Mindful breathing is often the first practice we learn, and one we spend a lifetime trying to remember. Last summer, Thich Nhat Hanh led a three-week retreat in Vermont on the practice of mindful breathing. His Dharma talk in this issue originated in that retreat. In other articles, Dharma teachers Anh-Huong Nguyen and Joan Halifax share instructions on mindful breathing techniques. Dharma teachers Therese Fitzgerald and Eileen Kiera, and other practitioners, write of using mindful breathing to ground themselves and touch peace-in ordinary times and and in times of difficulty. Please enjoy this issue.- Leslie Rawls
By Anh-Huong Nguyen Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.
When I invest all of my being into my breath, this exercise becomes a mantra. I entrust myself completely to my breathing, and I know I am safe. Mindful breathing is my anchor.
Many young people suffer because they don't know what to do in times of strong emotion. They need the anchor of their breath. A few weeks ago, I shared the technique of belly-breathing with a group of fifth-grade students. I told them to use it in times of strong emotions. They listened attentively and practiced very well. These young people need our help to enter the heart of the Buddha and learn to take refuge in their safe island of self. My family escaped from
Vietnam in a very small boat. None of us could swim. Before we left, my father tied eight floats on both sides of the boat. On the open sea, our boat was caught in a terrible storm. The boat engine stopped. I peeped out of the boat. The waves were so high, all I could see was water- no sky, no horizon, just water everywhere. If my father had not tied floats on the boat, we would all have been in the bellies of the fish. Mindful breathing is like the floats on our small boat. By holding onto our breathing, we are able to go safely through the storms of life.
Allowing our body to relax is the key to enjoying our breathing. The breath is part of the body. When the body is at ease, breathing becomes natural and relaxed. Since conscious breathing is a bridge connecting body and mind, the breath is also part of the mind. When the breath is calm, it calms the mind. I like to see my breathing as a pillow on which I rest: "Breathing in, I am resting on the pillow of my in-breath. Breathing out, I am resting on the pillow of my out-breath."
The practice of mindful breathing is the practice of stopping. Someone asked when to stop. The answer is "now." There is such a lot of confusion, misunderstanding, and suffering in each of us and in the world today it is important for us to learn and practice the skill of stopping. When we discover that we are running into an accident, our only wish is to be able to stop. And we can achieve stopping by holding onto our anchor of conscious breathing. Stopping helps us realize the absence of accident-the presence of safety and happiness. A half-smile is the fruit of that realization. Forgetfulness is the kind of energy that makes us run away from the present moment, and is the cause of many of our accidents. Missing our steps as we walk on earth is an accident. Missing the looks and the smiles of our beloved ones at the dinner table is another accident. The moment we come back to our breath, forgetfulness is being transformed into remembrance, mindfulness, happiness, and compassion.
The practice of conscious breathing is indeed the beginning of and the basis of the practice of love. The practice of a half-smile always goes with the practice of mindful breathing. A smile is both a means and an end. We smile to acknowledge and nurture the joy that is present, so that our joy may continue to grow. When happiness pervades our whole being, a half-smile blooms on our lips, in our eyes, and beneath our steps-without any effort. Several people have asked: "How can I smile when there is no joy in my heart?" The feeling of joy may not be present, but the seed of joy is there. It only needs to be touched and watered.
Mindful breathing helps us water the seeds of joy by connecting with the elements of joy within and around us: "Breathing in, I feel the blood flowing in my body. Breathing out, I am in touch with the sound of water trickling in the creek." Friends in the practice can help us touch our seed of joy. Our smile can also help us touch our seed of joy. We do not have to feel joy to smile. We smile to wake up the seed of joy sleeping in the soil of our mind. It may not seem too difficult to smile to others, yet it can feel strange to smile to ourselves. More than anyone, we deserve our smile. If we cannot smile to ourselves, something is in the way, preventing us from accepting and loving our self.
Suppose one winter day, we come home and the house is cold. We light the fireplace. After a while, the room becomes warm and comfortable. Our energy of mindfulness embraces our pain in the same way. The act of making a fire is born from an insight that the room is cold and the desire to warm the room. When we realize that we are suffocating in our pain, deep in our heart is born the desire to relieve our suffering. Our half-smile is the manifestation of that awakening and desire. Our half-smile is a breath of fresh air which brings immediate relief to our pain. It proves that we have compassion towards ourselves. Before the match is struck, the fire logs cannot produce wann air. Similarly, we must touch the seed of self-compassion for mindful breathing to produce the energy needed for transformation. Mindful breathing is the practice of compassion: "Breathing in, I smile to my in-breath. Breathing out, I smile to my whole body."
