Calming ourselves with the breath

Last week we looked at diaphragmatic breathing, and how this can help us to calm ourselves throughout the day. We can also use the breath during meditation, and there are many methods and traditions for meditating on the breath. In some traditions, these meditations are quite structured – for example, the instruction might be to breathe in to the count of four, hold for two counts, then breathe out to the count of eight. These kinds of exercises can be very calming and soothing for the mind and body.

In mindfulness, the approach is not to control the breath in any way, but to allow it to ‘breathe itself’. We are simply observing the quality of the breath – is it long, deep and even? Or is it shorter, more shallow, uneven? We don’t judge the breath or try to change it – we simply notice what is happening right now, and allow ourselves to be present with it in friendly companionship. Over time, we often do find that our breath becomes more settled, deeper. Yet whether our breath is deep or shallow, we can bring a sense of curiosity and openness to our experience. What does the breath feel like in the body? What kind of emotions, mental patterns, are we experiencing? We can learn a lot about our current state from becoming more mindful of the breath – being a witness, a friendly observer, to the breath.

The Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has a beautiful poem (sometimes called a gatha) which we can use with the breath from time to time:

Breathing in, I calm the body.

Breathing out, I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment,

I know this is a wonderful moment.

The breath is a wonderful object of meditation because it is always with us, it’s rhythmical, and it connects us intimately with our bodies and our surroundings. Next week, we will look at another meditation practice which uses the breath to develop greater focus and clarity.

Weekly practice idea:

Tune into the breath, both during meditation and also throughout the day, and try to simply observe it, without changing it in any way. What do you notice?

Anja Tanhane

Taking a deep breath

One of the most effective ways we can use to calm ourselves down is to learn what’s called diaphragmatic breathing – filling the whole of our lungs with the breath. You’d think this would be fairly straight-forward – after all, we all know how to breathe, don’t we? – but in fact it’s not. Over many years of teaching people to play the oboe, which is a woodwind instrument and requires diaphragmatic breathing, I’ve never had a student who was simply able to do it. They all had to be shown, and they all had to practise it.

Yet it’s not only woodwind players and singers who benefit from learning how to breathe more deeply. Firstly, the more air we get into our lungs, the more oxygen is available to us, which is healthier for our bodies. Another reason relates directly to our stress response. When we are in fight/flight mode, feeling under threat of some kind, our breath automatically becomes fast and shallow – this is to allow us to either sprint (run away very quickly) or to fight. If our breath is also fast and shallow at other times in our lives, or throughout the day, our brain is getting signals that the body is preparing itself for fight/flight. Thus, the brain is more likely to be on the alert, on the look-out for danger, even if you’re feeling quite safe or are trying to relax.

If, on the other hand, in the midst of a stressful situation, you are able to keep your breath deep and even, you’re sending signals to your brain that everything is under control. Yes, there is a lot going on, but you’re not in fight/flight mode, and you’re managing the situation just fine. You’ll feel calmer during the stressful event, able to think more clearly and respond more effectively, but you’ll also be able to relax more easily once the crisis is over.

So, how do we learn diaphragmatic breathing? The most effective way is to lie down on the floor with a heavy book, such as a dictionary or telephone book on your stomach. When we lie down, our breathing automatically becomes deeper, and the heavy book gives us a good sense of the actions of the stomach muscles rising and falling with each breath. Diaphragmatic breathing feels as if you’re breathing into the stomach, since the full lungs push down the sheet of muscle called the diaphragm between the chest and the abdomen, causing the stomach to expand.

Once you have a sense of this lying down, you can try it sitting on a chair and eventually standing up. When we take a deep breath, our stomach expands, while the chest stays quite neutral, and the shoulders are relaxed. Eventually, with a bit of practice, you can learn to breathe like that all the time, sending reassuring signals to the brain that all is well, you’re in control.

Weekly practice idea:

Try the exercise of lying down with a heavy book on your stomach every day, and tune into your breath at other times during the day, gradually learning how to breathe more deeply throughout the day.

Anja Tanhane

 

Music and mindfulness

We feel music in our bodies – whether we start to tap our toes, move with the rhythm, get up and dance; or else sit more quietly, at a classical concert perhaps: listening to music is never just on our heads, in our thoughts. Playing a musical instrument, or singing, involves the whole of the body, but even just listening to music is never a purely intellectual exercise.

Music also involves emotions – emotions which may have nothing to do with how we felt before the music started. Sometimes, music can seem to validate our existing emotional state, but other times it can transform our emotions, sometimes significantly. Music can provide a safe container for working through difficult emotions – a space from which we can explore our emotions and come to develop a new relationship to them.

Like music, mindfulness is an embodied way of living, and like music, mindfulness can help us approach our emotions in a new way. Music and mindfulness have a beneficial effect on our brain functioning and physiology – increasing the connectivity between the left and right brain hemispheres, improving executive functioning, and strengthening the immune system, for example. Listening to music or playing music can also help us step outside our small sense of self, into a larger, more expansive awareness, just as meditation can.

In our society, we place a lot of emphasis on intellectual problem solving, on figuring things out and coming up with solutions. This has its place, but is generally more limited than coming from a more embodied, experiential perspective. Music therapy, and the use of mindfulness in clinical applications, have both been validated through extensive research studies. We can all find ways of including some of these principles into our day to day life – going for a walk in the park perhaps when our mood is low, or baking a cake, singing along to music, or doing some yoga stretches. Sometimes, we just need to ‘be’ for a while, and our perspective will shift. Our life doesn’t necessarily improve because we’ve managed to solve a problem – sometimes simply stepping outside our heads, and making time and space for beneficial activities, can help us to deal with our life much more effectively.

Weekly practice idea:

What is one activity you enjoy, which gets you out of your head and back into experiencing life? This week, set aside half an hour for this activity, and notice how you feel before, during and afterwards.

Anja Tanhane

The music of now

‘The only thing that is constant is change.’ Heraclitus

Life is fleeting, ephemeral, forever transforming and changing. We might feel as if we’re living solid lives in solid bodies, with a solid value system and a strong sense of ‘this is me’, but in fact the cells in our bodies are continually dying and being renewed; our solid lives are highly vulnerable; our values change throughout our lives; and as for our sense of self – are you still the person you were at 12? Two years ago? Two breaths ago?

One of the fundamental ideas in Buddhism is that much of our suffering is caused by our attempts to live solid lives in an ephemeral world. This doesn’t mean we can’t have a sense of being grounded. We don’t need to live like tumble weeds, forever blown about by the wind, at the mercy of the slightest breeze. Yet even the Himalayas, which look so solid to us, are forever growing and transforming.

Music is the most ephemeral of the art forms – even a single held note is nothing more than ever-changing vibrations. By its nature, music can never be static. Each note is unique in its expression, and flows inevitably into the next. There is nothing we can hold on to in music, nothing we can own or pin down. By the time our brain registers a sound, it’s already gone.

Yet as human beings we love music, often passionately. With one or two exceptions, there are no societies which don’t have music as a fundamental part of their cultural identity. As a music therapist, I’ve been privileged to witness how sometime people can express more about themselves and their identity through music than through words.

And, despite its ephemeral nature, or perhaps because of it, music can ground us deeply into the present moment, to give us that sense of being alive right here, right now. We give ourselves over to music, without a desire to cling onto it, to own it or control it. We do this easily with music; often less comfortably with the rest of our lives. Next week, we will look at other similarities between music and mindfulness, and how these might be helpful for us.

Weekly practice idea:

Lie down on the couch and listen to a piece of music. Notice the sense of flow which music has, its ever-changing nature.

Anja Tanhane