By Heidi Bourne
Have you ever had trouble breathing? I don’t mean just being out of breath from exercising, or getting the wind knocked out of you, or laughing so hard you’re crying.
I mean unable to get enough air in, and out, of your lungs for a single breath. I mean each inhale hits a brick wall and ricochets back out with a violent coughing spell. I mean speaking more than ten words in a row is a feat of endurance.
The flu, this voracious gremlin in my lungs, has put new meaning into the phrase “mindfulness of the breath“.
Mindfulness meditation involves paying attention to the breath: its rhythm, regularity and dependability; its changing nature and the sensations of the inhale and the exhale; settling the mind on what it actually feels like to breathe.
In his masterful new book Mindfulness, the renowned Buddhist teacher Joseph Goldstein writes,
“Let the breath draw the mind down to its own level of subtlety. It’s like listening to someone playing a flute as they walk off into the distance.”
This is mindfulness of the breath—a beautiful practice that can be especially difficult or even inaccessible when one’s breathing is compromised. Yet the idea of listening to a sound as it fades into the distance is a welcoming doorway into the practice. Not only does meditation steady the mind, calm the nervous system and develop concentration, it also gives us a front-row seat to everything else that happens in our minds: moment-by-moment, and play-by-play.
Sometimes we get a little more than we bargained for.
Whether or not you meditate, or have difficulty breathing—getting spun around by runaway thoughts or emotions can be as hard as trying to steady a boat during a storm. The more resistance and struggle, the more painful it becomes. We need ways of getting underneath the surface of the storm to widen our perspective and regain our balance.
Here’s a meditation you might like:
Find a quiet place where you can sit comfortably for about 10 minutes.
Settle in by closing your eyes; get a sense of your posture. If you’re sitting on a chair, feel your feet on the floor and the back of your body touching the chair. Pause long enough to notice the sensations of sitting.
Now become aware of whatever has you in its grip as if you were caught on a boat in a storm—be it physical pain, emotional upheaval, or a troubling event you can’t stop thinking about. Take a minute to get a sense of what this struggle feels like: however and wherever you feel it is just right. You cannot do this wrong.
Next, imagine diving off the side of the boat deep down below the surface of the water, below the surface of any thoughts, deep below the surface of the breath. There is no storm here and it’s very quiet. Looking up you can see the churning surface, but right here deep below the surface there is no resistance and no struggle.
Let yourself feel this freedom for as long as you like. Open your eyes when you’re ready.
Heidi Bourne is a Mindfulness meditation teacher, practitioner and writer, and has been leading groups in Arcata, California since 2005. She holds certification in Mindfulness Facilitation through UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center and regularly practices, studies and trains with her mentors at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, CA. In addition to teaching weekly classes, Heidi writes the blog On Purpose: Stories &Insights from Mindfulness, Dharma and Waking Up Each Day and can be reached at heidibourne.com.
Photo: (Tim Parkinson, Flickr Creative Commons)
Editor: Bronwyn Petry