When I try to bring awareness to my breath, I feel instead like I’m interfering with its natural flow. What should I do?
This is not an unusual experience. Throughout our lives, we breathe without effort; then the moment we try to breathe consciously, our breathing suddenly feels blocked, shortened, or constricted. Our bodies know how to breathe without instruction, yet it can feel as if we are having to learn how to breathe all over again.
One reason for this is that you have suddenly become the breather. Your mindfulness of breathing has taken on something extra, a layer of self-consciousness, which brings with it tension and uncertainty. You may be trying too hard. Self-consciousness disguised as mindfulness often manifests as an effort to control the breath. Observe this. There is insight to be gained in seeing how we transfer life patterns of control, anxiety, or self-consciousness into our meditation practice. Learning to undo some of these patterns within our practice is a meaningful step in learning how to release their grip on the rest of our lives.
It is important to remember that there is no “right” breath. If you carry with you the idea that your breath should be deep and full when in reality it is shallow, you immediately get into trouble. At times the breath is deep, at times shallow, at times freely flowing, and at other times it can feel blocked. Your practice is to be with your breath as it is, learning to let go of how you think things “should be.” Mindfulness of breathing is a practice of learning to harmonize your attention with what is, in this moment. Short, long, deep, shallow are all fine breaths. Trust your body; it knows what is needed.
Some people come into meditation with a history of breathing difficulties such as asthma. The moment they consciously bring their attention to their breath, the emotional history associated with breathing comes to the forefront of their consciousness. They find themselves struggling with the breath in meditation practice just as they have in life. The fear of not having enough breath to sustain life serves to make each breath an increasingly arduous process. Your meditation should be founded in ease and relaxation. If you have historical associations with the breath that hinder its free flowing, it may be helpful to adopt for a time another object of attention, such as listening. Bear in mind that it is the development of attention that is of primary significance; the object of attention is secondary.
As we begin to practice mindfulness of breathing, we often see ourselves, initially, as the breather, apart and separate from the breath itself. The direction and development of the practice is eventually to bridge this separation until our attention is absorbed fully into the breath. The breath breathes itself, and we experience a place of deep calmness, concentration, and ease. When we breathe, we just breathe. As our practice develops, we learn to let go of much of the emotional and psychological baggage that surrounds so much of what we “do” in life. Essentially, we learn to let go of the “doer.” It is important to be patient with this process. Mindfulness of breathing is a practice of patient intimacy, learning to come closer and closer to the simple process of just breathing.
Without becoming overly strategic or feeling that this is a problem you are required to fix, there are a couple of ways to experiment with letting go of the tension that surrounds your breath. You might experiment with simply focusing your attention in the area of your upper lip and nostrils. Just notice the sensation of your breath entering and leaving your body. Let go of any expectation that your breath should be deeper than it is. Be aware just of the coolness of your incoming breath and the warmth of your outgoing breath. If you notice that there is still tension within your breathing, take your attention just to listening for a few moments. Again, don’t look for sounds, just be receptive to the sounds near and far that come to you. Then return your attention to your breathing once more. See if that same quality of receptivity that you brought to listening can be brought into your awareness of breathing. Sense if it is possible just to receive your breath. Your body is breathing; trust it, let it be just as it is.
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