Once you know how to breathe mindfully, you can use the practice to help you through challenging times. It’s not about denying feelings or changing them; it’s accepting them exactly as they are, while opening awareness to the calming quality of our breath.
Like many people, I had heard about mindfulness. I knew that it meant paying attention, opening our awareness to what is happening in the present moment, and accepting it without judging or trying to control it.
I knew also that practising mindfulness has been shown to have many benefits—more peace, energy, self-confidence, less stress, relief from depression and anxiety, fewer aches and pains—and I wanted to experience some of those for myself. However, much as I tried, I struggled with the practice. I found it dreary, dull and boring—all that ‘notice-what-you’re-doing-while-you-clean-your-teeth’—I just couldn’t get to grips with it at all. I know that the experts say that when done correctly mindfulness is never boring, but it was for me. I kept trying, but I just couldn’t sustain it.
Getting Hooked on Mindfulness
Then, when I was on the point of giving up altogether, I met a monk—an experience that I have described in my book, I Met A Monk—and he quietly suggested that it is helpful to link mindfulness practice to breathing. This really helped. In fact it helped so much that I decided to do some research on mindfulness. What I discovered nearly took my breath away, if I can say that. It has certainly changed my life.
I found that, in its original form, mindfulness was in fact actually based on our breathing; the breath was an intrinsic part of it. Mindfulness and breathing go together, and when you practise mindfulness with the breath, what might have been a dull, boring and mechanical practice suddenly comes alive. It is like putting gas in your tank or the wind beneath your sails: mindfulness becomes a really enjoyable experience that just seems to flow.
Practicing mindfulness using your breath as the starting point and the focus, not only opens your awareness to the present moment, which is what mindfulness is all about, but it can also naturally put you in touch with more peace, joy, strength—and, dare I say it, wisdom—which you may never have known you had. If you wish—and once you get started, you probably will—it can naturally lead into a meditation practice, with all the many health and wellbeing benefits that this is proven to bring. It is truly life changing. Once you know how to breathe mindfully, you can do it anywhere, any time, any place; it’s like flicking on an instant ‘inner peace’ switch. And it certainly is not boring!
Discovering Mindful Breathing
So what is mindful breathing? Being mindful of your breath simply means observing and opening your awareness to your breath: to your breathing in and your breathing out, without controlling or judging it in any way: letting it be. That’s it—it’s that easy!
Once you’ve become practiced at breathing mindfully, you will find that it becomes natural for you and is available any time. Simply combining your breathing with whatever you are doing will help you transition into a mindful state of being. The practice will become a part of you and your daily life.
However, when you’re learning mindfulness breathing it’s best to do it sitting comfortably in a quiet place with your eyes closed. This is so that you can focus on your breathing without any distractions. It won’t take long to get the feel for it—we’re literally talking 1–2 minutes of practice 2–3 times a day—and soon mindfulness breathing becomes second nature like swimming or riding a bicycle.
Then you will find that you can take a mindful breath any place, any time, without closing your eyes. It’s as if you just ‘click into’ mindfulness mode and then you can expand your mindfulness to anything that you wish. It’s a wonderful process.
A Mindful Breathing Practice for Tough Emotions
When you’re going through a sad or worrying time, it’s natural to think of the hours, days, and even years stretching ahead, and wonder, ‘How can I ever go on like this?’ I caught myself thinking that the other day, and then I suddenly remembered: when we’re ‘in the now’, there is only this moment, this breath; all we have to do is to be mindful of this one breath. Feel the peace and comfort of that—and then take another breath. Peace—and even joy—is only a breath away.
Let us now close with the Buddha’s breathing exercise in which we use the breath to calm and heal us. We are not denying our feelings, we are not trying to change them; we are accepting them exactly as they are, while we open our awareness to the calming quality of our breath, like putting our arms around a loved one in distress.
So close your eyes, take a mindfulness breath, feeling the air going in through your nostrils, into your body, and out of your nose.
Breathe in, say, ‘Breathing in, I calm the feelings I am experiencing now.’ Breathe out, say, ‘Breathing out, I calm the feelings I am experiencing now.’
Allow yourself to feel the feelings; let them be there. Open your awareness to the breath going in, and the breath going out; only focus on this: breath in, breath out…
Let the breath take its course, don’t control it in any way; just notice it.
Let your in-breath and your out-breath fill your mind… that is being mindful of your breath… Keep noticing your in-breath, your out-breath…feel the breath soothing you… comforting you… nurturing you. Feel the peace this brings.
Now surrender the issue that is concerning you to this inner peace, to your mindfulness: let the problem go.
Keep breathing, noticing your in-breath and your out-breath…
When the worry or the feeling comes back into your mind and troubles you, repeat the process, noticing and feeling your in-breath and your out- breath… letting your breath fill your mind.
Keep gently repeating this process whenever the worry or the feeling comes back, until eventually it fades away. That’s the healing power of mindfulness.
When you have a problem, be mindful, then surrender the issue to your mindfulness self; you will find that things will work out. You may unexpectedly meet someone, see something, get an inspiration; a new direction may come to you out of the blue. Trust your process, trust the healing power of mindfulness.
Adapted from Every Breath You Take © Rose Elliot 2016, published by Watkins, London, Paperback £7.99