Mindfulness Meditation and the Breath: An Introduction
Though I stress mindfulness meditation in this piece, it is in no way suggested as being the most effective form of meditation, but it is one that should be acknowledged and remembered, as it applies to most other meditation techniques, and can improve your state of living and gratefulness in life tremendously.
Meditation is the delicate art in which the body is consciously relaxed and the mind is allowed to become calm and focused. There seem to be a lot of misconceptions about meditation floating around today; such misconceptions develop due to lack of knowledge and understanding. Meditation is a practiced art, and practice is exactly what is needed to become proficient at it.
There are numerous forms and methods of meditation that are practiced for various reasons. Though, the main and common goal of most meditations is to achieve a calm and collective state of mind, in which both the mind and body are relaxed, enabling you to achieve a higher state of concentration and focus. Many if not all meditations focus on the breath and breathing. Breathing has such a significant effect on our lives that when focused upon, and when performed properly, it alone can literally change your outlook on life.
The Power of Breathing
Correct breathing uses all parts of the lungs to utilize your maximal oxygen intake. This means taking slow, deep and rhythmical breaths. It’s important to be able to control the lengths of your inhalation, exhalation and pauses between breaths. Regulating the flow of breathing can boost energy levels while calming and making room for a more focused mind. The breath is the most vital part in any effective meditation. It is used to fuel our bodies with the most important nutrient to humans in existence, oxygen. It is also used to release the body of a highly detrimental element known as carbon dioxide. Despite the fact that we can live for days without food and water, we can only live a mere few minutes without the assistance of breathing. Breathing properly can allow you to live a much more calm and relaxed life.
However, what exactly does the Breath do for our bodies? Oxygen enables the cells of the body to release energy that is stored as high-energy chemical bonds in our food, and enables them to use that energy to do what cells do. Cells keep us alive. They keep our heart, brain, and kidneys working properly. Virtually every cell in the body needs oxygen in order to perform its role(s) efficiently in the body. Average human beings breathe roughly twelve to twenty times per minute.
Children breathe far faster than adults, taking in an average of thirty thousand breaths per day, and infants take about forty per minute. More times than not, people tend to take shallow and inferior breaths, substituting them for full complete breaths, which is a severe mistake when you take into account the importance the breath has as it pertains to our Lymph System.
The Lymph System
Activated by deep breathing, the lymph system or lymphatic vessels, in all mammals are a network of thin tubes that branch, like blood vessels, into tissues throughout the body. Lymphatic vessels carry lymph, a colorless, watery fluid originating from interstitial fluid. The lymphatic system transports infection-fighting cells called lymphocytes, which are involved in the removal of foreign matter and cell debris by phagocytes and is part of the body’s immune system.
Blood, carrying nutrients and oxygen is pumped to the thin, porous capillaries from your heart through your arteries. When it arrives, the nutrients are diffused into a fluid around the cells called “lymph.” The cells take what they need, almost with intelligence, and then expel toxins. Dead cells, blood proteins and other toxic materials are removed by the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is the way used to drain off large amounts of toxic materials and excess fluid that restricts the amount of oxygen that the cells are able to absorb, because of this; the body’s cells depend on the lymphatic system. The fluid then travels through the lymph nodes, at which point dead cells and other poisons are destroyed, with the exception of blood proteins. If the lymphatic system were shut down for twenty-four hours, you would die as a result of trapped blood proteins and excess fluid around the cells.
In taking deep breaths, the lymph that is collected through the body is drained into the blood through two ducts located at the base of the neck. Breathing is the driving force behind this action. If a deep breath is taken and you exhale deeply, you massage the thoracic duct upward into the neck so that the fluid flows abundantly.
This duct is empties the lymph into the veins, at which point it becomes a part of the blood plasma. Then, the lymph returns to the liver for motabilization and then the kidneys for filtering. The lymphatic system is twice the size of our other circulatory system. Part of staying healthy is keeping the lymphatic system open and flowing. Common knowledge suggests that the body is made up of mostly water. Part of this water resides in the bloodstream, whereas the majority of it is located in the lymphatic system, our cells are located in “a sea of lymph.”
Emotions are a driving factor in daily life for most people, they tell us when we’re upset, happy, angry, irritated, scared, etc… When one experiences such an emotion, the effects on their bodies are often overlooked. If you sit, and observe how you are currently feeling, you will notice that your breathing pattern is following your emotional state.
This occurs because as your emotions change, your breathing changes. You notice that when you are angry, or scared, you’re breathing as well as your heart rate increase to enable you with the vital nutrients your body needs. When you are relaxed, your breathing is substantially different. It takes on a more subtle rhythm, deeper, and longer inhalations and exhalations.
However, just as the breath works alongside your emotions, so to can it have the same affect the other way around. If you are upset or stressed for a particular reason or no reason at all, taking time out to breath, taking slow, deep, and long breaths will dramatically alter your emotional state, leaving you with a calm and collective state of mind.
This simple understanding is highly effective as it applies to people going through stressful times in their lives, taking tests, or otherwise trying circumstances. Or it can aid you in simply maintaining a relaxed state of mind throughout the day. The breath has many profound affects on our lives both physically and mentally, and it is also a major catalyst into a deeper, more profound spiritual journey.
The Practice Behind the Experience: Mindfulness Meditation
The practice of Buddhist Mindfulness Meditation is one that has been going on for over 2500 years. The practice revolves around one striving to remain in a state of clear and nonjudgmental awareness about the world around them by actively becoming aware of ones thoughts, emotions and actions in the present moment. It is a spiritual path practiced by many that gradually eliminates the barriers of ones preconceived notions of reality, to make room for our full development of wisdom and compassion.
