Often we can find ourselves striving to “get meditation right”. Ironically this can get in the way of being able to truly engage. Bringing the qualities of love into our mindfulness meditation practice is one way we can generate ease and fully open to the aliveness of the present moment. This post is an invitation to fall in love with the breath. Bringing our attention to the breathing with curiosity and friendliness, we get to really honour where we are and what is happening for us right now. Through this generous and friendly mindful awareness, we can give ourselves a break and be a true friend to ourselves. Not only can this increase the ease and enjoyment of our meditation practice, there are also benefits for our health, and stress resilience. Scroll to the bottom for a guided mindfulness of breathing meditation.
Obstacles to our Meditation Practice
Sometimes when learning to meditate (and even after practicing meditation for years), we can get very serious about our technique. There is a tendency to exert a lot of effort in trying to “get it right”. Sometimes it’s hard not to get fed up, especially if the experience is one of frustration and intense effort. Knowing that this attitude of striving actively gets in the way of our practice often doesn’t help to quell the frustration. Plus, we are unlikely to continue with it if we’re not enjoying the experience.
I certainly don’t bounce out of bed and onto the meditation cushion every morning. More often than not I'm lost in a fog of to-do lists, small anxieties and grumpiness, rather than fully present and mindful, greeting the new day with a smile. What I’ve noticed is that there are certain factors that make me more likely to enjoy my meditation practice. And enjoying my practice is key, to keep me coming back to the cushion.
For this post I’d like to focus on just one factor.
Falling in Love with our Meditation Practice
It’s of the utmost importance to fall in love with our meditation practice.
When we are enthralled with each moment, engaged with whatever arises, with a sense of openness, curiosity and love, we truly enjoy our meditation practice. By keeping it very simple, and being willing to be fascinated by whatever comes up (including those feelings of itchiness, boredom and sleepiness), we can relax into our practice with joy and ease. We become alive to our experience; we become mindful.
So let’s take the example of the breath, and see if we can fall in love with it...
The Everyday Miracle of the Breath
Our breath is always there for us. It is a constant companion, a friend. It’s been with us since we were born, and will be until the moment we die. Our lungs are continuously working for us, even in our sleep, to make sure that oxygen can circulate throughout our body. It's truly amazing what the breath actually accomplishes, and yet we go through most of our time on this planet taking it for granted. Mindfulness of breathing allows us to connect with the everyday miracle that is the breath.
Sharon Salzberg suggests focusing on the breath in the same way we might focus on an old friend we see across a crowded room; “Hello, my breath”, “Hello, my beautiful friend”. This quality of friendliness can transform our meditation practice.
Our breath can also be a messenger expressing to us what is really going on in our bodies and ourselves. Does the breathing feel tight or free, shallow or deep? Is it ragged, uneven, or smooth? Each breath is a new breath.
How does this breath feel?
And this one?
We can gather ourselves and settle with the sensations of breathing whenever we need to check in, steady ourselves, or simply just enjoy the present moment. Bringing our attention to the breathing with curiosity and friendliness, we get to really honour where we are and what is happening for us right now. Through this generous and friendly mindful awareness, we can give ourselves a break and be a true friend to ourselves.
Mindfulness of breathing can also have a calming effect on the nervous system, helping us to recover from the fight-or-flight response that is often triggered when we are stressed or anxious. One of the ways that this effect has been noted is through investigations of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a highly evolved part of the parasympathetic nervous system that connects our brain with many of our organs and muscles, including our gut and diaphragm. Most people show a decrease in tone of the vagus nerve when stressed, meaning the nerve is less active and we are more susceptible to threat reactivity. When our vagus nerve has higher tone, this is associated with greater resilience to stress, more calm, and recovering more quickly when we do get stressed. Bringing mindfulness to the sensations of breathing often results in a natural slowing and deepening of the breath. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programme (MBSR), outlines in Full Catastrophe Living that when we engage in mindfulness of breathing, and allow the breathing (especially our out-breath) to slow down in its own time, vagal tone is naturally increased.
Here is a short guided mindfulness of breathing meditation.
Jen Ardis is a trainer and mindfulness teacher with an MA in Psychology, with training in delivering Mindfulness-Based Interventions from Bangor University. Jen teaches Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness for self-care as well as the Life Skills CBT programme for Aware in Cork, Ireland.
You can hear more from Jen at Blue Heron Mindfulness on Facebook.