Dr William Van Gordon, from the University of Derby’s Centre for Psychological Research, discusses how we can use mindful breathing to reduce stress.
A Breath of Fresh Air
Are you breathing? Are you aware that you are alive? These may seem like strange questions but look closely at what they are asking. Are you truly aware that you are breathing and are you truly aware that you are living? Are you fully aware of your in-breath and your out-breath? Whether that breath is long or short, deep or shallow, rough or smooth? Are you aware of the point where breath enters the body at the tips of the nostrils? Are you aware of the empty space that exists between the in-breath and out-breath? Is your breathing natural and relaxed or are you forcing it? Does your out-breath stop when you breathe out, or does it continue throughout space and time? Is your in-breath your in-breath or is it made up of other peoples’ out-breath? Can you see your out-breath in the trees, rivers, and oceans? Can you see your breath the eyes of the person you dislike, or in the tears of the homeless person who is alone and neglected by society?
Let’s leave the breath for a moment and examine our thoughts, words, and actions during the day. Are you fully aware of all that you experience during the day? Or does the day simply happen? We begin our day with getting up in the morning and before we know it, the sun has set and we’re falling back to sleep. The day has passed. It will never return again. Another day of our lives has expired. Perhaps on Sunday you clean the house but I ask you – are you fully present when you clean the house or are you thinking about Facebook or what you’ll be watching on the television later in the evening? Alternatively, are you thinking about returning to work on Monday and the various tasks you will have to complete? The days pass, the weeks pass, we can’t wait for our holidays and they pass too. The years pass, and we get old and die.
Life is a rare and fragile gift. If we are fortunate, we may live for 100 years. Each and every moment contained within those 100 years is unique. Nobody else will experience that moment and it will never arise again. It was born, it lived, and it died. It has gone forever. If we are not fully aware of all that we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch in each and every moment then we have to conclude that we are not fully alive. The person who chooses not to be fully aware of their life is no better than a walking corpse. Would you agree?
We are born with an in-breath and we leave this world with an out-breath. That which happens in between is the precious gift of life. Be aware of it. Breathe it moment by moment. Enjoy it. Live it. It is yours to live.
Without exception, everything that has happened in your life, every choice you have made, has brought you to where you are now. And where are you now? You are reading this blog post. Depending on your frame of mind, you will engage with the words in this post to a greater or lesser extent. This blog post, as well as every other experience and encounter you have ever had, will be a causal factor in terms of bringing you into contact with all of your future experiences. The process of accumulating experiences that each influence who we are and what we do, is called life. Perhaps we can think of life as a big snowball rolling down a hill. The snowball grows and accumulates snow as it rolls, and this accumulation – as well as the gradient and texture of the terrain – keeps causing the snowball’s weight, size, shape, velocity, and direction, to change.
If a person was to stop the snowball and look at it, they might only see a big ball of snow that they want to play with or take photographs of. Alternatively, if they have sufficient insight, they might see the snowball as the product of the journey it has undertaken. In this case, when they look at the snowball, they will see how it has grown, the choices it has made, the terrain and landscape it has passed through, and the different bumps and jumps it encountered along the way. The same applies when we look at ourselves and other people. If we have sufficient skill and insight, when we meet somebody we can glean understanding into the journey they have undertaken. We can see how they have grown, what motivates them, what scars they have accumulated, and whether they live only for themselves or for the betterment of humanity. Furthermore, based on the trajectory of their choices and journey thus far, we might be able to estimate the direction that they will go in next.
The difference between a skilled and mediocre meditator is that when the skilled meditator looks at a person, situation, or object, they see the whole story. They see that a person or object is comprised of its past, present, and future. If we can understand the trajectory that a person is travelling on, it means we are better able to decide what intervention, if any, might be possible to help shift that trajectory into one that will bring them wisdom and happiness.
Another difference between a skilled and mediocre meditator is that the skilled meditator doesn’t actually practice meditation. To practice meditation implies that a person tries to be mindful or regularly sits in meditation in order to cultivate mental tranquillity or clarity. However, the truth is that whether we know it or not, and whether we like it or not, we are all partaking in a meditation. This mediation is called life. Life brings us into contact with new experiences each moment of every day. These experiences are pregnant with wisdom. They are our teacher, if we want them to be. This applies to seemingly boring situations just as much as it does to circumstances that appear to be out of the ordinary or that we find challenging.
In other words, we don’t need to strain ourselves in meditation to look for spiritual insights because they are all around us. Everything we do, everything sound we hear, every person we meet, are opportunities to grow and encounter spiritual insight. All we have to do is open our eyes, heart, and mind. Don’t you see that you have been meditating since before the moment you were born? As soon as we realise we are partaking in a meditation, we start to wake up and see how each moment of our lives connects to, and influences, the next. Moreover, we encounter the complex web of the universe and begin to see how each moment of our lives connects to each moment of the life of every other living and non-living entity.
Meditation isn’t about sitting with our legs crossed and working ourselves into a state of calm. Rather, it is the art of fully experiencing every aspect of normal daily living and using it as the raw material to foster spiritual awakening. Meditation is both joyful and painful. There is nothing mystical about meditation. It is the process of allowing life to be our teacher. Eating a piece of toast is our teacher. Getting drenched by the rain is our teacher. Missing the bus is our teacher. Being cheated out of money is our teacher. Making love is our teacher. Taking a dump is our teacher. The death of a loved one is our teacher. Winning is our teacher. Losing is our teacher. Getting old is our teacher. Meditation is being awake to what is unfolding in front of us and having the courage to embrace life as the training ground for cultivating our full potential for love and wisdom.