In my last column I discussed how to use diaphragmatic breathing to relax. In this column I’ll show you how to transform your breathing into breath meditation. Before doing this I’d like to give you a quick look at meditation.
The written history of meditation dates back to the origins of the great Eastern religions of Hinduism (2500 B.C.), Buddhism (560 B.C.), Taoism (600 B.C.), and Confucianism (550 B.C.). All these religions employed meditative techniques as a way to clear the mind and transcend the body to achieve a greater spiritual connection.
Meditation received a lot of attention in the 1960s and 1970s when the Beatles studied transcendental meditation (TM) with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. During this time, millions of Americans became acquainted with this previously unknown practice.
In the 1970s, the Harvard Medical School undertook a group of research studies to examine the physiological benefits of TM. One of the better known Harvard researchers, Dr Herbert Benson demystified the practice of meditation by isolating the four things you need for learning how to meditate; (1) a quiet environment, (2) a mental device, (3) a passive attitude, and (4) a comfortable position.
For most people, meditating requires a quiet environment with minimal distractions. It is not a good idea to meditate in an area with people entering and leaving or other distractions. Turn off your television, radio, or phone.
Benson and his colleagues referred to a focal point as a mental device. I teach breath meditation to beginners because your breath is an easy focal point to understand and use regardless of where you practice.
Do not worry about distractions; they will occur. The phone will ring, other noises will occur, and your focus will be disrupted by competing thoughts. When this happens, simply acknowledge the distractions and refocus. Do not worry about your performance.
You don’t have to sit in a full lotus position to meditate. You need only be comfortable and relaxed. Sitting in a chair with a straight back and sitting on the floor with your legs crossed are good positions for meditation. Do not meditate while lying down. You will have a tendency to fall asleep.
How to Meditate
Diaphragmatic breath meditation involves noticing and paying full attention to your breath and what is going on in your diaphragm, lungs, and chest as you breathe in and out. When you get distracted from this you simply return your focus to what is going on in your diaphragm, lungs, and chest as you breathe in and out.
For example, imagine that you are practicing diaphragmatic breath meditation and you start thinking about a work-related project that is due tomorrow (thinking ahead instead of paying attention to the present moment). You start an inner dialogue with yourself and say, “I better remember to get my notes finished tonight.” The next thing you are aware of is that you start to criticize yourself for not having finished your preparation sooner. You say to yourself,
“I’m such a jerk for not having these notes and PowerPoint Slides finished. I’m probably going to do really poorly on this project.” At this point you realize that your thoughts and emotions drifted from the present, back to the past, and into the future.
To correct this you simply note that this has happened, accept it without being judgmental, and get back to paying attention to the present moment and your breathing. Rather than continuing to criticize yourself you would simply say to yourself, “How interesting, here I am having this debate about this project. When I am done meditating I’ll start thinking about it more.” Eventually, with practice and time, you become more proficient at staying focused on your breathing and it becomes easier to note the distractions in a non-judgmental way and get back to paying full attention to the present moment.
Exercise: Diaphragmatic Breath Meditation
- Prepare to spend 20 minutes of uninterrupted activity where you will not be disturbed by other people, the doorbell, the telephone or anything else. Set a timer to let you know when your time is up.
- Sit comfortably on a straight-backed chair or on the floor. If you sit on a chair keep your legs uncrossed with your feet resting comfortably on the floor and your hands resting gently on your lap. If you sit on the floor you should sit on a cushion that raises your buttocks off the ground slightly while your legs are crossed comfortable and resting on the floor. Your folded hands can remain comfortably on your lap or you can let each hand rest on a knee, palms facing up. In both cases sit up straight with your head, neck, and back in alignment.
- Wear comfortable clothing such as a sweat suit with a non-binding waistband.
- Remove your shoes or sneakers.
- Focus your attention on your current breathing pattern.
- Make a mental note of the depth, pace, and regularity of your breathing.
- Visualize a picture of your lungs and your diaphragm (see last column).
- Slowly breathe in through your nose.
- Feel your belly move out as your diaphragm pushes down against it.
- As you breathe in through your nose, visualize your lungs inflating completely starting from the bottom (the part closest to your diaphragm) and moving upward.
- Let your ribs expand and shoulders gently rise as your lungs inflate.
- When you have filled your lungs, slowly exhale through your nose.
- Feel your belly push back and your diaphragm rise back into place.
- As you feel the movements in your belly visualize your lungs emptying.
- Imagine all of the air leaving your lungs as they deflate (sometimes visualizing a balloon losing air or a toothpaste tube squeezing the paste out can be helpful in understanding the emptying process).
- As you continue to breathe in and out this way pay attention to your thoughts. Try to keep your thoughts focused on your breathing. You might find that saying “in” as you inhale and “out” as you exhale makes it easier to keep your focus on your breathing. Say these words to yourself. Some people find that counting the seconds it takes to inhale and exhale keeps them focused on their breathing.
- When your thoughts stray from your breathing do not get upset at yourself. Simply note that this happened and re-focus on your breathing and the words in and out.
- Continue breathing this way for at least 20 minutes.
- At the end of the 20 minutes it will be time to come back to the present, open your eyes, and start to sit up and return to your day.
With a few months practice you will find that you can slow your breathing down and stay focused on it most of the time. In my next column I will continue our discussion of relaxation techniques.
Dr. Rich Blonna is an expert in understanding how the mind and body work together in creating and managing stress. He is the author of several stress self-help books and courses and the popular college textbook, Coping With Stress in a Changing World 5th Ed; McGraw-Hill Publishing. He is a retired Professor Emeritus from William Paterson University in New Jersey. For over 25 years he has devoted himself to helping people just like you stress less and live more. www.drrichblonna.com.