Why do we focus on the breath for meditation?
It’s interesting isn’t it, that the one thing we can all do automatically, from the moment we are born, is also, somehow the one thing we forget that links us as humans later in life. Each breath we take is the difference between life and death, and yet most of us are so harried by the distractions of modern living that we barely get time to surface, let alone, breathe.
In Sanskrit, the word breath, is described as “prana” or “life force”, which explains the reverence we should give it. By bringing the mind to dwell on the breath, we are tilting our view inwards. Yes, the act of breathing means we need to inhale and exhale, but the focus comes back to our own being, rather than looking outside of ourselves for a calming force.
We have this ready-made-mindfulness-tool hardwired into our very being, and it’s free, transportable and always on.
In class we focus on three variations of breathing meditation techniques, from the physical sensation of breath, to the contemplation of it’s force, and then the visualisation of its transformative powers.
Here are a few examples;
1. To rest on the breath: Here we train our mind to become aware of the sensations of the breath in a physical sense, how the air feels in our lungs, throat and nostrils. We pay attention to the feeling of warm air on the top of our lip, the swelling of our chest and ribcage as we inhale and the slow deflation as we exhale. We bring our focus to the gentle rising and falling of the breath as a mindfulness tool, to train our mind to be present and in the moment.
2. To contemplate the preciousness of the breath: Using the resting technique, we then contemplate the very nature of the breath, how each breath gives life and provides us with a precious opportunity. We contemplate how our breath links us together at a very basic level, and how it demonstrates the very nature of change. While it is a constant, it is fragile, and interdependent on many things, such as the kindness of others, good health, a safe environment and so on.
3. To visualise the breath as a source of purification and transformation: Using the resting technique, we then visualise that each breath has the power to cleanse and transform our mind and body.
Initially, we do this by imagining that on every in-breath, we inhale a pure, cleansing white light that is filled with positive emotions such compassion, love and happiness. On the out-breath, we imagine we are breathing out black plumes of smoke which contain all the negative emotions such as anger, hatred, greed, jealousy and so on. We continue to breathe this way until we feel we have released all of our tensions.
In breathing Tong-Len practice, this process is reversed, as the aim is to take on the suffering of all sentient beings and in essence, cleanse it for them. This however, takes some time, so we generally recommend starting small, by taking on our own negative feelings on the in-breath, and then later, widening this view to those we know and care for. Over time, an established practitioner can expand this view to include all sentient beings.
Perhaps while it is great to know these types of practices exist and can, at the very least, bring our mind to the present, the most important thing to recognise is indeed the very simple truth that “breath is life”, and even 1 minute a day of that awareness can be transformative.
Today, if you have the time, take a minute to feel your breath. Breathe in 1, Breathe out 2, Breathe in 3 and then smile. What a wonderful opportunity we have been given 🙂