Step by Step: Breathing for Self-Compassion and a Focused Mind


Sometimes I think and other times I am.—Paul Valery

A boat is tied to a sturdy wooden post. The sea pulses and the boat is lifted and lowered, gently rocked and slowly turned by quiet movements of waves and currents. Occasionally a larger wave tosses the boat, throwing it into momentary turmoil. Despite this, the lashing holds firm and the post and boat are not separated.

You are resting in that boat. Your eyes are closed and at first you are tuned to its movements. As the boat’s center of gravity shifts, your body reacts, and your mind probes for signs of the next undulation. But you have tied the rope firmly, and you become accustomed to the rhythmic movements. Your confidence grows and you feel certain of your mooring. You relax.

The image of relaxing in a boat tethered in restless waters is an interesting metaphor for the process of breath awareness, which is a kind of mental mooring. When you rest your attention on the breath, your awareness is anchored. Currents and crosscurrents of thinking continue to create sensations of movement in the mind, but a steady focus on breathing prevents these mental provocations from disturbing your equilibrium. Bound to the sensation of the breath, you can relax your mental effort. You are watching the mind watch the breath.

The image of relaxing in a boat tethered in restless waters is an interesting metaphor for the process of breath awareness, which is a kind of mental mooring.

How does concentration on breath become well-established? Learning to follow the breath and to prevent your attention from wandering off toward distracting thoughts is a process of inner training. This article will outline some of the important stages in that practice.

Getting Started

Like many of the internal processes in your body, the breath does not flow so much as it pulses. Each breath is a pulse. Tuning yourself to the pulse of the breath and following it again and again is the foundation for breath awareness.

The pulse of the breath is slow. On average, the heart pulses 70 times in a minute, the breath pulses just 16. During relaxation and meditation that pulse may slow to as little as 5 or fewer breaths a minute. Nonetheless, it is the rhythmic pulsing of the breath that links you to a profound current of energy, maintaining the integrity of your body and mind.

Breath awareness begins by paying attention during your meditation to the slow movement of the breath as it flows out and in. This is deceptively difficult. Part of the reason is that in the beginning the mind is active and thoughts move much more rapidly than the breath—the speed of the breath feels painfully slow compared to the speed of thinking.

This act of concentration may even seem boring at first, but the process of watching the breath influences the mind. As you watch the breath, the frenetic pace of thinking is gradually relieved, and a calm focus develops. Each exhalation feels relaxing and each inhalation feels equally nourishing.

Shaping the Breath

Once the mind has begun to track the slow pace of breathing, then other work can begin. The breath needs to be shaped so that physical and mental tensions that have altered breathing can be relieved and replaced by a deep breath, flowing through the nose.

The process of giving the breath a new shape requires time and experience. When we try too hard to breathe diaphragmatically, for example, we usually manage to create new tensions. But if we do not develop a strong diaphragmatic breath, we cannot relax our effort to breathe and must unconsciously respond to breathing tensions that are largely outside our awareness.

Yoga postures help in freeing the muscles of respiration. Postures spontaneously create a strong breath that can be easily maintained during meditation. Among the most effective are a combination of chest expanders, side stretches, abdominal strengtheners, overhead stretches, forward bends, twists, and inverted poses. In other words, a balanced yoga routine automatically strengthens breathing.

Yoga postures help in freeing the muscles of respiration.

Once the breath flows easily through the nose, and is maintained with a modest effort from the diaphragm, then your attention can be turned to the five basic qualities of breathing. The breath needs to be deep, smooth, even, without sound, and without pause. During this second phase of breath awareness the mind scans for difficulties in these areas, unblocking tension and allowing a relaxed flow of the breath to unfold with the passing moments. The development of these five qualities prepares the way for the next step.

“It Breathes”

As breath awareness continues, a surprising new development takes place. You will discover that “it breathes.” That is, the effort to breathe diaphragmatically can be relaxed entirely and yet the breath continues to flow by some deep and unseen instinct.

This instinct, of course, has been functioning all along. We are actually aware of breathing for only short periods of time in an otherwise mind-filled day. The breath flows whether we give it our attention or not.

During meditation you will meet the instinct to breathe face to face. On the first meetings, this can be disconcerting. You may lose your balance, again “taking charge” of breathing yourself. But gradually the joy of watching the breath outweighs the joy of commanding it, and meditation deepens.

During this phase of concentration on the breath an essential lesson must be learned. Do not allow your mind to wander off. Because the breath flows effortlessly, it will be very tempting to do something else with your attention. But follow each breath, and be attentive to the transition from one breath to the next. This will strengthen your mind and increase the distinction between random thoughts and the flow of awareness.

The Touch of Breath

You can feel the flow of breathing. It creates a sensation in the nostrils. The yoga tradition places very great value on using this sensation as a focus of meditation practice. In the Yoga Sutra, the sage Patanjali devotes one entire sutra to this. He writes in sutra 1:34 that attentive concentration on the slow, careful exhalation and well-controlled, measured inhalation are the means for establishing a stable mind.

