Link Between Breath and Mind

July 9, 2012


There is  a popular quote doing the rounds of posters and greeting cards that goes something like this:

Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but the moments that take our breath away. 

It is attributed to Anonymous, who has been impressively prolific over the centuries.

What precisely happens during those moments when our breaths are taken away? A purple sunrise, a neon curtain of Northern Lights, a newborn’s grip. Our minds come to a complete stop. For a time, we are vaulted out of the thoughts whirlpool and are in pure awareness.We experience the inherent bliss of our true selves. We are calm, whole, connected.  What this little quote hints at, beyond its greeting card wisdom, is the link between the flow of thoughts and breathing.

Take another rudimentary example, when we are aroused by anger or fear, we hyperventilate. When we need to calm our minds, we are advised to take deep breaths.

A common preparatory step in meditation is to observe the breath. This is because the source of breath and the source of thoughts is one and the same. Somehow, observing the breath has the effect of slowing down the rate of breathing. They become deep, slow and rhythmic. We are not forcing the breath to comply, it just happens when we give it attention. Then we shift out attention to the thoughts, they follow a parallel pattern. As the breath slows, so does the rate of chatter in the mind. If we observe attentively, we notice that thoughts live during inhalation, and dissipate upon exhalation. And for the brief moment between breaths we are thought free. In that gap we experience the same bliss of pure awareness as during those moments when external beauty made us catch our breath.  Unfortunately, the pause between breaths is so fleeting in waking life that it goes by unnoticed.

Meditators sometimes complain that the onslaught of thinking is so compelling that the don’t even notice the gap between thoughts. It feels like a continuous barrage of mental spam – unwanted,  distractive nuisance. Not surprising that people give up meditation from frustration.

Observing the mind is a subtle habit to cultivate, but well worth the effort. The delicate trick to learn is to notice without getting involved with the contents of the thoughts. If we were asked to stand on the side of a busy highway and simply observe the cars driving by, I bet we could not. The task sounds simple enough but we are so much in the habit of commenting, judging. He is driving a ferrari, what does he think of himself. Why is she on the cellphone while driving. I don’t like the shade of green on that car. And on and on. Because we do not have this skill in daily life, of course it elludes us when we sit for meditation. Not to worry, the skill can be learned. Like any skill it requires patience and trials. Once the skill is established, we are able to dive into that silence between thoughts. Till that happens here are some points of inquiry designed to give attention to the process of mentation itself.

  • What is the canvas upon which the images appear as your thoughts?
  • Do they have colour?
  • Imagine a landscape. Is there depth in your mind’s eye? Where is the space between two details within your thoughtscape?
  • Is there time intervals within the thought images? Do the images move from one action to another? Or is it that they morph like clouds?
  • When you exhale, what happens to the images of your thoughts? Do they reform exactly as before when you inhale?
  • Is the sender of the thoughts different from the receiver?
  • Why are some thoughts so fleeting whereas other memories appear concrete for years?
  • None of these questions require a definitive answer. The point is to notice, to observe without getting caught into the contents of the mind.
  • While there are precious external moments that do still our minds (and our breaths) we need not wait for those life’s gifts. We can learn to cultivate that state through deliberate and sustained observation of what constitutes this web of thoughts, awareness, and self.

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