Holding onto our breathing is an art. It requires self-training and practice. By nurturing ourselves with the ease and joy of conscious breathing while strong emotions are not there, we will remember to return to our breath the moment strong emotions start to arise. If our instability is so great that we cannot hold onto and experience a sense of safety in our breath, one of the following methods can be used.
First, we can revive trust in ourselves and in the practice by recalling any feeling of peace and stability that was produced by our conscious breathing in the past. This can be done most easily when we are in an environment conducive to the practice, such as in a park or beside a river. The energy of trust helps us reconnect and entrust ourselves to our breath again. Second, we can ask for support from our Sangha brothers and sisters who are quite solid and loving. Their presence and their words bring us relief and enable us to taste the safety of our breath again. Third, we can allow ourselves to be embraced by a loving, supportive community that has the practice of peace, joy, stability, and compassion as its foundation. Breath is life. If we cannot experience the safety of conscious breathing and the joy of being alive, we are like wilted flowers. A practice community is good soil where each practitioner is trained to be a skillful gardener. Good soil and well-trained gardeners together can transform wilted flowers into fresh flowers. Taking refuge in the Sangha is to entrust ourselves completely to the practice and wisdom of the Sangha. The Sangha is the anchor. If the Sangha is a true Sangha, we will be able to experience the joy of conscious breathing in order to be healed and transformed.
In one retreat, a woman expressed feeling numb toward her breath. Belly-breathing did not work for her. It is true that when our mind and body become very tense, we may not be able to feel our breathing. I asked her to lie down and allow herself to be held tenderly in the arms of the Mother Earth as several imagery exercises were offered to help her relax. After 20 minutes, she began to feel her in-breath and her out-breath. Later in the retreat, as tears came to her eyes, she shared with friends her feeling of peacefulness with the practice of belly-breathing. This miracle could not have happened without a loving, supportive Sangha. It is autumn in Virginia. Each day, I receive many beautiful leaves from our five-year-old son, Bao-Tich.
Whenever he steps through the door, his face is as radiant as the leaf in his hands. Looking at Bao-Tich, I realize how happy he was to encounter the leaf, pick it up, bring it home, and offer it to me. For him, each autumn leaf is a true wonder. He encounters each leaf as if it is everything. He looks so happy and satisfied! Everyone was once a child like Bao-Tich. We were happy and satisfied with "little things" such as the leaves, the pebbles, the twigs, the acorns. We looked up at the sky and talked to the birds. Our smile shows our desire to revive that capacity. A smile is the rain and the sunshine. It has the power of liberating us from holding enmity toward ourselves and others. A smile can transform dry earth into fertile soil. Our smile seals us to the present moment.
A mindfulness practitioner is a love weaver. When we practice mindful breathing-whether sitting, standing, walking, or lying down--each breath is a thread woven into a cradle of love. Thanks to this cradle, we have a place to hold and nurture our joy, to hold and lullaby our pain. Transformations take place in this very cradle.
Dharma teacher Anh-Huong, Chan Y, facilitates the Mindfulness Practice Center in Fairfax, Virginia. She is the founder of The Committee for the Relief of Poor Children in Vietnam, which helps poverty-stricken children and orphans in Vietnam.
By Eileen Kiera I return to mindfulness of my breath as to a prayer-not prayer as supplication, but as a willingness to be open to what is unfolding in each moment. With conscious breathing as a foundation, we welcome whatever comes. Resting in the stillness of our breathing, we welcome the things we want and the things we don't want, the things we generally choose to push away, deny, or ignore. Whatever presents itself, we are able to be here in trust. I'm reminded of Brother Lawrence, a 16th century Christian monk, who said he practiced the presence of God. In each moment, he came back to trust whatever presented itself to him. He gave himself into relationship with each event or person who came to him as if God breathed with him.
Even as I sit at my computer, writing these words, I'm given the opportunity to practice. My ten-year-old daughter, Naomi, asks me to put her hair in a bun. My first thought is to send her away, imploring her not to disturb me. But I return to my breathing as if to prayer and choose instead to be with her. As I brush her thick, black hair, I am touched by her sweetness and beauty. I feel my love for her, and the preciousness of this fleeting moment together. When we have finished, I am more present than before to my writing, and she goes off, happily singing a little song to herself.
