Breath as Mirror to the Mind

Our breath is a most nuanced and intimate guide to our psyches, and following its behavior is a revealing and direct path to understanding our deepest selves. Observing our own breath or observing someone else’s is a window to the subtle body and the most subtle of habits. Noticing breath while meditating opens the window for a view of the potent and usually unconscious patterns of breathing that correspond to our mental and emotional states. By noticing breath as it is occurring during the practice of yoga asana, or any reflective physical practice, we open the door to another and sometimes insidious pattern – that of avoiding displeasure on a very basic level.

The pattern of avoidance can be quite obvious, especially when faced with pain of any kind. Instantly upon feeling discomfort, the mind leaves the country, flees for the hills, going anywhere but towards the unpleasantness. This rapid act of mentally leaving whatever is unpleasant also affects the breath – it literally takes the breath along with it. Breath and mind are life long partners, what one does affects the other, so knowing them together is one of our clearest portals to our most subconscious and unconscious behavioral patterns. It’s interesting to recognize what we actively avoid because it can compose a fairly large percentage of our experiences, and if so, we are missing being present for a large percentage of our lives. Additionally, noticing our patterns of avoidance brings to light what we can work with so that we gain the capacity to meet our life with a more open and steady gaze.

This act of the breath escaping discomfort is very quiet, and normally not noticed unless one intends to take it on as an anchor or support for a practice. By recognizing our breaths disposition, readiness to stop or be held and its lightening like reactive quality we work with some of our more hidden behavior, behavior that will be repeated in a variety of other circumstances and with different causes, and not just in the physical realm, but in emotional and mental arenas as well.

Knowing the Mind by Knowing the Breath

Genetically, we are inclined to quickly remove ourselves from danger, and this is a very skillful habit to have. But, as in many types of patterned behavior that has become unconscious and unquestioned, this reaction has become too easily triggered and most of the time, to no real benefit. The surge and urge to run from anything dangerous or uncomfortable has become a habit of fleeing anything even remotely unpleasant. Our minds are so habitually prone to check out, find a distraction, find something anything to take away the pain or discomfort without a second thought that we’ve taken the initially life prolonging habit a bit too far, overstressing our system and depleting our life force.

If we feel startled, threatened or slightly uncomfortable the fight or flight response can be triggered, but even before this response is set off with it’s cascading affect of hormones being released, heart rate speeding up and blood vessels constricting is the more quiet and subtle response of the breath getting caught or held. One of the reasons it is so helpful to be in tune with the breath is that we can catch this initial response before the larger and more harmful stress response is unconsciously ignited. Mindfulness of the breath, and body educates us to be alert to our breath and body signals that are somewhat like a warning alarm, when it’s not too late to take care.

This habit of holding breath or moving it away from discomfort can be experienced in the physical body easily. Next time there’s an itch, try not to scratch it.  It takes a considerable amount of mindfulness to notice the itch and pause to choose whether to scratch or quell the reaction just by observing the impulse and not following it.  When you feel discomfort in the body while sitting to meditate, you can notice this pattern of holding the breath the moment the noticing of the discomfort arises. When you experience this pattern of holding the breath, you’ve witnessed its hesitance, it’s waiting like habit of wait and see how bad this gets. This unconscious impulse to end any discomfort, like quickly scratching the itch, or holding the breath as soon as any kind of pain enters consciousness, constitutes what has become a routine neurologically.  When these impulses are reacted to without awareness, it causes a conditioned response in the mind. After it’s been repeated a few times, the mind automatically behaves the same way with similar stimulus, and herein lays cause and condition or what might be called the karma of what becomes our conditioned mind.

