Four Ways to Use the Breath in Mindfulness Meditation
It is perhaps one of the most common ways that people do mindfulness meditation, by following the breath. Frequently though, there isn't all that much direction aside from just "pay attention to your breath". Although useful, it doesn't really address which part of the breath to follow. The monk shared a profound story about another monk whom had spent about one year practicing each type of breath awareness. I was moved by such commitment, and also curious to experiment with it myself. I've found that it's helped me sharper my focus and "mindfulness muscle" considerably. Try it out!
Here are the different ways to use the breath in mindfulness meditation:
1.) Temperature: Pay attention to the temperature of your breath as you inhale and exhale. Notice the subtle difference between the heat of the exhale and the coolness of the inhale. You may find it helpful to bring your awareness to the back of your throat where the air hits before it travels down into the lungs. In the beginning it may be helpful to pay attention to the difference, however you can take it a step further and simply be aware of the inhale temperature and the exhale temperature as two separate activities.
2.) Length: See if you can pay attention to the length of each breath. Again, you may start by noticing the difference between the length of the inhale and exhale. Is one shorter or longer than the other? Are they the same length? Just as above, see if you can pay attention to the length of the breath separate from one another. In the beginning you can use the comparison as a tool, but you want to aim for non-judgmental awareness--even at this basic level.
3.) Depth: When you inhale and exhale how deep or shallow are your breaths? Pay attention to your chest and abdomen to get a sense of this. Again, it may be helpful to notice the difference between each breath in the beginning of your practice, but it is best to eliminate judgment from the experience and to simply notice the depth of your breath for the sake of its own being.
You may choose to notice without comparison for any of these from the very beginning. I would recommend focusing on one of these per week or longer (a year for each perhaps!)
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Be well, everyone!
The Relationship Between Prayer and Meditation
Over the last few months, I've found myself praying after meditating. It evolved on its own, organically, sort of just happening at the end of every meditation. When I say "praying" I mean offering myself up to the Universe, giving of myself, and sending out energy and sometimes requests, questions, and private thoughts to the Source and my all knowing Self. I have found that after meditation, my prayers feel more filled with integrity and hold a vitality that carries me through the day.
Today I had an incredibly profound moment at the end of my prayer wherein I heard in my mind an affirmation:
I am an instrument of light for the Universe, bringing hope where there is none, Love where there is fear, & light where there is darkness.I found myself reciting this over and over in my mind and eventually out loud. It carried such a loving and compassionate energy that I'm committed to beginning my day with this affirmation hence forth.
This experience caused me to really reflect on prayer and meditation and their interconnectedness. As I was thinking about this, I was also looking through my bookshelf for some guidance, when I came across The Energy of Prayer: How to Deepen Your Spiritual Practice by Thich Nhat Hanh. I bought this book some time ago, put it on my bookshelf and essentially forgot about it until today.
As I read through the pages, I felt that Thich Nhat Hanh was touching on a Spiritual Truth that I was resonating quite strongly with. Here are some excerpts that stood out to me:
...the one who prays and the one prayed to are two realities that cannot be separated from each other. This is basic in Buddhism, and I'm quite sure that in every religion there are those who have practiced for a long time and have this understanding. They can see that God is in our heart. God is us and we are God. The entire visualization gatha [hymn] goes like this:
The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are both, by nature empty.
Therefore the communication between us is inexpressibly perfect (pg. 42).
This of course, is not an entirely new concept to many of us, but hearing it from a Buddhist angle adds some new perspective for me. He goes on to talk about how two elements are necessary for effective prayer:
1.) The communication between ourselves and the one we are praying to. Because we and the one we are praying to are interconnected, our communication is not dependent on time and space. When we meditate on this, communication is realized straight away and we are linked. At this point, there is electricity in the wire (pg. 42).
2.) The second element we need for prayer is energy. We have connected to the telephone wire, now we need to send an electric current through it (pg.42).
And here's where I had one of those big "ah-ha" moments of clarity and awareness:
I can't really add more since Thich Nhat Hanh said it so beautifully. I can say that I do have an incredible sense of gratitude in being able to connect with the affirmation I mentioned above and to have stumbled upon this reading to deepen my practice and increase my understanding. The word gratitude comes to mind.
In prayer, the electric current is love, mindfulness and right concentration. Mindfulness is the real presence of our body and our mind. Our body and our mind are directed toward one point, the present moment. If this is lacking, we are not able to pray, no matter what our faith. If you are not present, who is praying? [emphasis mine].
To pray effectively, our body and mind must dwell peacefully in the present moment. When you have mindfulness, then you have concentration. This is the condition that will lead to prajna, the Sanskrit word for insight and transcendent wisdom. Without that, our prayer is just superstition (pg. 43-44).