Mindful breathing adds weight and potency to the simple things in our lives, and allows us to touch the depth of mystery, the deepest rhythms that are present in even the most ordinary things. In spring, I love the sight and scent of tender, pink apple blossoms. In summer, the fruit, hidden in green leaves, attracts deer and Steller's jays to our yard. In autumn, the crisp, frosted apples are filled with the most delicious, sweet juice. In winter, the apple trees stands bare of leaves and fruit, as if dead. Year after year, I marvel at this ordinary cycle of life. It is a rhythm, like the ebb and flow of the tides, the waxing and waning of the moon, the coming and going of my breath-the rhythm of life and death that surpasses our thoughts or understanding of life and death. And we live in the midst of this mystery every moment, with each breath.
I was touched by this mystery recently as I sat with a friend who lay dying. After sharing some memories of times we had spent together, ordinary events now filled with poignancy, I sat with him in silence. My breath seemed most ordinary, but it brought me in touch with the presence of the mystery, which you might call the presence of God. I was not looking for anything or making any effort to understand what was happening. Rather my breath was like a silent prayer of opening and trusting. In a few moments, I noticed that my friend and I were breathing together, our chests rising and falling at the same rate, slowly, peacefully. He reached out and took my hand, as old friends do. And I knew that we were both moving in the midst of the unknown, accepting even this. Being with each other, loving each other, as we had over many years, was enough in that moment. And I think it is enough in every moment, when we practice as prayer. We fall in love with everything that life gives us. We enjoy this day.
Dharma teacher Eileen Kiera, True Lamp, teaches mindfulness throughout the Pacific Northwest. She is co-founder of Mountain Lamp Community, a group of people dedicated to creating a rural practice center in the Pacific Northwest. They have purchased 40 acres in the mountains of northern Washington State, and are currently raising money and planning for the first stages of development.
By Therese Fitzgerald After months of zazen practice at San Francisco Zen Center, I asked my teacher Richard Baker-roshi, "Do I really have to count my breath?" "Yes," he responded with unmistakable solemnity. I had friends who managed to count hundreds of breaths forwards and backwards, and others who described staying home just enjoying their breathing in zazen posture. So I kept putting myself in the "bamboo rod," as Suzuki-roshi writes in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind--trying to learn what for me was a somewhat elusive practice.
Ten years ago, I acknowledged to Thich Nhat Hanh that paying attention to my breathing was mostly an experience of getting in touch with constriction in my abdomen and chest. Thlly asked me, "Is there any time you enjoy your breathing?" I thought for a moment and responded, "Yes, when I'm floating in the ocean, in a pond, or even in the bathtub." "Why do you ever get out of the bathtub?" he asked wide-eyed, opening his palm.
Now as I sit up in bed writing while my husband sleeps next to me, I realize I am enjoying my breathing alongside of his breathing. At times-sitting at my office desk looking out the window, lying under a tree, standing at the dish sink-I find myself simply and happily being conscious of my breathing. The concept and practice of stopping, samatha-stopping at the sound of the telephone bell, having a friend ask, "Are you enjoying your breathing?" or stopping for formal meditation-has helped me notice my breathing throughout the day and notice whether it is long or short, relaxed or constricted. Stretching out in the prone posture is the most conducive for my relaxed breathing, and floating in a warm body of water, especially salt water, always gives me the most enjoyable breathing experience.
And then there are times when I have really needed to "take refuge in the island of self' by practicing conscious breathing. This practice was my constant companion, for example, throughout the ordeal of my beloved brother's recovery from a brain injury accident, starting with six weeks in a coma. The breath proved to be my strongest link with the present moment. By returning to my breath when any thoughts of the past or the future could have overwhelmed me, I nurtured my strength to stay with my brother through the coma- which was fairly unnerving, as he was both completely familiar to me and yet far, far away in another universe. Walking meditation in the halls of the neuro-unit sustained me in my contact with less-than sensitive medical staff and anxious visitors. I remember one visitor pleading with me, "Tell me it's gonna be all right." I breathed and spoke from a place of calm conviction, "He's alive. Let's be grateful and be with him as he is right now."
