Western thinking really causes us to have problems with ourselves. We’re conditioned from birth to structure our entire beings into our measurements of time and space. We think we have to keep moving, moving, moving all the time because there’s something really unfaceable about just sitting and being. To cease all our movement, including our continuous jumping from thought to thought, seems impossible to some.
Breath is what will guide you in quieting your mind. Breath is everything. Have you ever started feeling angry or upset and then noticed your breath was more uneven, or shorter? Our breaths are a large indicator of what’s going on deep within our minds. And because we have the ability to control our breath, we have the ability to connect with what’s deeper, and with practice, we can change.
The first time I realized the significance of breath was one night when a friend let the demons get the best of her after smoking a bit too much. She got trapped in her own head, or so she felt. She was near tears. In sheer panic. Unable to speak. Her eyes sent strong feelings of hopeless despair shooting through me. It seemed as if she was possessed. After setting her in a place to sleep, I tried to go to bed in the room next door. But her continued moaning terrified me. My heart was beating so fast and so loudly in my ears that I could not sleep.
I called a friend over to help me because I wasn’t sure what to do and I myself was beginning to panic. No one could comfort her or calm her down. After over an hour of trying anything to help her, both my friend and I had somehow absorbed her panic and we were both freaking out. I had never had a panic attack before but my friend had, and she said this terrifying and unexplainable trepidation was similar to past panic attacks. I felt it too. We were both hyperventilating, both of our hearts were pounding, and we were shaking uncontrollably. The same terror had somehow seeped into us.
Nothing seemed to calm us, not even moving to a different part of the house where we couldn’t hear her moaning. This friend I was panicking with was normally someone I confided in during hard times, and here she was losing her peace of mind just as swiftly as I was. Having no other idea what to do, I laid next to her and told her to match my breathing as best as she could. I tried my best to take long deep inhales and exhales. At first both of us were having difficulty breathing with any steadiness because of how much we were shaking. But as we continued to breathe, it got steadier and gradually we began to calm down. Eventually we were both calm enough to finally fall asleep.
I was amazed. Both of us had been possessed by this seemingly contagious terror that we’d seen in my petrified friend’s eyes, something that I had no reasonable explanation for happening, and we had finally calmed ourselves just by consciously changing our breathing. Breath was what saved us that night. And I wish I could have known its power earlier in the evening to help the panicking friend (who ended up being okay the next morning).
Breath is our life force. Most of the time we’re just breathing to stay alive. We do it unconsciously everyday. Putting your awareness on the breath allows you to experience things as they come, in the moment. It allows you to be at attention to meet the very moment of life you’re in. Whether it’s in meditation, or whether we’re doing everyday activities, it’s possible for us to breathe consciously. Here is a video of a cute cartoon brain with some more scientific explanations of the benefits of conscious breathing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F4S_4jX0ERA
And in the case of facing relentless feelings of terror, or any other thoughts or emotions that arise, we can use breathing to bring us back to ourselves. After all, thoughts and emotions are impermanent. They will pass, just like clouds in the sky. Therefore they cannot be part of us. Observe the breath and you observe yourself.
With more conscious breathing we discover the subtleties of our bodies and minds. It’s like putting a magnifying glass over a specimen, and you are that specimen. Try to observe your breath for just one minute– one mindful moment. The more you practice, the more you notice.
Here are some other resources about the science of breath:
- The physiological benefits of breathing at an ideal heart rate variability: http://www.coherence.com/science_full_html_production.htm
- Ideal breath time: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0167876013003346
And here is a resource about a specific type of breathing meditation called Anapana Sati, highly emphasized by the Buddha in his original teachings: