Meditation is one of the best things you can do for your mind and stress. So when you hear “mindful breathing,” you may think I’m talking about meditation, but it’s different. Meditation typically refers to a more formal, seated practice that focuses on opening your heart, expanding awareness and calming your mind. Mindfulness is all about being more aware and paying attention to thoughts, feelings, behaviors and how those things have an effect on the world around you.
You can practice mindful breathing anytime, anywhere and with anyone by showing up and being fully engaged in the here and now. Mindfulness is the simple act of paying attention and noticing and being present in whatever you’re doing. When most people go about their daily lives, their minds wander from the actual activity they are participating in, to other thoughts or sensations. When you’re mindful, you are actively involved in the activity with all of your senses instead of allowing your mind to wander.
The most basic way to do mindful breathing is simply to focus your attention on your breath, the inhale and exhale. You can be sitting or standing and your eyes may be open or closed, but you may find it easier to maintain your focus if you close your eyes. It can help to set aside a designated time for this exercise, but it can also help to practice it when you’re feeling particularly stressed or anxious.
Being in a state of meditation means being present with what is. Breathing, following the breath, helps focus the mind and bring you back to the present moment. In his classic guide to meditation practice, Wherever You Go, There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zinn writes this about breathing: “It helps to have a focus for your attention, an anchor line to tether you to the present moment and to guide you back when the mind wanders. The breath serves this purpose…Bringing awareness to our breathing we remind ourselves that we are here now.”
So how can mindful breathing help you?
- Mindful breathing can be used as a way to develop deep insight, which leads to awakening and enlightenment. It’s a tool to calm the mind so it can see into itself and gain that insight. It strengthens mind concentration and stimulates compassion, awakening each person’s true nature.
- When you practice mindful breathing, you gain a skill you can use whenever you need to quiet and clear the mind. Just following a few breaths—in and out, in and out—can relax the mind and body so you can calmly observe and respond to the world around you, rather than mindlessly reacting to events.
- Trying to banish negative thoughts, feelings or memories is a useless pursuit. Rather, the challenge is to recognize negative thoughts and let them pass instead of identifying with them and giving them more power than they deserve. Mindful breathing teaches the mind and body to let go; like the breath, troubling thoughts and feelings come and go. As you learn to quiet the mind by paying attention to your breathing, distractions lose their power to disrupt your focus and disturb your mind.
As you focus on your breath, your thoughts settle down and your mind becomes calm and clear. What results is a feeling of contentment, happiness and inner peace. All it takes is a few minutes each day to connect with your body and your breath. To get you started, Stop, Breathe & Think has some great guides and this episode of Holding Space podcast are both great resources for mindful breathing.
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