If you wanted to divide up all the spiritual exercises, all the contemplations, all the ways of approaching of mindfulness that have ever been, you could find one convenient dividing line around what they do with the breath.
Many practices begin by asking us to take charge of the breath. Generally speaking, these practices encourage us to slow down our breathing. There are lots of reasons that this is a good idea.
As discussed above, it may not be the most accurate picture of the way things work though.
The other category of practices asks us to simply observe the breath.
The act of simply tuning into the breath can be so much more difficult than it sounds. It is easy to overthink the direction, “Tune into your breath without changing it.” Generally speaking, holding this instruction to tightly will lead to struggles. In trying to be too literal we tend to unleash a series of questions and doubts.
As with so many things, entering these exercises in a light-hearted manner is wise. If we accept that we will not be perfect at it, we will be able to observe our breath much more effectively.
Exercise 17: Observing the breath
- Create a safe, quiet space.
- Sit in a comfortable, upright manner if you are able.
- Tune in to your breath. Do your best to accept it without changing it.
- Note whether you are using the mouth, nose, or both.
- Become aware of specifically where you feel the breath entering the nose or mouth. How does it feel there? What is the temperature?
- Note the temperature as it comes in.
- Extend this awareness of the feeling and temperature as the breath leaves you.
- Where does the breath end in your body? Does your abdomen move? Your chest?
- When you are ready, increasingly bring yourself into this particular breath. The one you feel right now. This breath, now is the only breath you can ever change. It is wholly unique among all the breaths you will ever feel. Greet each breath. Find its uniqueness.
- Welcome the special breaths that follow in the same way. Sit in this awareness for most of the time you have devoted to your practice today.
- When you are ready, return to your everyday life. But know that you can welcome each breath throughout your day.