Have you ever had trouble breathing? I don't mean just being out of breath from exercising or getting the wind knocked out of you or laughing so hard you're crying. I mean unable to get enough air in and out of your lungs for a single breath, that each inhale hits a brick wall and ricochets back out with a violent coughing spell, and speaking more than ten words in a row is a feat of endurance. The flu, this voracious gremlin in my lungs has put new meaning into the phrase Mindfulness of the Breath.
Mindfulness Meditation involves paying attention to the breath; its rhythm, regularity and dependability, the changing nature and sensations of the inhale and the exhale, settling the mind on what it actually feels like to breathe. In his masterful new book Mindfulness, the renowned Buddhist teacher Joseph Goldstein writes,
“Let the breath draw the mind down to its own level of subtlety. It’s like listening to someone playing a flute as they walk off into the distance.”
This is mindfulness of the breath – a beautiful practice that can be especially difficult or even inaccessible when one’s breathing is compromised. Yet the image of listening to a sound as it fades into the distance is a welcoming doorway into the practice. Not only does meditation steady the mind, calm the nervous system and develop concentration, it also gives us a front row seat to everything else that happens in our minds, moment-by-moment, and play-by-play. And sometimes we get a little more than we bargained for.
Whether or not you're a meditator, difficulty breathing or getting spun around by runaway thoughts or emotions can be as hard as trying to steady a boat on choppy seas during a storm. The more resistance and struggle, the more painful it becomes. We need ways of getting underneath the surface of the storm to widen our perspective and regain our balance.
Here's a meditation you might like: Find a quiet place where you can sit comfortably for about ten minutes. Settle in by closing your eyes and get a sense of your posture. If you're sitting on a chair feel your feet on the floor and the back of your body touching the chair. Pause long enough to notice the sensations of sitting.
Now become aware of whatever has you in its grip as if you were caught on a boat in a storm – be it physical pain, emotional upheaval, a troubling event you can't stop thinking about, etc. Take a minute to get a sense of what this struggle feels like. However and wherever you feel it is just right. You cannot do this wrong.
Next, imagine diving off the side of the boat deep down below the surface of the water, below the surface of any thoughts and even deep below the surface of the breath. There is no storm here and it’s very quiet. Looking up you can see the churning surface, but right here deep below the surface there is no resistance and no struggle. Let yourself feel this freedom for as long as you like. Open your eyes when you're ready. And one of my favorite poems...
I don't know
And I don't know
What to do about it. I simply hit a point
Where I lost heart for judgments
And was swept
Into the voluptuous, harrowing complexities
Composing a single breath. - Jim Dodge Rain on the River; Selected Poems and Short Prose, 2002