We have already noted that the alternating current, or pulse, of breath is the primary focus of breath awareness. The sage Vyasa, the first commentator on the Yoga Sutra, adds to Patanjali’s terse statement, telling us that this attention is now to be focused on the breath as it flows in the nostrils. In other words, the next step in breath awareness is to bring your attention to the breath touching in the nostrils and to feel it passing slowly there again and again. As you have reached a relatively passive state in which little effort is required to adjust the mechanism of breathing, you will find that almost all your awareness can be given to the sensation of the breath passing through the nostrils.

Stay with this sensation through the whole breath, through the transitions leading from one breath to the next, and despite every distraction that competes for your attention. Remain focused for a number of minutes in this way. Gradually you will experience a quieting in your mind that you have not experienced before. This is the beginning of mental stability—and though a far cry from the end of the journey, it is a good sign of maturing practice.

The Boat of the Mind

By resting awareness on the sensation of the breath in the nostrils you have entered the boat of the mind. But now you will find yourself closer than ever to the waves and currents that pass through the transparent energy, the chitta, which forms your mindstuff. These waves and currents will lift your mind on crests of excitement, lower it into troughs of lethargy, toss it about in storms of emotion, and turn it first toward one desire and then another.

It will be difficult at times to maintain much semblance of stability. Three general principles will help you toward your goal. First, remember to maintain your focus on the breath. When the Greek hero Odysseus sailed past the island of the Sirens—the voices of sensual desires that called out to passing ships—he lashed himself to the mast of his vessel before he came within earshot. Like Odysseus, you must lash yourself to the mast of your breath.

It’s Always You

But the next step may surprise you: maintaining your concentration on the flow of breath, listen to the thoughts and emotions that arise in you and love them. In moments of self-hatred or frustration we often wish that we could get rid of our thoughts and feelings. Perhaps we would like to trade them in on some new version of ourselves, or perhaps rest in the great, but entirely imaginary, realm of “no-thought” for a while. This is a familiar, but unnecessary, form of doing violence to ourselves.

Your identity is the product of deep and inscrutable forces, and it is not to be hated or unloved. The thoughts that arise in your mind are a momentary version of you. They are not to be hated or unloved, either.

However, it takes great courage at times to refrain from hating our own thoughts and emotions. In his book Being Peace the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes clearly about this idea:

If I have a feeling of anger, how would I meditate on that? I would not look upon anger as something foreign to me that I have to fight, to have surgery in order to remove it. I know that anger is me, and I am anger. Nonduality, not two. I have to deal with my anger with care, with love, with tenderness, with nonviolence. Because anger is me, I have to tend my anger as I would tend a younger brother or sister, with love, with care, because I myself am anger, I am in it, I am it. If we annihilate anger, we annihilate ourselves.

So the second principle to remember is to show compassion, understanding, and forgiveness toward the forces of the mind that disturb your concentration.

Passing Through

When the play of energies within your mind breaks into consciousness, it will momentarily transform you. Instead of resting in the center of your awareness, you will become a concerned student hoping to pass a difficult exam, a lover seeking the attention of a loving partner, or an employee chronically late for work. You will have the complex reactions of a puzzled parent whose child was caught stealing, a hungry dieter facing a long afternoon at a wedding reception, or an intellectual about to make a proposal of marriage.

Frequently the waves are minor: “What do I smell?” “What time is it?” “The gray slacks, not the olive ones.” You may feel yourself on the edge of a wave but still holding on to your breath awareness—the mind bulging toward some unknown thought like the head of a cartoon character whose rubbery skull is being stretched by something trying to get out.

These are all passing waves. That is the third principle: the boat is definitely tossed about, but the waves are all passing through. This is not an easy principle to remember. We are all much too accustomed to treating some thoughts as waves and others as “me.” Thoughts are familiar, breath awareness is not. We break new ground when we move toward the center of awareness.

These are all passing waves.

During the process of moving toward the center you will gain a different perspective. The waves push, pull, expand, contract, and give the appearance of importance. They may put you to sleep. They are not just thoughts, they are emotional. Some do require attention because they comprise the karma of life. But in the end, if you let them, they will pass through. After all, they are not at the center of your being; they revolve around it. Ultimately, breath awareness merges into a deeper meditative process, leading to a mantra or mental sound. But before you leave the breath it will have guided you a long way on your journey.

The Practice

1. Bring the flow of breath into your awareness during meditation. Don’t worry much about mechanics—just soften your abdomen and feel the movement of the breath again and again.

2. Shape the breath. Use postures and quiet attention to establish a deep, relaxed breath.

3. Relax your effort. Your breath can flow without effort. It will be a source of emotional steadiness.

4. Focus on the touch of breath in the nostrils. Be patient as you decide to attend the breath there rather than to note passing thoughts.

5. Deepen and lengthen the time spent with the nostril focus.

6. Do not condemn other thoughts. Let them be you. You are them.

7. Move toward the center of your being, allowing all these waves to pass through your mind. The waves are circling around the center, they are not at the center.

About the Teacher

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Rolf Sovik
President and Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute and a clinical psychologist in private practice,... Read more