By Thomas McConkie, adapted from an episode of the Mindfulness+ podcast
Why do we hear so much about the breath when we talk about mindfulness?
There's a good reason for it. The breath is with us all the time. In this moment wherever you are and whatever you're doing, you're doing it in a body, and that body is breathing. Because of this, virtually all meditative traditions make use of the breath. It's a ready-made object of meditation.
Focusing on the breath is also an intuitive way for us to contact our awareness. The breath moves slowly enough that most people are able to track it immediately, without years of practice. When we pay attention to the breath, we open up different opportunities in awareness. It can be a really powerful tool in developing mindfulness.
In addition, breathing makes it easier for us to develop basic meditative skills.
My experience is that virtually every teacher talks about these skills in one way or another, and you see them in the ancient texts as well. But I've never come across a clearer framing of it than a framing from Shinzen Young — an American born teacher who has really influenced my practice. I feel a lot of gratitude for him.
Young talks about mindfulness as a skill set. He says any time we practice mindfulness we're practicing concentration, clarity, and equanimity.
Concentration is just what it sounds like. Most people intuitively understand that concentration means focusing on one thing while letting other things be in the background, out of focus. There are more details to cover, but for the time being we can leave it at that.
Clarity helps us notice what’s happening moment to moment. This is really important because when we're able to get clear on what's happening moment to moment, we become free from it. Rather than being totally buried and lost in an experience, we take a step back and witness it. We're able to see it clearly from a slight distance, and this allows us to come back in to experience with a certain level of spaciousness and freedom. Clarity improves our objective behavior in life.
Equanimity is about acceptance. It’s our ability to just accept what's happening moment to moment — to not interfere with the flow of experience. Often, the moment I introduce this concept, hands shoot up in the room and people say: "Woah, what if it's appropriate to interfere? What if something's going on that I don't want to see happen? What if there's injustice, violence, and my job is to act?" Those are great questions. The point here is that when we're deeply accepting, when we cultivate this quality of equanimity and awareness, it doesn't mean we're not still passionately engaged in the world. What it means is that we're not in denial of what's happening. We're open, present, and receptive. We allowing the fullness of experience moment to moment to inform us. Fully informed, we're able to act more appropriately and skillfully in life.
Now, let’s take a moment to practice these skills, using the breath as the foundation of our practice.
Wherever you are, I encourage you to find a little perch or somewhere where you can settle in. Allow yourself to come in to a posture where you can relax and also be alert.
For a moment you can just allow your awareness to fill the entire physical body. Like water soaking into a sponge, you can allow your awareness to totally soak through the physical body.
You can bring awareness to the torso: notice the expansion and contraction of the torso as you breath in and breathe out.
I'd invite you at this point to breathe in a little more fully than you usually do on the in-breath, filling your lungs with oxygen and feeling the stretch through the torso as you breathe in more fully. And likewise on the out-breath you can breathe out a little more fully than you normally would. Pushing the air out and feeling the collapse. The emptying of the lungs and torso. Feeling this contraction. Letting that go, you can come back to normal breathing.
Just letting the breath move through you naturally, not trying to control it in any way. Notice at this point the top of the in-breath. Breathing in as if you were a photographer on an expedition trying to take a photograph of a rare species. I want you to pay special attention to the top of the in-breath. See if you can notice the point at which the in-breath becomes the out-breath. The exotic creature rears its head, the out-breath.
You can do the same at the bottom of the out-breath: see if you can notice the very moment at which the in-breath appears. As if you were trying to capture a photograph of that very moment that the in-breath appears.
Notice that however closely you look, you'll never find an actual line or moment when the in-breath becomes the out-breath. In-breath and out-breath are just words and ideas. When we plunge into the actual territory, we experience that the in-breath and the out-breath are seamlessly intertwined.
So you can let go of in-breath and out-breath and let go in to simply breathing. Neither in-breath or out-breath; just the organic whole. The unbroken flow of breathing.
As you stay with breathing, you can allow the out-breath particularly to soften you even more. With each out-breath you feel the body let go even more, riding the breath like a wave into deeper and deeper relaxation.
As you soften in the body you'll notice a natural quality of acceptance arise, an ability to just allow the body to be as it is. Allow this entire moment to be as it is. The body might not be perfectly comfortable, and that's perfectly okay. There's a part of you that can just allow it to be exactly as it is.
Thoughts continue to flow through the mind, and there's no need to do anything about them. You can allow thought to flow through the mind as naturally as blood flows through the veins. Whatever's happening in the body and mind and the world around you, you can allow it. You can hold it with this quality of acceptance, with equanimity.
You can stay in contact with these flavors of awareness, having a natural settledness of focus and concentration in life. You can allow things to be as they are and deeply enjoy the flow of life that we're always immersed in as long as we're breathing.
Transcribed by Seth McConkie, edited by Jon Ogden
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