Though it is described as a “meditation,” the practice can be utilized by other means aside from the standard sitting/lotus position. It is an activity that can be done, learned, and practiced through daily living. By focusing on the breath the practitioner brings their focus onto the present moment, being fully immersed into the now. Through this, one fully experiences all aspects of their activity, both internally and externally.
Through daily activities such as walking, sitting, eating, laundry, washing a car, etc… one may experience and reap the tremendous benefits mindfulness has to offer. The practice is often used by hospitals and psychiatrists to reduce stress in patients.
Through the practice I’ve observed many things about both myself, and the world in which we live. I noticed that most people spend hours, days, months, and years, constantly waiting. Waiting for what? Mundane, profound, and often irrelevant changes, events, and situations in ones life to unfold. We wait for the bus, we wait to get off work, to get in shape and lose weight, to make money, and the majority of our lives are spent in waiting.
When one is not waiting, they spend their time reminiscing about the “good old days” when things were great. Or looking ahead to the future, with concern, anxiety, stress, fear, or even excitement and anticipation. In general, we spend so much of our time peering ahead, or behind, that waiting becomes our fundamental existence. We never live our life as it goes, we instead live it in remembrance of what was, or anticipating what will be. However, life exists only now, not then, not later, but now. So in order to fully grasp our lives, and take it in strides, we must forget our former views about life, we must learn to live our lives as it comes, live in the present, for, nothing exists outside the realm of the present.
Though, what is the present moment? In our generation, a technological and media driven society filled with buyers and sellers, people who live to work as opposed to working to live and a disturbing amount of violence being exposed to our youth from the earliest of ages, we seldom are able to stop, sit, and be. Many will notice that even now, in reading this, you have an almost non stop stream of mostly pointless ramblings in your own mind. What you’ve eaten or want to eat today, your current agenda, how many pages you have left to read, etc… This constant stream of noise that your mind creates seems to be never ending, and we seldom notice its existence at all. However, when we do observe this process, it has profound changes on both our lives, and the lives of people around us. In noticing it, you endow yourself with the power to control your life and mind, as opposed to it controlling you.
Some of you may ask what the big deal is with having a lot on ones mind. The big deal is that your mind, in making this noise, is preventing you from fully experiencing the current moment and as this happens your life passes you by. You have constant thoughts that at a moments notice that seemingly change your emotional state because you allow it to do so. You get anxious and stressed when you suddenly think of that next deadline at work or school, making your reaction to others far less gratifying on both your behalves. You get frustrated and sometimes don’t even know why; it’s just “one of those days.”
The fact of the matter is that it’s not just one of those days, it’s every day, and will continue to be every day until you gain control over your own mind. How you gain control, is through the awareness of the present moment. Through Mindfulness meditation one is endowed with the potential to begin a monumental spiritual journey.
Now that we have a fundamental foundation as to what Mindfulness is, and the changes in ones life that can occur through it, it’s time to get into actually learning how to apply it to your life. When one understands what Mindfulness is and are familiar with some very basic yet profound practices, it’s fairly simple how to apply it to your daily life.
It is preferred that you sit in the traditional Lotus position for this meditation, or, sit/lay any way you feel comfortable, so long as your back remains erect and you don’t fall asleep during the meditation. If you do so happen to fall asleep, notice how you may arise with a deeper sense of renewal and relaxation than usual.
Sit down, and take a few moments to relax yourself. I would strongly advise that you stretch prior to meditation, as it ads to your relaxation so that your focus can be specifically on the task at hand. Start by taking deep breaths, slowly and completely whilst counting backward from ten to one. When you feel ready, proceed onto the meditation:
Begin by taking a long and deep breath, and as you do so, notice the rise and fall of your chest and abdomen. Shift your attention to your feet. Feel any tenseness that might have built over the day, and direct the breath to your feet, eliminating any and all tenseness. Move to your shins and calves; feel the flow of the breath as it resonates with warming energy, relaxing as it makes contact with your legs. Do this as long as necessary for you to feel comfortable, relaxed, and able to move on. Move up to your thighs, groin and lower back area. Relaxing as you go, feeling the tension just melt away as you breath, all the while, noticing and feeling the rise and fall of your chest and abdomen. Move up to your upper body, then to your head, noticing any and all sensations of unease or tension, and melting them away by directing the breath.
Shift your awareness to the air outside of the body. On the inhalation, follow this air flow from out side of the body, inside, and back out. Notice how this process makes you feel while continuing to breath and follow the air, whilst being aware of how your body feels, and the sensations the breathing creates within you.
While breathing, sit and notice your mind, the general chatter that may be going on, the constant stream of thoughts, emotions, and the affects they create within you. Do not get caught up with, or preoccupied with this incoming data, instead, sit and just watch this stream as if it were a movie. Notice how the thoughts come and go if you do not pursue them. If while in the process, you seem to get side tracked, or your mind comes off of the moment, simply become aware of the breath again.
Walking In Mindfulness
As you pursue normal daily activities, and find yourself walking in the store, around the house, or just walking for the sake of walking, observe your body and follow the breath. Become aware of each step you take and the surrounding environment as you walk. Feel the innermost sensations of your body, as you take each and every step, noticing the subtle changes your body goes through, and how your environment seems to almost open up around you.
Experience the sensations you may feel as you walk, noticing and being aware of each step you take. Watch your thoughts as they pass and remain in the moment, observing but not making yourself associated with everything you do, every reaction, every feeling. Remember to follow the breath again at any moment if you lose focus on the moment.