Breath Awareness Meditation
Updated: Jul 5, 2020
This week I share a breath awareness meditation. You can find it at the end of this blog. Just press the play button.
Many ages and cultures across the world have traditional practices of breath awareness meditation. This kind of meditation has also been studied by scientific researchers. This intrigues me because I think it stands to reason that if there is a truth that is universally applicable we should see glimpses of it in every age and culture. Not that all people will necessarily believe the same thing, but there should be threads of common wisdom weaving their way through the fabric of different wisdom traditions across time.
A 2018 study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology showed that several brain regions linked to emotions, attention and body awareness are activated when we simply watch our own breathing. For years scientists thought the brain stem was the only structure in the body responsible for breathing but this study discovered that breath awareness meditation involves neural networks beyond the brain stem (see https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321794#Studying-breathing,-attention,-and-the-brain). These networks connect structures in the brain that help us regulate our stress response.
Some kinds of breath work involve controlling the breath. With breath awareness meditation we don’t. We rest our attention lightly on the breath feeling it move in and out of our body. Interestingly, Professor Ian Robertson (Coordinator of the Global Brain Health Institute) notes that when we are feeling scatty and struggling to focus feeling breath sensations but making no effort to control them is probably the most beneficial breath practice for us.
For Hindus every movement in the cosmos is a movement of Cosmic Breath (Vishwaprana). Our mind and body are viewed as a personal cosmos. Breath creates movement. The breath is called Prana. Prana also means energy and life force - both individual and universal.
For yogis, breath is the substance from which our inner and outer universes are created and also the power that energizes them.
The Rig Veda states in 1:48;10:
“In Thee is each living creature’s breath and life.”
For Hindus, breath belongs to Brahman - Creator God, Source, Ultimate Reality. Brahman is seen as the “giver of breath.”
Buddhism teaches 4 foundations to Mindfulness: Contemplation of the mind, body, feelings and mental phenomena.
“Mental phenomena” refers to our moods that come and go and their triggers.
Buddha taught that a simple sustained awareness of the breath could reveal the mind, body, feelings and mental phenomena without the need for special methods or marked exertion of will. For Buddha, noting the breath at the nose tip alone, shows us all in time without having to concentrate elsewhere.
The Buddhist Zen master Yasutani Rossi guided his students in a variety of breathing techniques that began with breath counting but ended with the instruction to stop counting and just experience each breath as it is.
Many yoga teachers go so far as to say that yoga is not yoga without breathwork. The poses we practice are all preparation for meditation - the final resting pose called Shavasana (corpse pose). Shavasana is all about letting go - death being its ultimate form. It is interesting to note that the words for “exhale” and “dying” in many languages are the same. Yoga poses help calm the mind and body so that we can settle into stillness.
For indigenous peoples the capacity to be still has always been important. In Native American wisdom, each individual human soul is breath. Navajo spiritual teacher and yogi, Tony Redhouse, teaches that when we begin to stop thinking and start feeling we are able to tune into our soul’s wisdom - our inner guide. As humanity has distanced itself from nature he believes that we have become too analytical about the simple act of being still, relying on “how to” guides and seminars. For him it is not complicated - you just take time to be still.
Australian Aboriginal elder and writer Miriam-Rose Ungunmirr-Baumann puts it like this:
“(We) are not threatened by silence. (We) are completely at home in it. We have lived for thousands of years with nature’s quietness. My people recognize and experience in this quietness, the great life-giving Spirit, the Father of us all.”
A Lakota Sioux chief seems to echo her words in his 1887 translation of the Lakota’s Great Spirit Prayer:
Oh, Great Spirit
Whose Voice I hear in the winds
and whose breath gives life to the world
Hear me! I need your strength and wisdom.
For balance, Tony suggests we focus less on physical rituals, ceremonies and courses and remember that life itself is the ceremony, practices serving only to remind us of our constant state of Being. Every thought, word and action is a prayer within the ceremony of life. When we don’t realize this he believes we turn spirituality into a religiously long and exhausting list of performance tasks. This teaching makes a lot of sense to me and I love how beautifully he expresses himself.