Using Visualization to Reduce Anxiety |||amp; Increase Relaxation
- Find a quiet and comfortable space where you know you won't be disturbed for at least 15 minutes. Make yourself comfortable in this space in whatever way is easiest for you. You may choose to have calming music playing in the background if you wish
- Close your eyes and take about 10 relaxing breaths in through the nose, and out through the mouth
- Imagine in your mind's eye a blank, white movie screen
- After you picture or imagine this movie screen, begin to visualize a relaxing scene that may have some special meaning for you. This can be as simple or complex as you wish. Take your time. Some possible ideas include: a forest glen, the ocean, a deserted island, your own bathtub, floating on a cloud, a garden, a waterfall, etc.
- If you wish, use your senses to fully create this scene. What might it smell, sound, feel, and taste like?
- Once you have this clear in your mind, project yourself into the movie screen until it becomes clear and vivid--as if you were actually in the scene you have just created
- Enjoy and explore this sacred space you created. Decide on a word that best captures the experience. It can be a description of what you are feeling (e.g., peace, joy, relax, freedom, etc.) or of what you call this place. Use this label every time you visualize this scene
- When you are finished visualizing, imagine yourself back in the room you started in. Take a few more breaths and open your eyes when you are ready
- This is probably the most important step! Practice, practice, practice! Practice this visualization on a daily basis. Eventually your body will naturally respond to the word you chose earlier
- When you notice yourself becoming anxious, stressed, or when you need a quick "break", take three deep breaths, call up the word and image you have spent time creating, and allow the anxious feeling to fade into your image/word. After some time your body will respond rather quickly to the positive association you have with your chosen word and visualization
- Enhance the experience by using "Abdominal Breathing"
- This technique works great as a preventative. If you catch yourself having anxious thoughts, immediately bring to mind your word/visualization. If you do this every time, the chances of getting more anxious over time will reduce
- Don't rush the experience when you first start out. Treat this time as a sacred moment between yourself and your desire to increase your overall well-being
- It's ok if your mind wanders while you create your visualization, simply bring your attention back to your image
- If you have a hard time "picturing" the scene, involve more of your senses in the creation of your sacred space
- With practice, it will take less and less time for you to visualize the scene to create a noticeable change in your body and mind
How to do Abdominal Breathing
When we're stressed and/or anxious our breathing often changes without our realizing it! Often we breathe in a shallow way (chest breathing) that can cause anxiety and sometimes panic to emerge. Changing the breath can change how you feel. Follow this simple, easy to do, and effective breathing technique to gain control of your anxiety, panic, or stress. It will also help you to be more present within your own body.
2. Hand Placement: Place one hand on your chest and another on your stomach, roughly over your belly-button.
3. Conscious Breathing: Take a few relaxing breaths (3-5), just noticing the rising and falling of your two hands
4. Breathe In: After the 3-5 breaths, take a breath in through the nose and intentionally push out your stomach, away from your spine. Make sure that when you do this your top hand remains motionless and your bottom hand is moving forward.
- Once you do get accustomed to this way of breathing, you will no longer have to use your hands as guides.
- The more conscious you are of your breath, the more mindful you will become in general.
- Use this breathing technique before any relaxation/meditation technique you may like.
- Breathe at your own pace.
- As a way to increase mindfulness, see how many times throughout your day you are breathing in without taking a full breath. Every time you catch yourself breathing in that way, take two mindful abdominal breaths.
- Check with your doctor if you have any respiratory issues that you feel need to be addressed before taking on any breathing technique.
Dealing with Stress
Many months ago, I was in a very stressful job situation that was taking a toll on me emotionally, physically, and mentally. Although I loved the job I was doing, the demands of that job were more than one person could realistically attend to. Sound familiar? During that time, I found myself becoming increasingly more reactive, judgmental, and not surprisingly, stressed. I found myself meditating less and falling into old patterns of behavior (i.e., not taking time for myself in silence, becoming more disorganized, exercising less, eating worse, etc. etc. etc.)
I've been a regular meditater for years, but gradually reduced my practice as my stress level increased with this new job stress. As I became more stressed, I meditated less, and the stress began to impact me even more; a vicious cycle that brought disharmony into my life.
Eventually I got to a point in my mental state that I realized I needed to make some sort of change. That change came in signing up for an 8 week meditation workshop. I felt I needed the added discipline and structure to motivate me into a more regular practice again. My experience there added more vibrancy and balance to my life than I realized was possible at the time. Meeting together every week with the same people to cultivate presence was empowering and life affirming.
After only a few weeks I found that I was able to catch the critical voice inside my head much more quickly and with a degree of compassion that was lacking in the weeks prior. Slowly, I began to react to the stress around me less and instead begin to respond . By the time the eight weeks were over, I found that I felt an increased sense of control over my mind and energy.
It was toward the end of the workshop that I realized that I stopped resisting my present situation and began accepting it. This felt incredibly freeing amongst the then chaos at my job. Despite the work load and demands, my energy still shifted, and I began to feel more "in-flow" with life.
