In our daily life, we breathe, but we forget that we’re breathing. The foundation of all mindfulness practice is to bring our attention to our in-breath and out-breath. This is called mindfulness of breathing, or conscious breathing. It’s very simple, but the effect can be very great. In our daily life, although our body is in one place, our mind is often in another. Paying attention to our in-breath and out-breath brings our mind back to our body. And suddenly we are there, fully present in the here and the now.
Conscious breathing is like drinking a glass of cool water. As we breathe in, we really feel the air filling our lungs. We don’t need to control our breath. We feel the breath as it actually is. It may be long or short, deep or shallow. In the light of our awareness it will naturally become slower and deeper. Conscious breathing is the key to uniting body and mind and bringing the energy of mindfulness into each moment of our life.
Regardless of our internal weather—our thoughts, emotions, and perceptions—our breathing is always with us like a faithful friend. Whenever we feel carried away, sunk in a deep emotion, or caught in thoughts about the past or the future, we can return to our breathing to collect and anchor our mind.
The Practice of Conscious Breathing
Light and natural, calm and peaceful
While you breathe in and out, feel the flow of air coming in and going out of your nose. At first your breathing may not be relaxed.
But after practicing conscious breathing for awhile, you will feel how light and natural, how calm and peaceful your breathing has become. Any time you’re walking, gardening, typing, or doing anything at all, you can return to this peaceful source of life.
You can say to yourself:
Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in.
Breathing out, I know I’m breathing out
When the mind is no longer thinking
After a few breaths, you may want to shorten this to “In, Out”. If you follow your in-breath and out-breath all the way through, your mind is no longer thinking. Now your mind has a chance to rest. In our daily life we think too much. Giving our mind a chance to stop thinking is wonderful.
“Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in…” isn’t a thought. It’s a simple awareness that something is happening, that you are breathing in and out. When you breathe in and bring your attention to your in-breath you bring your mind back to a reunion with your body. Just one in-breath can help the mind come back to the body. When body and mind come together, you can be truly in the present moment.
“Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in…” is another way of saying “Breathing in, I feel alive.” Life is in you and life is around you—life with all its wonders: the sunshine, the blue sky, the autumn leaves. It’s very important to go home to the present moment to get in touch with the healing, refreshing, and nourishing elements of life inside and around you. A light smile can relax all the muscles of your face.
Breathing in, I recognize the blue sky.
Breathing out, I smile to the blue sky,
Breathing in, I am aware of the beautiful autumn leaves.
Breathing out, I smile to the beautiful autumn leaves.
You can shorten this to “blue sky” on the in-breath, and “healing” on the out-breath. Then “autumn leaves” on the in-breath, and “smiling” on the out-breath. When you practice breathing like this, it puts you in touch with all these wonders of life.
Just one in-breath can help the mind come back to the body
With conscious breathing, you are in touch with life
The beauty of life is nourishing you. You are free from your worries and fears. You get in touch with your breath and with your body. Your body is a wonder. Your eyes are a wonder, you need only to open your eyes to be able to touch the paradise of forms and colors that are available. Your ears are a wonder. Thanks to your ears you can hear all kinds of sounds: music, birdsong, and the wind blowing through the pine trees. When you pay attention to your in-breath and out-breath, you bring yourself home to the present moment, to the here and the now, and you are in touch with life. If you were to continue to be lost in the past, or to run to the future, you’d miss all of that.
Breathing in, I follow my in-breath all the way through.
Breathing out, I follow my out-breath all the way through.
In the beginning, you may notice that your breathing may feel labored or awkward. Your breath is a result of your body and feelings. If your body has tension or pain, if your feelings are painful, then your breath is affected. Bring your attention to your breath and breathe mindfully.
Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in.
Breathing out, I know I’m breathing out.
Breathing in, I smile to my in-breath.
Breathing out, I smile to my out-breath.
Let the quality of your breathing improve naturally
Never force your breath. If your in-breath is short, let it be short. If it’s not very peaceful, let it be like that. We don’t intervene, force, or “work on” our breath. We just become aware of it, and after some time, the quality of our breathing improves naturally. Mindfulness of breathing identifies and embraces our in-breath and out-breath, like a mother going home to her child and embracing her child tenderly in her arms. You’ll be surprised to see that after one or two minutes, the quality of your breathing begins improving. Your in-breath becomes deeper, your out-breath becomes slower. Your breathing becomes more peaceful and harmonious.
Breathing in, I notice that my in-breath has become deeper.
Breathing out, I notice that my out-breath has become slower.
When you notice that your in-breath and out-breath have become more peaceful, deeper, and slower, you can offer that peace, calm, and harmony to your body. In your daily life, you may be neglecting and ignoring your body. Now is your chance to come home to your body, recognize its existence, get reacquainted, and make friends with it.
Breathing in, I’m aware of my body.
Breathing out, I release all the tension in my body.
These breathing exercises come from the Buddha himself*. They’re very easy, like child’s play. If it’s helpful, put your hand on your belly. You’ll notice that when you breathe in, your stomach is rising, and when you breathe out, your stomach is falling. Rising, falling. Especially in the lying position, it’s easy to feel your abdomen rising and falling. You’re aware of your in-breath and out-breath from the beginning to the end. Breathing like this is enjoyable. You aren’t thinking anymore—of the past, of the future, of your projects, of your suffering. Breathing becomes a pleasure, a reminder of life itself.
Breathing in, I enjoy my in-breath.
Breathing out, I enjoy my out breath
*See Thich Nhat Hanh Breathe! You Are Alive (Berkeley, CA Parallax Press, 2008)
Later on, after you’ve been able to offer that peace and to your body, helping it to release the tension, then you can identify your feelings and emotions.
Breathing in, I’m aware of the painful feeling in me.
Breathing out, I smile to the painful feeling in me.
There’s a painful feeling, but there’s also mindfulness. Mindfulness is like a mother, embracing the feeling tenderly. Mindfulness is always mindfulness of something. When you breathe mindfully, that is mindfulness of breathing. When you walk mindfully, that is mindfulness of walking. When you drink mindfully, that is mindfulness of drinking. When you’re mindful of your feelings, that’s mindfulness of feeling. Mindfulness can be brought to intervene in every physical and mental event, bringing recognition and relief.
The present moment is the only moment
I’d like to offer you a practice poem you can recite from time to time, while breathing and smiling:
Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.
As my in-breath grows deep,
My out-breath grows slow.
Breathing in, I calm my body,
Breathing out, I feel at ease.
Breathing in, I smile,
Breathing out, I release.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment.
You can shorten this to the words below, one word or phrase per breath:
Present Moment, Wonderful Moment.
The present moment is the only moment that is real. Your most important task is to be here and now and enjoy the present moment.
Here’s a meditation on conscious breathing guided by the venerable Thich Nhat Hahn himself. You might find it immensely useful. (Audio only)
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