Updated: Dec 8, 2022
Writer: Erin Lee
While the breath is commonly used as an object of attention in meditation, the way we pay attention to the breath in mindfulness meditation is in some ways different from what various other kinds of meditation teach.
Here’s a quick guide to what you need to know about mindful breathing, so that we can practice it more effectively and make sense of why we practice attending to the breath this way.
This is the first thing you need to know about mindful breathing.
Some meditation traditions and approaches teach us to breathe a certain way to relax and heal the body and mind. For example, we may engage in deep belly breathing, do number counting along with deliberate breaths, or alternate our breathing through isolated nostrils. These techniques have proven to be great for our healing and wellbeing.
But rather than control the breath, mindful breathing asks that we not regulate the breath at all, and instead allow it to be natural. We learn to rest our attention on the breath as it is in each moment, and let go of the need to change it in any way.
Such instructions may come as a surprise to us if we are already used to regulating our breath. In fact, when we first try the practice of mindful breathing, we may find it hard to not control the breath, and even feel like we don’t know how to breathe anymore!
We forget that the breath is an autopilot function of the body. Even without paying attention, the body knows how to breathe on its own to keep itself alive. Keeping this in mind can help us step back from trying to control our breathing and allow it to happen on its own.
But why is it important to let go of control in mindful breathing?
The breath is a particularly helpful tool for training our focus in the present moment. We carry the breath with us everywhere we go, so the breath reminds us that we are in the here and now, and nowhere else.
The breath acts as an anchor for our attention - whenever we notice the mind getting distracted or getting lost in the headspace, we bring our attention back to the breath. Each time we return our attention to the breath, we are strengthening our attentional capacity to focus and stay present.
If we were to constantly regulate the breath throughout a mindfulness practice, we will get tired easily and will not likely be able to practice for a longer period of time. And being able to sustain our attention in the present for longer durations is necessary for cultivating the attentional skills we need.
The breath is also more than just a tool for staying present and improving our focus. Observing the natural breath brings valuable insights into the nature of the mind and offers us the opportunity to cultivate helpful skills and attitudes.
Have you ever noticed that our breath changes in response to our state of mind? Our emotions have an impact on the way we breathe. When we are feeling anxious or in distress, our breath may become more rapid and shallow, and when we calm down, we are able to breathe more deeply and fully. Paying attention to the breath gives us important information about how we are feeling in each moment and offers us the opportunity to recalibrate ourselves as early as possible.
When we observe the breath without interfering with the way we breathe, we usually notice ourselves wanting to control the experience of breathing. We may wonder if we are breathing the right way, or feel anxious when the breath seems shallow or constricted. It takes some time to learn to let the breath be, and accept that we don't actually have to do anything to the breath.
The repetitive inhalation-exhalation cycle of the natural breath also reminds us that we have to release the breath before we can take it in again. This applies to every experience in our life. We have to let go of a moment that has passed, before we are able to embrace the next one.
By sustaining our attention on the breath, we may also notice tendencies of feeling bored, especially when the mind perceives that nothing interesting is happening in our experience. We may give in to the mind's desire for stimulation and wander off into fantasies and rumination, or become impatient and feel the impulse to give up and stop practicing altogether.
Sometimes we may feel really relaxed from resting our attention on the breath, and this causes us to feel attached to the pleasantness of our experience. We may feel a desire to remain in the pleasant state, thus neglecting other tasks or responsibilities we need to attend to (the extreme opposite of giving up!); we might also develop an expectation of feeling the same way every time we practice, and feel disappointed when we don't.
A good teacher of mindful breathing will guide us in taking note of these inclinations and reflecting on how these tendencies of the mind manifest in our day-to-day life. Are we constantly seeking some form of stimulation so that there's "something happening" in our awareness all the time? Do we feel the need to distract ourselves when the first signs of difficulty arise? Do we keep chasing after what feels good and find it hard to let go? What is the source of our stresses and suffering?
Mindful breathing is ultimately not a tool for relaxation, but a practice that invites deep wisdom into ourselves and our way of life.
Learn how to practice mindful breathing and integrate it with your daily routine.