Life shows up changing permanently, back and forth; sometimes stormy, sometimes calm, like waves on the surface of the sea. Each of us can be seen as a small ship or boat in this scenario. Continuing with this metaphor, our mind would be equivalent to the boat's helm. Enjoying physical health, emotional balance, clarity, and mental serenity, all this would be equivalent to the good general condition of the ship, without which it could not stay afloat on the immensity of the ocean. The same goes for our lives. When we lose physical health or emotional balance, when our mind loses a clear and serene vision of things, we feel that we go down little by little. That's when we recognize we need to take concrete actions to recover the integral balance: physical, emotional, and mental.
This experience of enjoying well-being and then realizing that we are losing it is one of the oldest experiences of human beings, from the moment the first homo sapiens got self-awareness to the present day. The next question is also the same that every human being asks when experiencing anxiety, sadness, frustration, anger, etc. How can I recover my well-being? How can I reconnect with my life, enjoying being alive every day?
Indeed, not all paths will lead to our true well-being. Perhaps we have experienced tracks that, at first, seemed the right ones, but then we could verify that they were not. I mean any attempt to 'cover up' dissatisfaction or suffering; such as the compulsive purchase of things we do not need; addiction to substances, drugs, and people—sometimes as toxic as drugs—; the gluttony of food or experiences that distract us from taking care of what really matters inside us.
Other ways lead to looking inside at our suffering in the eye, awakening the serene and compassionate consciousness within. These ways, like meditation—in any of its multiple forms—and particularly the practice of Mindfulness, the awareness of the present moment, including what happens in our mind, body, and environment. Mindfulness is a practice that invites us to develop a particular type of attention: on purpose, in a non-judicative and compassionate way.
The venerable Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh—recently deceased; affectionately named Thay, by his followers—, in one of his numerous books, entitled Old Path, White Clouds (1991; chapter 56), narrates an occasion in which the Buddha (6th century BCE), on a full moon night, near a lake where white lotuses bloomed spreading their delicate fragrance all around that place; taught then three thousand monks, men, and women. Through this practice, the Buddha explained, it would be possible to «return to ourselves and to life.» These conscious breathing exercises are the following:
«The first breath: ‘Breathing in a long breath, I know I am breathing in a long breath. Breathing out a long breath, I know I am breathing out a long breath.’
The second breath: ‘Breathing in a short breath, I know I am breathing in a short breath. Breathing out a short breath, I know I am breathing out a short breath.’»
Buddha explains that these first two conscious breaths allow the practitioner to move from the state of generalized automatism in which we usually live to a state of awareness of the present moment. Which has a double effect: stopping unnecessary thoughts that overwhelm the mind and reconnecting with the life that unfolds here and now. And he continues,
«The third breath: ‘Breathing in, I am aware of my whole body. Breathing out, I am aware of my whole body.
The fourth breath: ‘I am breathing in and making my whole body calm and at peace. I am breathing out and making my whole body calm and at peace.’»
The Buddha adds that these two conscious breaths allow the mind to reconnect with the body, which we often forget, immersed in our thoughts. Mindful breathing helps us find peace and generate harmony between body and mind. Continues,
«The fifth breath: ‘I am breathing in and feeling joyful. I am breathing out and feeling joyful.’
The sixth breath: ‘I am breathing in and feeling happy. I am breathing out and feeling happy.’»
The Buddha points out that these two breaths allow us to manage unpleasant emotions and generate pleasant ones inside, which reminds us that our joy and happiness are nowhere else than within.
«The seventh breath: ‘I am breathing in and am aware of the activities of the mind in me. I am breathing out and am aware of the activities of the mind in me.’
The eighth breath: ‘I am breathing in and making the activities of the mind in me calm and at peace. I am breathing out and making the activities of the mind in me calm and at peace.’»
The Buddha explains that these two exercises create an inner space for observing and noticing pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral emotions. And they allow us to transform those emotions into calm and serenity. The mindful breathing practices that follow (from 9 to 16) aim to deepen the experience of mindfulness, intensify happiness, concentration, and peace and, finally, cultivate acceptance of the impermanence of all things.
The mindfulness practice allows us to relate to our mental contents—thoughts, emotions, memories, images ... —from the inner observer. This is the common name of that unique human brain's metacognitive ability. That is, the ability to be aware of the 'activities of the mind'—as the Buddha calls them.
This ability to realize that we are thinking, experiencing a particular emotion, even realizing that we are aware of everything else allows us to find peace and freedom. Because the metacognitive ability we develop through the practice of Mindfulness us to notice that 'I am not this emotion or thought,' but 'I am the one who observes this emotion or thought.' And so, we regain the freedom to choose how we want to respond to what is happening here and now, instead of reacting from the 'autopilot'—the set of habits that constitutes our mental conditioning.
Without the practice of bringing attention to the present moment consistently, we would be trapped in our mind, which usually does not stop judging and judging us, criticizing, planning, and producing a snowslide of emotions that impact our mental and physical well-being, such as the waves hit a boat during a sea storm.
Dear reader, let me invite you to bring these simple but powerful mindful breathing practices into daily life to actively manage—create—well-being, serenity, and happiness daily for your benefit and the benefit of the people around you. Until the next post,
Thich Nhat Hanh (1991). Old Path, White Clouds. Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha