"As long as you're breathing, there's far more right than wrong with you no matter how ill or hopeless you feel." Jon Kabat-Zinn
If the only thing you do today is breathe, it's all good.
From the moment we're born, we breathe. It's instinctive. We don't learn how to breathe, it just happens. The trouble is, as we get older, we forget how to breathe. In fact, we aren't even consciously aware of our breathing.
So we don't focus our attention on our breathing.
As we get older and busy with our work and lives, our bodies become tense and constricted particularly in the upper chest, neck, shoulders and head region. Our muscles contract and tense up when we're anxious, stressed and rushing around. We get more frequent head aches, back pain and tiredness. And sometimes we turn to escapism and maladaptive coping strategies to deal with this like over-working, over eating or binge watching TV.
We know from research that a good portion of our day is spent in fight or flight mode. Dr. Robert Sapolsky, Professor of biology, neurology, and neurosurgery at Stanford University talks at length about why "we're not getting our ulcers being chased by Saber-tooth tigers, we're inventing our social stressors" and why "we've evolved to be smart enough to make ourselves sick". In other words, it's rarely the stressor that's the issue (e.g. the difficult job or relationship) it's our physiological response to it that matters.
And so, a consequence of modern-day stress is that we don't breathe fully or fill our lungs to capacity.
It's as if we're holding our breath in anticipation of the next problem coming our way.
We can go on like this for a very long time, not noticing the signs. In fact, over time our heads become so disconnected from the our bodies that we view our body as a mode of transportation and nothing more.
It's almost impossible to be aware of this unless we shine a spotlight on our breathing, as we do in meditation. I've observed this 'struggle to breathe' in a number of my students in the early stages of meditation practice. I remember experiencing it too when I first started meditating years ago.
When we intentionally pay attention to our breathing in meditation, all of sudden we become aware of this sense of 'not breathing'. There may be a feeling of tightness in our chest, muscles feel tense, we can't help noticing how little air seems to be going into our body when we breathe. Unless we take a really big breath, our normal breathing appears shallow. It might even trigger some anxiety.
The good news is the more we practice awareness of our breathing, bringing curiosity and openness, the more our breathing deepens and expands and the more we can access all the many benefits that mindfulness has to offer.
I can imagine it might seem a stretch to say there's more right than wrong with us as long as we're (aware of) breathing. After all, we've managed to get along so far without paying much attention to it. Or maybe we haven't?
The trouble is, we live so much of our lives in auto-pilot mode, which means we're constantly in a 'doing mode' always focused on the next thing. Not always a bad thing, but it does mean we aren't in the here and now.
Here's a few reasons why taking a moment to acknowledge and focus on your breath is never going to be a waste of time and if it were to become a consistent part of your day, can create big shifts in your work and life;
1. You'll see more clearly, with greater perspective
The moment we become aware of the sensation of our in breath and out breath, we are less likely to be focused on thoughts, rumination and worries. The more likely we will install a sense of calm and or bounce back more quickly from difficult conversations, deadlines, feelings of overwhelm. The more likely we will feel a sense of time stretching and expanding. The more likely we will see more clearly and respond to whatever life throws at us more skillfully.
2. You'll realize you don't have to 'fix' anything, just be with what is
When we re-direct our attention to our breathing as we do in mindfulness and meditation practice, we are training ourselves to get out of our own way. To be with whatever is arising each moment without judging. We strengthen our equanimity (the art of non interference). We deepen our attentional skills and our patience.
3. You may discover a powerful ally and teacher
The breath plays a critical role in our healing. Breathing in has an energizing impact on us and breathing out has a relaxing impact. The breath is always there to support our ongoing awareness, it's always available and accessible. In the heat of the moment it might feel impossible to pay attention to it, but the more we practice, the easier it becomes to ride the waves in our life.
Here's my invitation for you: focus your attention on your breathing for 1 minute every day this week. Keep your attention on the breath for the full duration of the in-breath and out-breath and when you notice your attention has wandered off and is no longer on your breathing, simply bring it back.
Are you up for being a little more awake and a little more aware? Don't forget to share your thoughts in the comments box below, I learn as much from you as you do from me.