What makes this experience so much more powerful was that around that same time that I felt in "flow", a co-worker approached me telling me that she was resigning. I wished her luck and didn't really think much of it. A few days passed and I was sitting outside alone, enjoying the subtle gusts of wind and vibrant blues of the sky, when a flash of insight came to me: "You have to apply for her job!"
Something inside me felt very strongly about this and I decided to give it a go. Long story short, I got the job, which was a considerable promotion and a perfect fit for me.
I share this experience as reminder for myself (and to positively contribute to any readers along the way) of the importance of ongoing practice and at the power of attending to the needs of our body, mind and spirit. When we neglect aspects of each, I believe we fall out of flow with life and the external world begins to make small impressions on the internal parts of ourselves that maintain peace.
The more we are in flow, the more we are able to connect with our purpose. As a result, the universe will support us and it will be easier for us to notice the signs it is giving us to go deeper into our purpose and/or the greater purpose of the whole.
Nature as a Gateway
Anyone have other breathtaking images they'd like to share?
Mindfulness Practice Slows HIV Progression
I recently came across an article highlighting the findings of a UCLA study on HIV. It examined the effects of mindfulness on HIV progression as compared to not practicing mindfulness. The effects were quite striking in that those who practiced mindfulness/meditation had the same amount of CD4 T cells ("the brains of the immune system") as when they began the study. The control group showed reduced CD4 T cells at the end of the study, suggesting that mindfulness/stress reduction can play a role in the progression of the disease.
Obviously, correlation is not causation--as my statistics teacher would remind us--but it certainly suggests that something is going on when we reach inner stillness. Other studies have revealed similar findings; I'll try to post those soon.
Read the full article here.
It's so amazing to me to be in a place in our evolution that allows us to perceive the subtleties of existence. I think we're just at the beginning of discovery...
Using Guilt as an Opportunity to Increase Mindfulness
When we don't meditate as we've planned and do something else, we may end up feeling guilty. This of course doesn't only apply to a meditation practice, but to other aspects of our lives. “I should have completed the project today” and “What's wrong with me for not doing the laundry today?” are sure signs that guilt is finding it's way in your body.
Is there always something wrong with guilt? Not necessarily, but there are times when it's presence in the body only serves to bring us backward. Guilt carries with with it a deadening kind of energy and often times, it is not justifiable guilt—as in the examples above.
I was experiencing this today when I realized that in the moment of allowing the negative thoughts and the guilt to grow in my body that I was loosing presence.
I was becoming unconscious.
I observed the feeling of guilt taking away my attention to the present moment. It dawned on me that instead of allowing the guilt to take over and add soil to more non-productive thoughts, I could choose to be present. The moment I had this realization, I found the emotion almost immediately vanish and I felt more centered.
I believe this happened for at least four reasons:
I was not loosing unconscious to the emotion and the thoughts that were giving it life;
I took the position of the observer,
I chose not to be controlled by those emotions/thoughts anymore, and
I welcomed presence and unconditional acceptance for myself.
In order for any of these things to occur, I had to first become aware of the experience. In such a moment, I welcomed mindfulness and presence into my body; it became a spiritual practice.
My point is perhaps simple:
If we lapse in our practice--or other task we haven't completed for that matter--it is important for us to maintain compassion for ourselves. If we stray and find ourselves feeling guilty or complaining, we should take a moment to pay attention to that.
Paying attention to when those Ego-driven tendencies are making aims at sabotaging our efforts can be challenging, but very fruitful. We can use it as an opportunity to bring awareness into our bodies, to follow our breath, and to engage more fully in what we are doing in that moment. Otherwise we allow the enticing feelings of guilt to grow, which can serve as a vehicle toward negative judgment of the self. Not exactly a friend in a path toward fulfillment.
Has anyone had this kind of experience before? Anyone try the latter approach I mentioned? Please share your insights.
My Intention with this Blog
My purpose with this blog is to communicate with other people all over the world about spirituality, meditation, and mindfulness. When you think about it, aren't all those things all about life anyway? So really, this blog is about one approach to life. I think we can learn from each other, and this online world can be a great outlet for connection and sharing. I also hope that this blog will be an avenue for others to learn and connect in the same way I am seeking to connect and learn from others.
I decided to start writing in this public forum, my thoughts, impressions and insights into mindfulness, meditation and the general path of spirituality. I think that the more of us come together and bring awareness and presence into the world, the more we are contributing to the greater whole. I certainly think the world needs our help in cutting through our Ego-driven tendencies!
What is mindfulness to me? What is it to you?
Mindfulness to me means being aware of the moment in such a way that our actions, thoughts, and energy transmit compassion and acceptance into the Self and the world around us. It is being able to break free from our past and preoccupation with the future in such a way that we respond to our world from a place of pure awareness and ultimately, Love. At the deepest level, it is about connecting to something deeper...
There are a variety of definitions I have come across and would love to hear yours!