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Take a Breath

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Take a Breath

Awareness practice starts here.
Dr. Jonty  Heaversedge
Dr. Jonty Heaversedge More by this author
Jul 23, 2012 at 10:00 AM

Are you aware of your breathing? We mean, are you really aware of the experience of breathing, right now, in your body? Not the thought, “Yes, of course I’m breathing,” but the actual sensation of breath circulating through your body in this very moment? Are you aware of the air brushing lightly against the inside of your nostrils as you breathe in? Do you notice the rising of your chest as your lungs fill with air? Can you feel the expansion of your abdomen as the breath flows down into your belly? How about the beating of your heart—are you able to sense it pumping oxygenated blood through your body? Now, are you aware of your breath as you exhale, the contraction of the belly and the dropping down of your chest, the cool breeze under your nose or on your lips as the air mixes once more with the space around?

See if you can pay attention to your breathing like this for a few moments. Really connect with your breath, not as an intellectual idea, but through feeling it, touching into it. Be curious about your experience. Whereabouts do you feel these sensations? What are their qualities? There’s no need to analyze—just noticing is fine. Whenever you find that your attention has wandered away from the breath—you suddenly find yourself caught up in thinking, perhaps about what you had for breakfast this morning, the ache in your stomach, or what a weird exercise this is—just notice that your mind has wandered and gently bring it back, so that your attention is resting on your breath once more. This is the practice of mindful breathing.

Isn’t the breath amazing? All day and night, our body keeps on breathing, whether we are conscious of it or not. Even when we fall asleep, we’re drawing in air, filling our lungs, feeding our organs—our breathing keeps us alive. We don’t need to do anything; we can just allow it to happen. Our bodies breathe for us. It’s wonderful.

How often do you pay attention to your breathing in this way? And how often, on the other hand, do you just take it for granted, assuming that your body will keep you alive simply because that’s what it’s been doing all your life? Breathing is the most basic activity we engage in as living creatures. When we stop doing it for more than a few minutes, we die. And yet most of us rarely check in with this vital process—we rarely notice how it feels, on the most fundamental bodily level, to be alive.

If we hardly ever notice the texture, the quality, the feel of our breathing—a process that’s happening in us all the time—then what else are we missing? What other experiences routinely pass us by, perhaps because we are busy thinking about the past or the future, or trying to get somewhere other than where we actually are? How much of our lives do we live on automatic pilot?

We might discover a lot more about ourselves and the world around us if we were able to pay more attention to each moment, in the same way that we just paid attention to our breathing. There’s ordinary magic around us: in the majesty of a tree, for example, perhaps one that has stood for hundreds of years, and whose living parts—leaves, branches, and trunk—are all as miraculous and mysterious as our own bodies. Wonder is found across the natural world: in the insects and rodents that crawl or scurry about beneath us, and in the stars and sun, those giant formations, which nevertheless form only a tiny speck of this universe that we really know so little about.

Perhaps we could pay more attention to our own achievements, too—sensing the ingredients in a delicious meal, savoring the exquisite taste as we roll the food around with our tongue? Perhaps we could look up at the buildings in our street, and see how, brick upon brick, they’ve been carefully constructed, and how they shelter us from the elements? Perhaps we could even pay attention to the cursor on a computer screen, noticing how it darts about when we shift an electronic mouse from side to side. How many of us fully understand how and why this remarkable piece of technology works, or how it came to be invented?

About Author
Dr. Jonty  Heaversedge
Dr. Jonty Heaversedge is a family doctor in a large practice in South East London. He completed a degree in psychology and then a Masters in Mental Health Studies, and continues to pursue a particular interest in the psychological health and well-bei Continue reading