This nuanced and most insidious pattern of avoidance can also be experienced when noticing something uncomfortable in a yoga posture. Whenever there is discomfort somewhere in the body during a pose, you can usually notice the breath being as far away from the source of discomfort as possible. If there is a slight pain in the hamstring for instance, the breath will most likely be in the upper regions of the chest. This breath reaction is lightening quick – even when we are trained to notice this subtle kind of behavior, it can still happen, but the difference is that once we observe the embedded process we have the opportunity to take charge and respond as we would like, rather than continually being a product of rote, unconscious behavior. It is much to our advantage to notice our patterns of breath reactions in the physical realm – as in a yoga practice, or during meditation because it sets the stage and trains the mind to be able to notice this same behavioral reaction to emotional or mental discomfort. It is far easier to start with the physical and work your way up to the emotional and mental realms, the patterns are the same, but the challenge isn’t as steep.  Noticing the breath high in the chest or throat area for instance when experiencing unpleasant sensations when stretching a tight hamstring, brings to light what our breath can do when we’re experiencing anxiety for instance. Bringing the breath/mind to the area of discomfort and overriding the pattern of fleeing the scene of the hamstring is easier than working with the breath and calming it down when under duress. By doing this time and again, we train our awareness so that we notice and respond, rather than feel and react. A habit or pattern can be over laid with a more thoughtful and skillful response over time. By using yoga postures as one more way to observe our behavioral patterns we step closer into knowing our unconscious selves more intimately, and the options that spring from this are endless.

Working with What We See

By noticing breath when it becomes tight, or noticing that the rhythm of breath has changed we are offered a window of time to make a thoughtful choice about how we respond or react to what it is that we are feeling or thinking. By drawing the mind ever more closely into the body and breath moment to moment, we are continually inviting ourselves away from the overly thinking mind and into the feeling or embodied awareness that can be in the currant moment and with whatever it provides. This instigates a skillful habit of allowing a pause, and to be able to make a choice – to meet the present moment rather than a running away from it, or instantly spinning off and imagining an outcome that is completely invented with no semblance to what is actually going on.

It is not through denial or by pushing it away, that a habit can be quieted or quelled, but rather recognition that pulls the power away from the strong pull of habit. When the thinking mind begins to spin itself out of control there is a momentum that develops until there is little room to escape. We become caught up in a process, a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions that usually are blown out of proportion and on a fast track to heightening. Noticing the habit, and turning attention to the breath is a very skillful way to work with the habits that propel us into action or frenzy or an emotional ride. Over time, although the habit may still present it self, there can be simply an acknowledgement – there’s the habit, and a conscious choice to say no thanks, not to react, not right now. This kind acknowledgement and subsequent turning away unseats the pattern until it has no power to cause a reaction at all. Like all unconscious patterns in the mind, any process can be further strengthened, by remaining unseen or diluted with awareness to the point that it no longer controlling.

Emotionally we can usurp many a heated reaction if we are working with our breath and body in the moment of any type of distress. The body feels a thought or emotion before the mind cognizes it – and one of the ways the body reacts to discomfort is by holding the breath, or by constricting an area, moving breath away from the location of pain, physically and mentally. If we are in our bodies while we are doing whatever the body is doing – be it washing our hands, walking down the street, bringing our fork to our mouths, talking to someone, sitting at our desk, if we are present in everything we are doing, exactly while we are doing it, we will notice the breath being held or caught, or the body tightening (which functions to move the breath away) and have a window of time necessary to prevent the thoughts or emotions from spinning out of control in the mind. Even if we are mindful of ¾ of what we are doing when we are doing it, we can loosen the grip of our unconscious behavior by noticing what is going on as it is beginning in the body, rather than after it has exploded in our minds or imploded in our hearts.

Just noticing the body, is often enough to calm a raging sea of thought or storm of emotion, just recognizing this is how the body feels right now is one of our greatest awareness practices and life long skills of working with our own mind. And when we train our minds to be more available to the body and breath at all times, we’ve created a strong attentive partnership, if we miss one, the other will tell the forthcoming story again – observing either then is of benefit. In addition to watching breath come and go, watch the more refined song of breath, the echo and sound of mind and heart, for knowing it well will attune the whole system into a communicative, expressive experience of being fully and availably alive.