A Self-Care Practice
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | March 1, 2018 (modified January 2, 2023)
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | March 1, 2018 (modified January 2, 2023)
The breathe brings life to the body, feeding the heart and brain. Mindful breathing brings attention to the life giving breath.
When breathing stops, life ends. The breath initiates the delivery of oxygen to the organs and muscles. The heart, the lungs and the brain work in an orchestrated effort to bring oxygen to essential life functions. Ancient wisdom and modern medicine understand the crucial live-giving function of breath. But breathing can be much more than an unconscious biological function. Breathing functions both under conscious and unconscious control, during sleep and during wakefulness. Conscious breathing is a portal into mindfulness, inviting peace to our bothered soul.
Mindful breathing is the foundation to practices of meditation, yoga, mindfulness and relaxation. Purposeful attention that focuses on breathing creates an anchor, holding the mind and body securely in the present, free from aggravating thoughts and disrupting anxieties.
Over the last several decades conscious breathing has expanded from mystic spiritual practices to proven medical wellness programs—therapy, heart coherence, emotional soothing and emotional-regulation. Many scientific studies confirm what eastern wisdom has known for millenniums—mindful breathing is good for the body, spirit, and mind (Ibrahim, 2022).
Our busied mind lunges into anxious and destructive thoughts, jumping from the anxieties of futures and guilt over unchangeable pasts. Hurried, overwhelmed and bewildered our lives need rescue. We need space to recover from the vicissitudes of living. Many joyously have discovered mindful breathing as a place to re-energize the soul, giving health to heart, mind and soul.
How to Mindfully Breath
Mindful breathing brings breath from the darkness of unconsciousness to the light of awareness. To create awareness intentional action must intervene and focus attention. Thought is gently guided to the inhaling and exhaling of breath.
If this is a new practice, some preparation assists the beginner as they enter the mindful world of sensations. Mindful breathing is a state of being—not doing. An environment free of distractions—phone beeps, screaming children, and annoying husbands. In time, with practice, mindfulness can intrude on distractions and provide a needed respite from lives demands; but for the beginner, successful mindfulness demands coaxing from an already calm environment.
Once situated, comfortably seated, let the breath come to you, focusing awareness on the sensations of normal breath. First seek out the most salient sensations (mouth, nose, lungs, abdomen). Notice the coolness of the incoming air, the expanding of the chest and abdomen. For many, these feelings create calmness and settling. A glowing warmth of momentary escape from thought graces our bodies and mind.
There is no perfect form to this simple practice of breathing. Non-judgmental, non-forced. We breath and attend to the sensation of breathing. We take note of changing sensations—tightness in muscles, sounds of released air, and tingling on skin.
The mind will wander, as we grow accustomed to the breathing. It is what our brain does. When behavior becomes repetitive and neutral, instead of novel and demanding, our thoughts wander. The movement of thought from the subtleties of breathing sensations to compelling anxieties is not because of our inability to concentrate. The drifting of the mind is a necessary element of mindful breathing. Once we observe the wandering, we kindly, without judgment, gently bring attention back to the breath.
The normal shifting from mindful attention to free-flowing thoughts and then redirection back to the anchor of breath becomes a model for mindfulness in living.
The practice of mindful breathing can be a short five-minute session and the slowly expanded as comfort dictates. We bring the practice to the edge of our abilities and no further.
Books on Mindfulness
Expanding the Practice
Mindful breathing stands alone with its own benefits, neither needing expanding or changing. While during practiced, neither goals or expectations should be projected on the breath. These wishes intrude, interrupt the process and create constant evaluations. In stead of enjoying a peaceful retreat from the normal anxiety of the working mind, we inject harsh judgments into the practice, criticize our efforts, and end up in another fitful spat with the essence of our being. We must learn to just 'be' in the moment.
We pepper our psyche with questions, “Why can’t I do this right?” “Why can’t I sleep?” “Why am I feeling this?” This is the judgmental thoughts of the examining mind we are working to diminish. Expansion must be gentle and not forced. Deeper explorations into the feeling of being are conducted with the same compassion as mindful breathing—nonjudgmental and kind.
The expansion of the practice allows the mind to explore other sensations beyond the movement of air through the body. Our mind can drift to an expansive universe of feeling—anxieties, sorrows, and excitements. The focus, however, is not on the external events creating the emotion, but the particulars of the emotion itself. How does the emotion feel? Where do I feel the sorrow? If the emotion was a color or shape how would I describe it?
Moving a focus on emotions, especially for those disconnected from feeling, can be excruciating. Too much exposure, too early can be destabilizing. When feelings overwhelm, we gently move away from the feeling and back to the sensations of breathing. We walk to the edge and return to security. The crushing emotions may be the thorn disrupting our lives; our constant avoidance of feeling is the impetus behind inflexibility, non-adapting mechanisms to life.
We don’t poke, push or rile the delicate being into unnecessary experience. We simply allow the mind to drift to these irritants and become acquainted with their presence, going to the edge and returning to safety.
Mindfulness in Life
These organized and purposeful mindful journeys prepare the explorer for a giant leap, moving from the comfort of a pristine controlled environment of designed meditation to the dynamics of the world. Just as practices of exercise, healthy eating, and learning expand beyond the gym, dinner table and class so does mindfulness. Our well-practiced mind dances through feelings during interactions. Instead of blindly responding with vigor, we notice how a word or event triggers a feeling.
We can gently explore the anger or hurt, rolling it around in our mind, examining the feeling for appropriateness before responding. Our practice has created space between emotion and action, bringing previous unconscious irritants to the surface, piercing through hard protective armors that were once appropriate but now weighty and bothersome, interfering with intimacy, and protecting against nothing.
Emotions may stay, we can’t wash away all the intrusive feelings programmed by the past. But when we can explore them with safety, we gain flexibility for more adaptive responses. We redirect action to positive self-fulfilling behaviors. Instead of blind imaginations of unfulfillable fantasies, we move towards goals; Instead of angry displacement, we notice the emotion and cause and artfully find pleasurable and beneficial escapes to soothe. Mindful living intervenes with the chaos and creates the flourishing life we desire to live.
Ibrahim, K., Komariah, M., & Herliani, Y. (2022). The Effect of Mindfulness Breathing Meditation on Psychological Well-being. Holistic Nursing Practice, 36(1), 46-51.