Mindfulness: A Short Series: Some Thoughts About Breathing

Author: Bennett Nott

Breathing is elemental. Everything else in our life is subsequent to our taking in and expelling of oxygen.  From the moment we’re born to our last breath, life and consciousness are built on this process. Yet breathing is something we are normally barely conscious of until we can’t breathe.

When we are born, we breathe correctly, that is into our belly.  Drawing our breath all the way in down to the point our belly protrudes.  This is diaphragmatic breathing using the expanded lung field creating more efficient gas exchange in the lungs.  As we age our exposure to stressors and demands shortens the breath. 

It seems natural that awareness of breath can be a powerful anchor for our attention if we want to cultivate our ability to attend to our interior experience.  In concentration practice the breath, or breath counting for example, provides the one point to which you can reliably return each time your attention wanders to something else.  

The breath becomes the reliable marker for attending to your state of relaxation or activation as the in breath is a sympathetic nerve trunk response while the out breath is a parasympathetic response.  The sympathetic (activating) inbreath energizes the body, the parasympathetic (relaxing) outbreath allows a rest.  With practice it becomes easier to notice the state of relaxation in the body as well as in the mind.        

Another intuitive benefit from attending to the breath is that breathing is always in the present making it a respite from the frequently noisy thoughts we have about the past or the future, the “what if” and the “if only” thoughts and their accompanying feelings of anxiety and regret. 

Taking the time to build a solid concentration practice makes examining thoughts and feelings at a later time more tolerable and fruitful.