repeating pattern of the inhalation and the exhalation, the in-breath and the out-breath. The anticipating of something followed by its arrival that breathing encompasses is deeply satisfying and grounding. It can give life a sense of being predictable and reliable. For many, focusing on the breath in this way creates coherence in the physiological balance of the heart as well as the clarity of the mind that can continue long after the practice period itself. Letting this practice of focusing on the breath and returning the focus to it when the mind becomes distracted can be one of your greatest tools in developing your practice, and a gift that keeps on giving as you go about your days because, indeed, we are always breathing.
In each moment of our waking lives, there is a constant flow of energy and information filtering through our minds. We can find a way to build our well-being so that we can be open to any objects of attention—sensation, memory, imagination—so that we do not have to exclude these from awareness. Imagine having a mind that can simply have a “bring it on” stance, open from the inside out to whatever life brings our way! One way to strengthen how we monitor this flow is to stabilize the lens with which we experience it. A very useful focus for this practice, one found in many cultures around the world, is the breath. When we do a basic breath-awareness practice, we are strengthening the monitoring capacity of the mind so that we stabilize attention.
Some starting tips:
TRY TO STAY AWAKE. When you reflect inwardly, such as focusing on the breath as a sensation of the body, you are letting go of attention directed toward the outside world. The tendency in this situation can be to lose focus, become less alert, get sleepy, and even to fall asleep. While napping is perhaps one of the most underrated of human activities, staying awake for the practice may be something you want to do to gain its benefits. Staying alert is in fact part of learning to strengthen the mind’s focus of attention by noticing when you are getting groggy and then waking yourself up.
RELAXATION VERSUS REFLECTION. Reflection is not the same as relaxation— either in the doing, nor in the results. Reflection is more like becoming stable and clear, even in the face of a lot of chaos around you— or inside you. The state of mindful awareness is about monitoring with stability whatever is arising as it arises. That’s the receptive awareness that we are calling “presence.”
SENSING VERSUS OBSERVING. The key to starting this reflective breath-awareness practice is to let sensation of the breath be the focus of attention and let it fill awareness. That is quite different from being invited to observe the breath, or witness it, or narrate the experience of breathing: “I am now breathing.” This may perhaps sound like a subtle difference, but as you may come to see, distinguishing the difference between sensing and observing is a fundamental part of integrating your experience and empowering your mind.
BE KIND TO YOURSELF. These may be simple practices, but that does not make them easy ones. We are so accustomed to focusing outwardly that such reflective practice is often quite new for many people. To sit quietly for any length of time feels unbearable for some. We love to be distracted by external stimuli or to speak and fill the gaps of silence in our lives. And so it is quite important to be gentle with yourself and realize that much of your life may have been focused on the external world and filled with input from your surroundings.
Reprinted from Becoming Aware by arrangement with TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021, Mind Your Brain, Inc.