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Breath Awareness and Relating Mindfully

by Matthew Daniell

(Published in the Newburyport Daily News newspaper on Jue 23, 2018)

To live is to be related. I mean this in a very simple way. When we die our ability to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch all fade. We have lost our relatedness to life. This is death. From this perspective to be alive is based on our ability to be aware. The greater our conscious connection to the things of our life; the people, the objects we cherish, even our own bodies, thoughts and emotions, determine our level of our aliveness.

Do you ever find yourself "sleepwalking through life," and not quite connected to the things of your life in a way that you find nourishing and sustaining? How many times, even in a single day, do we complete a task and then have no clear recollection of having done it; the dishes got clean or the car arrived at its destination, but we were not there for the experience. We don't feel the warm water on our hands as we wash, or notice the blue sky, or feel the wheel in our hands as we drive. In its most extreme form we can feel dead even though we are alive.

How we relate to the stuff of our lives, the quality of our relationships from the most outer levels to the most inner ones, has a great deal to do with how satisfying our lives can be. There are two types of being alive that I'm referring to, the biological one, and the subjective one, which is experiential and unique to each of us.  

There is a kind of inherent dissatisfaction or suffering that comes in our relationships when we rely on them to give us satisfaction in one way, and then they change in another way.

For example, someone leaves us that we care for, or someone dies. Perhaps our financial situation is stressful; our planning for security hasn't worked out quite the way we thought it would. We can all think of many ways this has happened to us. Life shows us again and again that relationships are not reliable in a controllable and sustainable way all the time.

Since the quality of our relationship to the stuff of our life is central to our happiness, wouldn't it be wonderful if we could find a relationship that would give us a truly reliable kind of happiness? Not reliable in the sense that it would always be the same, but reliable in the way that it would bring us to a more calm, resilient, and balanced way of being with ourselves and the world.

Would it make a positive difference in our lives if we could shift our focus from trying to control the relationships that we can't, to working with them as skillfully as we can. To honor and care for the quality of how we relate to our life rather than our life conforming to some ideal and then not holding up to that standard.

Where could we find a tool to help us to discover such an inner place of refuge and peace? Where can we find an inner companion that will accompany us with our changing relationships and our relationship to life itself. Perhaps a gateway into the answer is much closer than we think. Perhaps quite literally it is under our very noses. It is breath awareness.

The Buddha taught a method of meditation based on the breath over 2500 years ago to a group of people looking for inner peace. To begin the practice he advised to "go to the foot of a tree or other quiet place, sit down cross legged, back straight, and bring full care and attention to the sensations of the in and out breathing." He did not teach to control the breath in any way but rather to know the natural flowing sensations of the breath (knowing if they are long or short, rough or smooth, deep or shallow, etc). He instructed that this practice could also be developed in all of the postures and movements that make up our life, pointing to the fact that it is portable.

A modern application of this approach is to take short mindful breathing pauses during our daily activities. Athletes, actors, teachers, business leaders, parents, and people of all walks of life use this skill to gain some calm amidst stressful situations and move forward from a more centered place.

If we develop this capacity through mindfulness pauses and formal meditation training, present moment awareness, and its qualities of resilience, flexibility, and calm begin to grow. In the Buddha's teaching, once calm is established through sustained breath awareness then attention can be expanded to include feelings, pleasure, pain, thoughts, moods and the changing nature of life itself.

Seeing clearly the impermanent nature of the breath and all of life can lead to a profound sense of openness and letting go.

On a very practical level, attending to this one simple changing aspect of our experience, the breath, can provide a foundation for shifting how we relate to what makes up our life in any given situation. It can help to transform our relationships.

Many years ago after having practiced meditation in Asia for some years I had returned and was in New Hampshire visiting family. I had a series of difficult but fruitful conversations with my mother about some childhood difficulties we had. During our discussions I would sometimes pause and breath while being with her to help me hold the intense emotions that occasionally arose. At other times I would ask for a break and go and do a bit of mindful walking and breathing. One time as a conversation got a bit tense, she paused and said, "Why don’t you go and do that breathing thing, it always seems to go better afterwards!"

Larry Rosenberg is my main mentor, and a dear friend. He is a co-founder of The Insight Meditation Center of Newburyport, and author of the international bestselling book "Breath by Breath". He is in his mid 80's now and was hospitalized some time ago. I called one day to see how he was doing and his wife answered the phone. She chuckled and said that he was quite busy, a host of residents were gathered around his bed and he was teaching them meditation. It seems that one day the attending doctor had asked how he was doing and was puzzled by the fact that Larry appeared happy despite having to lie on his back for a week. How could this be? Larry described to the attending doctor that he had been practicing breath awareness meditation. This doctor was not impressed, but the residents were. Many returned each day, and Larry taught them breath awareness meditation.

They wanted to learn. Do you?