I had to leave midway through the coma, knowing that it would be several weeks before I could see my brother again. My father and I had just visited a facility for severely-damaged brain injury survivors. As I entered my brother's hospital room, I was choked up with sorrow and dread. Tears threatened to disable me from sitting by his side and helping him as he struggled to tear at the feeding tube. I called on the practice of putting breath to song and sang "Breathing In, Breathing Out" with as much spirit as I could gather. My calm was restored, and my sister, who arrived to take care of my brother, was heartened.
Years later, I continued to process the lessons from this experience. While practicing walking meditation at Plum Village one year after the accident, my sadness almost overwhelmed me. I remembered Thay's advice to me just months after the accident when I found it difficult to practice walking meditation on the beautiful streets of Prague, as all I could think of was my brother's inability to walk at the time. Thay had responded, "Walk for your brother." As we started out on the path along the Plum Village sunflower fields, I poured my loving concentration for my brother into each step, while I maintained awareness of my breathing. A song/mantra emerged from that walk which expresses what I continue to learn from the radical awakenings my brother opened up for me: I didn't know how precious life is, until I saw you lying there. I must have forgotten how precious life is, and then I saw you lying there. I couldn't believe how precious life is, as I watched you lying there. And then I practiced taking care, taking care of you lying there. And now I know how precious life is, how very precious life is.
I tum to this mantra when I need to come back to my breathing and deepen my perspective.
It seems so simple: mindful breathing helps us be present for the preciousness of life. The trick is "remembering to remember" the practice that helps us stay present. We help ourselves by carving out time to sit and walk mindfully every day to develop the "habit" of stopping and being with the breath. And yes, counting the breath, gatha practice, guided meditations, or some other means of being fully aware of our breathing, can be the vehicle which facilitates our practice so that it is there for us to call on when we need it.
Dharma teacher Therese Fitzgerald, True Light, practices swimming meditation and mindful breathing in any body of water above freezing.
By Jerry Braza and Robert Henderson Our University Stress Management Class begins at 9:30 every Tuesday and Thursday morning. At precisely ten o'clock, the campus bell chimes and the entire class stops. We listen, breathe, and smile as we come back to the present moment. In that moment, with each respiration, we unite body, mind, and spirit in a kind of "re-spiriting," thus embodying the very essence of the root of the word "respiration."
During the class, students learn a wide variety of meditation and relaxation techniques. This includes discussion, exploration, and daily practice of mindfulness as a powerful form of stress reduction, as well as a metaphor for life. Students are discovering how mindful breathing can be a bridge between mind, body, and spirit. They are taught vaIious gathas such as "Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile," and are encouraged to develop their own phrases to accompany the breath during a variety of activities.
Initially, students noticed their breathing mainly during periods of physical activity. With the practice of mindful breathing, they report many positive changes. Breathing mindfully on the walk to the library facilitates a more relaxed mood needed to complete assignments. Mindful breathing while driving has helped combat forms of "road rage," so students don't get angry as often and arrive more relaxed. Breathing mindfully before a performance allows time for reflection and reduces anxiety. Students also report that mindful breathing helps them appreciate the natural beauty on campus, forget time constraints for the moment, focus before class, control anger, and cope with people and situations more calmly and effectively.
The class is discovering that the academic highway, often riddled with potholes, can also be smooth, peaceful, and scenic. In learning to stop, breathe, and smile, students are realizing that they are not separate from each other. Mindful breathing offers the space and awareness for deeper connections to others in the class and eventually, the campus community. Slowly, breath by breath, within this "academic family," a Sangha is blossoming.
Jerry Braza, True Great Response, is an Associate Professor at Western Oregon University, where he teaches Health Education. Robert Henderson is a graduate assistant at Western Oregon University.
By Leslie Rawls Editing this issue of The Mindfulness Bell, I have been able to focus on my breath as a reality, not as a habit. The habit is when the bell rings, I stop and breathe, counting my breaths. If I'm not with my breathing, stopping and counting is empty recitation-like children saying the Lord's Prayer without understanding the meaning. On occasion, I have been aware that I want to count my breath and get back to work. That's just counting; it's not breathing. I become aware of the urge to get it over, and that helps me come back to real awareness.
Working with these articles has helped me remember what a gift it is for the phone to ring or the computer bell to chime. Not because it takes me away from work, but because it reminds me to breathe mindfully. When I am truly present, my conscious breathing extends beyond the sound of the bell. I am able to carry it steadily. I am grateful for my breathing because when I practice conscious breathing deeply, it brings me into this moment. And, a half-smile really does bloom on my face effortlessly.
Leslie Rawls, True Enlightenment Country, lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.