Rumi was a famous Sufi poet and religious scholar of the 1200’s. Sufism is the mystical arm of Islam. Rumi spoke highly of the practice of “deep conscious breathing” which Sufis call Hosh dar Dam. Sufis have a number of breath awareness practices which help them remain in divine presence.
In Jewish thought inhalation and exhalation of the breath is the very sound of the sacred. The unspeakable name for God in ancient Hebrew is YHWH. It literally means the breath. A Jewish breath meditation involves breathing God’s name through open lips. “Yah” is the inhale and “Weh” the exhale. The ancient Hebrew name for the Spirit of God is “Ruach Elohim” which also means breath of the living God.
I don’t know that most people would associate the Christian faith with meditation. Surprisingly, I learned that there is a long heritage of breath awareness meditation in Christianity, too, going all the way back to the desert Fathers and Mothers - Christian hermits who lived in the Scetes desert of Egypt about 200 years after the time of Jesus.
The Holy Spirit of the Christian tradition is called Avia Pneuma. Pneuma means breath in Ancient Greek. The terms are interchangeable. When the first man, Adam, was created from solid matter, life was breathed (Ruach) into him by God. When Jesus gifted his followers with the Holy Spirit he breathed it upon them.
Christian mystics seek direct union with the divine. They are interested in the inner experience of Higher Power. They believe every person has the potential to be a living temple filled with Holy Breath/Spirit. When you meditate on breath you meditate on spirit. Abbot George Burke says that to experience breath is to experience Spirit. Saint George Palamas wrote extensively about a breath awareness meditation practice in the 1300’s he called Hesychia. It is very similar to what Buddhists and Hindus call Anapanasati - both practices observe in-going and out-going breaths at the nostrils.
Putting whether you believe in some kind of higher power or being aside, we can all agree that breath connects us. All living beings breathe and share the same air. Scientists believe that our current air-rich atmosphere is actually the third in our planet’s long history and the first humankind is capable of surviving in. A brew of oxygen, nitrogen and other gases much of which came from billions of microscopic bacteria that have populated our oceans for eons.
Air is a rare and precious commodity only existing in the thin shell that surrounds our planet. In fact NASA states that if Earth were the size of an apple, our atmosphere would only be the thickness of its skin. Outside of this “skin” air does not exist. If you scream in space no one will hear you because there is no air with which to project sound.
It amazes me to learn that the air you and I breathe right now may well have come from halfway around the world in just a few days because it flows just like ocean currents thanks to the sun’s heat. Plant life forms constantly take in the waste gases we and other animals breathe out and gift us with the oxygen we breathe in. It is a tenuous balance. The photosynthesis of plants and bacteria on one side, exhaled carbon dioxide of other life forms on the other. Climate scientists now warn us that our planet’s current unnatural global warming trend is the result of not respecting this atmospheric balance.
My experience of breath awareness meditation has been a journey. Not much happened to start with and I found this frustrating yet informative because I learned there was an awful lot going on in my head that I was not completely conscious of. I learned more about myself in the process and stuck with it. With time I do experience the stillness and peace meditators speak of although there are still times when thoughts jump around in my head like grasshoppers.
I think the meditative state of breath awareness is a bit difficult to describe. It is often calming - sure. I find meditation an inexpensive, relatively quick way to settle down and rest. I find it easiest to drop into stillness when I am in an old growth forest, or a beautiful garden, or on a beach. Sometimes there is a feeling of satisfaction, even if going into the practice I feel quite dissatisfied with some aspect of my life. Sometimes there is a sense of being connected to others, to the natural world, and to something mysterious that is part of me but also much bigger. Sometimes I feel that I am the breath moving in and out of the shell that is my body - physical form holding me only for the relatively brief passage of time that is a human lifespan. Sometimes I am the body energized by breath. Breath awareness meditation helps me get a little distance from my more difficult emotions and I find that viewing emotionally-charged situations from a bit more mental distance can be quite helpful.
Have you tried breath awareness meditation? I would love to hear your experiences? Please feel free to share in the comments below.