October 11, 2017
Episode 4: Why the Breath
Many people equate focusing on the breath with mindfulness practice itself. In this episode, Thomas explains the practical reasons why the breath has come to be regarded as a foundation in practice. But he takes it a step further and describes 3 fundamental skills that breathing–and indeed countless other techniques–can help us build. With his signature cherry on top, he guides a soothing meditation that will soften your body and sharpen your mind.
Hello and Welcome. I'm your host, Thomas McConkie, and want to thank you so much for joining today. The topic that we're working with today relative to the mindfulness practice is the breath. The all important breath. Why do we hear about the breath so much when we talk about mindfulness? I've noticed that many people think that mindfulness means paying attention to the breath. That those are one and the same thing. And there's actually a good reason for that: historically, virtually all of the traditions that practice meditation, that develop mindful awareness, they make use of the breath because it's this ready-made object of meditation. It's 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.
So we notice that the breath is here and it's actually easy to notice the breath is intuitive for us to contact with our awareness. It moves slowly enough that most people immediately without any practice are able to just start to track it and pay attention to it and depending on how we pay attention to the breath, over time, the breath can open up different opportunities in awareness. it can be a really powerful tool in developing mindful awareness. So we're actually going to work with the breath today.
We're going to do a guided meditation and give you a tool to work with the breath in a particular way but before we do that, what I want to point out is that again, the breath is just one of countless ways to practice mindfulness. And as I said a moment ago it's a really good one because it's always with us. Anytime we want to practice some mindfulness, we always have the breath right here to pay attention to. It also is relatively easier to pay attention to than something like the thinking mind or the thought process. Or if you're trying to track complex emotions in a heated conversation between you and a partner or you and a colleague. That's more complicated than just breathing.
So really breathing introduces a real simplicity to the practice and that can make it easier for us to develop some basic skills. But what are those basic skills? What are we trying to develop and practice when we pay attention to the breath? I want to introduce you to a framework that has benefitted me enormously over the years that I've been practicing mindfulness.
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 more clear framing of it, a more clear formulation than the teacher Shinzen Young who is an American born teacher and has really influenced my practice. I feel a lot of gratitude for him. He talks about mindfulness as a skillset. He says any time we practice mindfulness, anytime we're trying to be more aware, we're basically practicing concentration, clarity, and equanimity. So I'm just going to give you a really brief break down of these skills but really what I want to do is take you in to an experience of them.
When I say concentration, most people understand that intuitively it's focusing on something and letting other things just be in the background (we're not focusing on them). For the time being, we can leave it that simple. There are some details to fill in but basically concentrating means focusing in on what we consider to be relevant to our current experience and letting everything else be in the background. So we'll do that momentarily in this exercise.
The next skill that breathing can help us develop, that many things can help us develop is clarity or sensory clarity. Now clarity is subtle and we can spend several shows just on this alone but to give you a little feel for it, what I want to say about clarity is that this is a skill that helps us get really clear moment to moment on what exactly is happening, how do we discern, how do we distinguish, what's happening in our experience moment to moment. And that's really important because when we're able to get clear on what's happening, we become free from it. We disentangle from what's happening, we disembed from experience, and we take this position what is often called in mindfulness the "Witness Position". Rather than being totally buried and lost in an experience, we take a step back and we're able to witness it. We're able to see it clearly from a slight distance. And that freedom gives us a little room to breath, so to speak, and it allows us to fold back in to the fray, come back in to experience with a certain level of spaciousness and freedom that really helps improve our objective behavior in life. So like I said, there's a lot to say about that. Clarity is very important.
The last one is a term that we often use in mindfulness practice: "Equanimity". A plainer way of saying this is “acceptance”. In other words, this skill of equanimity is our ability to just accept moment to moment what's happening. To not interfere with the flow of experience. And 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?" That is a great point and we're not going to go to deeply in to it in the show today but what I'll say 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, receptive, we're allowing the fullness of experience moment to moment to inform us. Fully informed, we're able to act more appropriately and skillfully in life.
So when we come back we're going to do an exercise that helps us develop these three skills. Hopefully after the exercise you'll have a much more intuitive understanding of what these skills are rather than just a conceptual understanding. When we return we will come back to the breath.
Welcome back from break. This is Mindfulness+ and I'm your host, Thomas McConkie, and we're going to do a little breathing.
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. And for a moment you can just allow your awareness to fill the entire physical body. Like water soaking in to a sponge. You can allow your awareness to totally soak through the physical body. And you can bring awareness to the torso: notice the expansion and contraction of the torso as you breath in and breath 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 it's head, the out-breath.
And you can to 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. Getting very clear on the moment of transition from in-breath to out-breath and vise versa. And notice that however closely you look, you'll never find an actual line or moment when the in-breath becomes the out-breath. Really, in-breath and out-breath are just words and ideas. but when we plunge in to 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 in to deeper and deeper relaxation. And 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 ok.
There's a part of you that can just allow it to be exactly as it is. And thoughts continue to flow through the mind and there's no need to do anything about that, either. 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.
Start to open your eyes at this point if you've closed them, staying in contact with these flavors in awareness, a natural settledness of focus and concentration. Sensory clarity, a kind of vivid awareness of a composition of the moment, what’s going on in it's details and the softness, acceptance, flow, of equanimity, allowing things to be as they are and deeply enjoying the flow of life that we're always immersed in as long as we're breathing.
My name is Thomas McConkie, this is MIndfulness+. Thanks so much for joining, I hope to catch you next time.