The Breath: Our Unsung Ally

Perhaps the most fundamental fact of our aliveness is that from the moment of our birth to the moment of our death, we are breathing. Yet strangely enough, we routinely take the breath for granted and forget about it. Our attention instead is gripped by our to-do lists, our racing thoughts of gain and loss, our interactions with the world. Many people I’ve worked with over the years, when describing a stressful situation, cannot recall at all how their breath felt during the event. The fact is, the breath is a vital ally in the practice of mindfulness. Because it is always available, and because its shifting nature reflects our moment to moment state of being, the breath is our portal to understanding, healing and well-being.

When the breath is relaxed and comfortable, flowing easily, there’s a good chance that we are feeling relaxed and comfortable as well. When the breath is uncomfortable, there’s usually a reason, and just by acknowledging when the breath doesn’t feel right we can learn a lot about ourselves. Shunryu Suzuki said that in meditation, sometimes the bad horse is best — meaning that those who struggle often learn more about themselves than those who don’t. So when the breath becomes a “bad horse” pay attention because there’s something to be learned from it. In my own life I’ve had a lot of trouble with my breathing — but my breath has been a bad horse that has taught me how to breathe in a better way and how to respond to the signals my breath is giving me.

The breath tells us much about our current state. When we tune in to the breath, we also tune in to our emotional state, to our state of mind, to how our body feels, and to what thoughts may be present. This means that the breath teaches us a lot about suffering and stress. When we tune in to the breath, we’re also in touch with the truth of change — the fact that nothing is static or fixed, that everything is in a state of motion. The breath comes in, rolls over, and goes out, over and over. It’s constantly moving, and so are we. And the breath teaches us about the impersonal or selfless nature of life: breathing is a process without a breather — it’s just happening whether we want it to or not.

So by focusing on our breathing we’re actually getting in touch with the truth of how things are. Right here, right now. And when we are aligned with the truth of how things are, we begin to gain insight into cause and effect within our experience. When we become intimate with our breathing, we discover both the places where we are suffering and our potential for freedom.

Here’s an example of how tuning into the breath might work in daily life. I’ve experienced countless such examples in my own life.

Let’s say you’re having a bad day. Ever since the morning you’ve had a sense of things being not quite right. Your mood is a bit sour, but you don’t know why. Yet, driven by all the things you need to accomplish, you essentially ignore this underlying sense of unease. Even when you have poor communications with people, make mistakes, and anger easily, you carry on as if nothing is wrong.

Then, at some point, you remember to stop and take a moment to pay attention to your breathing. You’ve gotten into the habit of doing that because recently you’ve started a daily meditation practice and so noticing your breath is something you do more than you used to.

As soon as you tune in to your breathing you notice that your chest is feeling tight, that your breathing is strained. As you acknowledge this strain in your breathing you simultaneously recognize it as a sign of anxiety. And now you realize that this strained breathing and chest tightness have been with you since the morning, when you rushed while getting dressed, then rushed to catch your bus for work.

You realize that you’ve been rushing all day, in fact, and haven’t been tending to your inner experience. As a result, you’ve lost touch with your body, your emotions, and your thoughts, and stress has gained a foothold in your being. Perhaps you also become aware of the insight that your habitual fear of being late — a fear you’ve had since childhood — has driven you to rush today and to get out of touch with yourself. You say to yourself, “Oh, yeah, that’s my old fear of being late rearing it’s ugly head. God, that fear is still with me.”

So, within moments of starting to notice your breath, you’ve gained valuable information about your current state of mind and its cause. Even better, as you’ve taken a few moments to focus on your breath, your breathing has started to become more relaxed. So you’ve gained insight and you’ve started to heal. And it all began by simply paying attention to the breath and then seeing where the resulting awareness took you.

So much can be known just by the simple act of tuning in to the breath and relaxing into the knowing which is always here.

Ultimately, aligning with the breath aligns us with awareness. The more we rest in this awareness, the more our unhealthy patterns begin to unravel and new ways of working with our challenges begin to emerge. And only when we are aware do we have a chance to learn and to heal. Awareness is a feedback loop in which we become cognizant of unskillful patterns of thinking and doing. When we recognize something unhealthy and hold it in awareness without grasping it or pushing it away, its power over us often weakens. Even if it doesn’t weaken, if we stay with it long enough it will dissolve or change its shape. Seeing the impermanence of the unhealthy habit is by itself a valuable lesson and makes us less caught.

Spending as much time in this awareness as we can is the task of mindfulness. And that task begins with the simple act of noticing the breath and making it your friend.