Awareness of Breathing: Stabilizing the Mind

Awareness of Breathing is a go-to mindfulness practice you can do almost anywhere and anytime. Find a stable position for the body (sitting is traditional, but standing or laying down work too), and gather your awareness into the breathing. Feel the actual felt sense of the breath in the body. The rising and falling; expansion and contraction; the many movements and shifts and feelings as the body inhales and exhales. Then when your mind wanders off, gently bring it back to the breathing. Simple. Powerful. Often not easy.

Every moment we spend attending to sensations in the body – such as breathing – are moments when we’re not anxiously planning the future or rehashing the past. These “present moment” breaks – even if they are very brief – are moments when the mind is being rewired towards presence. And in presence there is more resilience and more awareness. Over time this tends to lead to a more open, flexible, accepting, and even a creative stance.

It’s simple but not easy. Just being stable in the body, watching the breathing, noticing the wandering of the mind, bringing it back. Try this as close to daily as you can. Whether it’s for a minute or two before picking up the keys and dashing out the door or sitting down in quiet space without interruptions for twenty minutes.

Two options can support the practice of awareness of breathing: counting and using a meditation poem.

The counting practice is done this way: feel the next inhalation go by and with the exhalation that follows silently label it as “one…” – just a quiet word to go with the felt experience of that exhalation. Then the next exhalation is “two…” and so on. If you get to ten go back to one. In the more likely case that you lose track of the count and are thinking about something else, just go back to “one.” No need to be competitive here. It’s not a contest to get to “ten.” It might better be called “returning to one” as that’s what you may be doing most of the time. Counting gives your cognitive mind a job to do in this process of attending to the breathing.

The option of the meditation poem uses words instead of numbers. Try this poem from the Vietamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh:

I have arrived  /   I am home  /  In the here  /  And the now.

Just say each of those four lines one at a time with the breath. Perhaps breathing in as you think. “I have arrived.” Breathing out with “I am home.” In again with “In the here.” And out with “And the now.” After a while you might simplify it down to “arrived….home….here….now….” Be relaxed about the breathing tie in or any idea of doing it right. Let the sounds of the words fill your lungs in some way. See how it feels

With all mindfulness and compassion training practices we invite you to experiment and make them your own. Awareness of breathing is a powerful tool for making space to feel and embrace our emotional lives. It’s often calming and gives us the space to find our way again. But not always. You may sometimes find it irritating or agitating. We encourage you in those cases to keep trying and see what happens next. There may be changes happening in the ways that aren’t obvious to your conscious awareness just yet!