Beth Wallace, Associate Publisher for Lion’s Roar, writes about the importance of breath in her editorial for the September 2021 issue.
“We can always return to the breath.” Many years ago, at an introduction to meditation for beginners, I heard this instruction and learned of the connection between the breath and our ability to return to balance and ease.
My reaction landed somewhere between irritation and relief. I was irritated that the key to undoing my tendency toward anxiousness and distraction was something I’d had access to all along. And I was relieved that an essential foundation of practice—at a time when so much about meditation felt odd and otherworldly to me—was so readily available, even mundane!
Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike have learned the power of returning to the breath.
As the Theravada Buddhist teacher Shaila Catherine explains in this issue, the Buddha recommended going into the forest, sitting under a tree, and “being with” the breath. He was the first person to teach this practice of anapanasati, “mindfulness of breathing,” and it is a core practice across most Buddhist traditions.
Twentieth-century science has demonstrated what meditators have known for thousands of years—that deep, abdominal breath encourages full oxygen exchange and is beneficial, even transformative, for body and mind. This scientific evidence has supported the adoption of breath awareness as the fundamental instruction in Western secular mindfulness programs. Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike have learned the power of returning to the breath.
The instruction to “take a breath” is common, practical, and often reassuring advice. Caring elders say it to children who’ve lost their cool. Coaches say it to athletes during practice. Doulas say it to women during childbirth. We can all appreciate the power of a deep inhale–exhale.
Zen teacher Karen Maezen Miller writes here about how babies naturally breathe diaphragmatically from deep within their bellies, under the rib cage. We can watch their belly draw in and push out. As we grow into adults, however, we lose contact with this natural body wisdom and the message that deep diaphragmatic breath reinforces in the body and mind—that we are safe. Our thinking, planning, ruminating, reactive brain hijacks this deep, natural state, and we slip into the high, rapid breath that is “lung breathing.”
While quick and somewhat efficient, this shallow breathing can trigger the body’s fight or flight response, sending blood and oxygen to our extremities to help us escape from a threat. This would be helpful if we were being chased by a tiger, but it’s problematic if all we’re facing is rush-hour traffic or a disagreement with our partner.
The good news is, we can override this response and return to a parasympathetic state—a place of balance—by shifting our breathing deep into our belly. As one of my first meditation teachers would exclaim with glee: “Breathe deeply and allow your belly to expand! This is not time to worry about sexy abs!” This playful advice reminded me how holding the belly in, which so many of us do subconsciously, makes shallow breathing seem normal.
Shaila Catherine reminds us: “The Buddha’s teaching on mindfulness breath offers a path that can calm the mind, increase insight, and perhaps even lead to awakening.” May you and those you love find an opportunity to return to the breath—again, and again, and again…