Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and author of Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence (from Random House in October
Are you breathing?
One breath at a time.
[If for you the breath is associated with trauma and discomfort, you probably shouldn’t try this practice in its form below. But you might adapt it to something that is more nurturing for you, such as a saying or image.]
Breathing brings you home. Body and mind twine together in the breath. As soon as you become aware of breathing, you’re in your body. Speed up the breath and there’s new energy. Slow it down and you calm. Inhale and oxygen surges into your brain while the arousing sympathetic nervous system activates and accelerates the heartbeat. Exhale and activate the soothing peaceful parasympathetic nervous system, so the heart beats more slowly. In the breath you are home in this moment, this Now.
The breath feels like life inside. No wonder it’s been traditionally linked to spiritual matters. To “inspire” is to inhale – to “inspirit,” to uplift.
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The breath is always available as an object of attention, whether formally in meditation or informally as a way to recenter yourself. Track the breath in yourself, and know yourself more deeply. Track the breath in others, and know them more deeply.
If all else fails and your mind is screaming in pain or blown open in chaos, there is still the breath. Sometimes all you can do is breathe and know that you are still breathing. One breath at a time. Just getting through this breath. And then the next one. And the next.
Plus, in the knowing of breathing, there is awareness of awareness, not metaphysically or cosmically but as a refuge – if need be, of last resort. Try it: breathing here and now, recognize that awareness is a field or space in which contents come and go, such as the sensations of breathing. You can see directly that no matter what arises and passes away, awareness remains, undamaged and unstained, like the sky that is never harmed by the storm clouds passing through it. When times are terrible, try to be the observing, the awareness, to get some space from the pain and sustain a sense of being intact in your core. You can do this as well when times are good, which will help you both to stay in the sweet spot of enjoying without tipping into the suffering of wanting, and to strengthen your grounding in awareness for when things fall apart.
So far I’ve always described these “Just One Thing” practices with an active verb, such as “take in the good,” “give thanks,” or “find strength.” I could have done the same here, with “take one breath at a time.” But this one felt different. It’s not just that we take a breath. Sometimes the breath takes itself. Sometimes it takes us. When the mind and body are really quiet, there’s hardly any taking at all.
Whenever you like, find the breath and stay with it through one inhalation and exhalation. You could notice its sensations in your stomach, chest, or around the upper lip. Or the internal sensations inside the throat or in the diaphragm. Or sense the breath in the chest altogether.
Next, see if you can rest your attention in the breath for three full cycles of inhaling and exhaling. Then how about ten full cycles, from beginning to end? Distracting thoughts may nibble at your attention, but disengage from them while sinking more and more deeply into the breath. And if you like, let go of counting and simply give over to the breath, breath after breath.
Somewhere in here, as you become more present in the breath, more absorbed in it, you could experience breathing as the whole body, the whole body breathing.
Try this at night, as you’re falling asleep, resting as a body breathing. Or if you wake and can’t easily return to sleep, soften the edges of your mind out into only breathing. Breathing blurring out into the quiet of the night.
Be breathing as you do things or have them. One breath at time while dressing, eating, driving, talking, washing, cuddling, writing.
Or simply be breathing. Nothing else to do, no one to be. The simplest job in the world. One breath at a time.
What a relief!
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