A few thoughts about mindfulness and breathing techniques | Mindfulness Monday

Recently I was involved in an online discussion about breath work and mindfulness. What follows is adapted and expanded from some of my comments to that discussion.

I like what Thich Nhat Hanh says about mindfulness:

“Mindfulness shows us what is happening in our bodies, our emotions, our minds, and in the world. Through mindfulness, we avoid harming ourselves and others.”

A lot of what is taught about mindfulness (especially in the workplace) is overly simplified. Too much of what’s going on today is jumping on a fad bandwagon, with people trying to teach something they don’t really understand. They seem to think it’s all about practicing set breathing patterns and sitting still.

Breath work is just one tool — a tool that doesn’t work for me in the way in which it is typically taught. When I tried it, I ended up either even more anxious or terribly distracted and annoyed. (What does work for me is learning how to breathe effectively when doing some physical activity.)

Even if you can sit and meditate and breathe “perfectly” for half an hour or more each day, you won’t necessarily know how to be mindful the rest of the day.

For awhile, I felt like I gave up on the whole mindfulness thing. I don’t think that was actually the case — I think I was aware and present enough to realize that the typical practices I was being taught simply did not work for me. It’s not just because I “wasn’t healed enough”, but because I’m wired differently. So, it turns out, are a lot of people.

Interestingly, I’ve learned more about mindfulness — indirectly — by becoming part of a liturgical church that engages all of me in a way I’ve never experienced in all my many years of church involvement. I’ve also been hanging out at a couple monasteries and learning about things like simplicity, solitude, contemplation, etc. and adapting those things to my life as much as practical and possible.

And I’ve learned the wisdom of taking baby steps, and of setting aside or modifying practices that don’t work for me.

One of my latest thing has been dealing with some particularly troubling unwanted thoughts. Someone advised me to adopt a certain breathing pattern, and focus on each breath. NO WAY. For me, that was worst advice ever. Instead, whenever the unwanted thought comes to mind, I try to focus on my surroundings and what I’m currently doing, and I think to myself something like, “I am walking down the street. It’s sunny and birds are singing. None of this has anything to do with Unwanted Thought.” This is just one of the aspects of mindfulness for me, but I’d never be able to practice it if I had to focus on breathing a certain rather artificial way!

I think it’s important to ask some basic questions in regards to mindfulness “training”:

1. How is mindfulness being defined?

2. What is the purpose of mindfulness?

The reason it’s important to define mindfulness is, in part, because too many people I’ve encountered are really wanting it to be some state of blissful peace wherein one remains detached and untroubled by the world. As tempting as that sounds, it’s not my goal. It sounds too much like the opposite of mindfulness to me. In fact, it sounds too much like dissociation.

Once I have a good definition, then I can ask myself, “Is this how I want to live my life?” If so, then I can analyze each potential practice to see if it’s suitable.

Back to the definition I quoted earlier:

“Mindfulness shows us what is happening in our bodies, our emotions, our minds, and in the world. Through mindfulness, we avoid harming ourselves and others.”

Sitting in a room and focusing on my breathing while breathing in a way I find both unnatural and uncomfortable distracts me from knowing what is happening in me and around me. In fact, I find it downright harmful because it stirs up anxiety, etc. So I reject it as a personal practice. It may work wonderfully for others but, at least at this point in my life, it doesn’t work for me.