One of the simplest and most common forms of meditation is to pay attention to the breath. To practice this meditation, you sit still, with your eyes closed, and notice the breathing process without trying to change it. You can start doing this, or perhaps continue doing this, right now.
Breathing is a very special process because while it is usually orchestrated by the unconscious mind, it can also be controlled consciously. Luckily, when you forget about your breathing, your body breathes for you. Your autonomic nervous system takes care of operating your diaphragm so that your blood stays sufficiently oxygenated and you don’t keel over and return to the earth from whence you originally sprang.
At any time, we are able to intervene with our conscious mind and intentionally control our diaphragm and therefore our breathing. We can move our breath in any number of different patterns, enabling us to both speak and sing. To achieve physical endurance, we can consciously pace our oxygen supply by breathing more slowly and deeply than we would automatically.
The ability to decouple our breathing pattern from our gait is one way that we evolved to persistently hunt and exhaust animals. Most animals are adapted for short sprints, in which their lungs are pumped by their hind legs, interspersed with periods of rest and recovery. If you can track a deer for long enough, and continually run after it, eventually it will just lie down from exhaustion and let you kill it.
There are forms of meditation in which the breath is controlled consciously. In some forms, the breath is cycled rapidly, while in others the breath is smoothly and slowly drawn in and out like a long note played on a violin. In Holotropic Breathwork, for example, you pant aggressively, breathing as quickly and deeply as possible. This eventually leads to different states of consciousness, including profound emotional releases and sometimes memories of past lives.
As you begin to pay closer attention to your breathing, you will notice that the pattern of your breath is related to your emotional state; emotions modulate breath and breath modulates emotions. By paying attention to your breath, you can become more aware of your emotional state. For example, when we feel anxious, we take short, shallow breaths and never breathe out fully. You can also control your emotional state by changing your breathing pattern. If, when feeling anxious, you take long, slow breaths, you will notice that the anxiety will leave you, your mind will become still, and your body will relax.
When we’re not paying attention to it, our breath does many different things; sometimes it’s shallow and sometimes deep; sometime it’s jumpy and at other times it’s wobbly. The breath catches on different parts of the in-breath and the out-breath. When we breathe in and out there is obviously a movement of air in the lungs, but there is also a subtle movement of energy in the body. As you pay closer attention to the subtle sensations inside the body, you will begin to notice this movement. Whether this energy is objectively measurable using instruments (that extend awareness) is irrelevant to its phenomenology and to its utilization for health and wellbeing.
When something scary or overwhelming happens, we have a tendency to hold our breath, even if momentarily. We do this as a way of bracing against the experience. You may have noticed that when you hold your breath, you are not be able to feel any emotions. Children quickly learn that they can hold their breath to not feel emotions. Most of use grew up with adults who also held their breath to avoid feeling strong emotions, so those adults could not validate our emotions and teach us to keep breathing. Most people, even as adults, when they start to feel really strong emotions, and start to sob, tend to hold their breath, putting the feelings on hold.
When we hold our breath in one particular position, the energy that was trying to move though us gets stuck there. This leads to our breath cycle being affected by that little piece of blocked energy. When we practice breath control practices, called pranayama in Sanskrit, we breath slowly and deeply, repeatedly moving our energy and our awareness through the blockages. This process clears out the energetic blockages, and progressively frees us from suffering. Another approach, which I already mentioned, is to blast the blockages out with Holotropic Breathwork.
A completely different approach to increasing mental health and wellbeing is to simply watch the breath without trying to modulate it. This is my preferred approach to meditation. In this approach, we bring into conscious awareness all the things that we have buried when we didn’t want to pay attention to them, such as when we held our breath. Gradually, the old energetic blockages get witnessed and released.
I have heard stories of breath-watching meditation being taught in prisons, to people who had been convicted of murder. Simply by watching the breath, emotions and long-forgotten content, memories that had unconsciously driven their violent behavior, naturally came to the surface of their awareness and were released. These grown men, tough men, scary men, began to cry, to sob, and to find both freedom from their inner prisons, and also deep remorse and grief for what they had done. When we live in freedom internally, we no longer need to manifest matching external prisons.
While watching your breath, you may notice any aspect of it, such as the way your chest or belly moves. Over time, as your attention becomes increasingly focused and refined, you will naturally become deeply engrossed in the sensations of the breath passing through your nostrils. This process will inevitably lead, at the right time, to an experience of both the fundamental nature of reality and to a continual awareness of everything in reality at the same time. This experience of knowing everything and accepting everything—though initially overwhelming (because the limited ego hates it)—will ultimately be known as one of perfect contentment.
When getting started with breath-watching meditation, some people find that their mind wanders a lot, and they complain, “I’m no good at this! Look how my mind keeps wandering!” What they don’t realize, and what most meditation teachers don’t tell them (I wonder if they know), is that the very fact that they noticed that their mind was wandering means that they were actually meditating. Our minds are wandering all the time. Our minds are like wild animals. Our minds spend most of the time fighting with, and trying to escape from, reality. We are imprisoned in reality, and continually trying to escape. Paradoxically, perfect freedom comes when we simply stop trying to escape.
Now, when you’re sitting to meditate, you can realize that every time your mind is wandering, in that very moment you notice, you are meditating. Then, instead of beating yourself up and thinking “Ah shit, my mind just wandered again,” you can think, “Oh, wow! Look, I just woke up for a moment! I’m so grateful that I was able to notice that my mind wandered. Now I can bring it back to my breath! Now I get to choose how I direct my attention!”
This feeling of gratitude, when applied to meditation, is a powerful key to unlock the door of your inner prison. As you generate deep gratitude every time you notice that your mind wandered from your breath, you will find that your mind will wander progressively less. You will be able to bring your attention back to your breath increasingly frequently. This is because we get more of what we appreciate. You will then notice that when you’re not meditating—during the other 23 hours and 30 minutes in the day—you are able to direct your attention progressively more towards reality, rather than letting is wander around aimlessly causing trouble.
You will become more effective and content. Your productivity will increase. Your happiness will increase. Your health will improve. You will sleep better. You will live longer. Your relationships will get richer. You will enjoy life more, and for all of this you will feel and express deep gratitude.
Here is a ten-minute video I made that demonstrates how to do breath-watching meditation.