>Fit and Well Breathe part 3. vanessa Auditore Human Behaviour & Wellbeing specialist
Mindful breathing is a built-in tool that can help us monitor, self-direct and transform our experience of life.
In Part 1 we looked at the benefits of mindful breathing, as a common thread in practices of mindfulness and self-directed healing; and, in Part 2 we explored three ways in which our breath invites us to get involved, as an active partner, in optimally enhancing our life and relationships.
In this third of a 3-part series, we delve into three essential principles that best guarantee our success in integrating mindful breathing as a practice that can enrich every area of our life.
By definition, principles are basic truths or standards that, when followed, form a foundation for producing optimal results. In mindful practices, principles can also be thought of as consciously set intentions.
So, what three principles, set as intentions, form a strong foundation in cultivating a practice of mindful breathing?
- An inner focus.
- A present focus.
- An optimal mind and body state.
These three principles are at once:
The choice to cultivate a practice of mindful breathing is a lifestyle option. We always have a choice in what we include into our lifestyle. A discussion of these three principles follows below.
Mindful breathing is a tool we have at hand, perhaps the most effective way to turn our focus to what is going on inside of us, that is, to use our breath to connect to our thoughts, emotions, felt sensations, inner yearnings, aspirations, wants, past experiences and so on.
Why an inner focus? It’s where we access the sources of power available to us, inside, which can be transformative resources, depending on how we relate to them. To the extent we become comfortable with looking inside, we grow our self-awareness and an inside-out orientation to life, which research links to promoting health and happiness.
This information consists of personal knowledge, or messages that our body sends to us, directly, to let us know how we’re experiencing (interpreting) our life at any given moment.
Socrates posited that to “know thyself’ was essential to living free in wisdom and truth, yet when we come across the words of Sir Francis Bacon, “knowledge is power,” we rarely think of inner knowledge of self as having power.
Living mindfully aware of our inner world is knowledge that empowers our choices, perhaps like no other. It:
- Allows us to better understand our personal experience of life from the inside-out.
- Develops our awareness and a sense of being an active agent in our experiences of life.
- Gives us an understanding of our self that is prerequisite to a better understanding our life and others.
- Grows our wisdom, and adds clarity to the choices we make, and the actions we can take.
In fact, feelings of powerlessness are often the result of not being connected to what our body is telling us. Our inner world of sensations is a rich knowledge bank that is letting us know, for example, where we are in relation to where we want to be, and perhaps what we can do about it.
Each attempt to cope with stress or problems via our defenses (which usually involves instilling fear, shame or guilt in our self or others), however, can leave us feeling more, rather than less powerless. We may have already noticed that, the more we try to force change, the less successful we are.
This is because, when become overly anxious, even about making positive changes, our body and mind are at odds with one another. When this happens, we lose access to our frontal cortex, where most creative thinking or decisions takes place, and instead, by default, trigger old defense strategies instead.
In contrast, we can use our breath to check the flow of life energy in us.
Essentially, using mindful breath work to grow our inner awareness is like finding a treasure chest that contains all the materials we need to create the life we aspire – and realizing it’s been at hand all along.
Suddenly, there are no worries or fears about feeling painful emotions fear, shame or guilt. By setting an intention to see and feel our feelings as vital information, we can better handle them. We can befriend, and breathe into them. It’s all feedback. A vibrant, happy and healthy life an inside job.
Mindful breath work is also a powerful way to connect to what is going on in the present moment.
Naturally, a present focus is related to an inner focus; whenever we focus inside, this automatically places us in the present. A present focus, however, also extends to being aware of what is going on around us, as well as the connections between what we observe in and around us.
Living mindfully with a present awareness supports us to:
- Recognize that learning about our self and world is an ongoing process, not a destination.
- Sharpen our sensory acuity of both the new and the familiar, to ‘see’ life, self, others more clearly, as if for the first time.
- Adopt curiosity and interest as healthful orientations that keep our brain alert to learn (versus a judgmental orientation that sparks fear).
- Energize us to action to adopt changes in the direction of living life with balance, wholeness and integrity.
- Accept change as a natural way in which we break free of rigid reactivity, defensive patterns, and the like.
In contrast, emotional overwhelm is often the result of raising our own anxiety by either ruminating on the past (tends to produce guilt-inducing thoughts), or worrying about the future (tends to produce anxiety-inducing thoughts).
Either way, it results in a huge waste of energy.
Mindless moments can also waste energy. We’ve probably all had moments when we performed some activity robotically, for example, laying our keys somewhere in the house and later not being able to find them. Mindless moments are ones in which life occurs without registering on our mind.
Naturally, the best antidote to mindless moments is a mindful practice of noticing new things in whatever situation you’re in. Connecting to our breath in those moment grounds our connection to the moment, and to the power of our choices.
We always have a choice whether we respond as owners of the energy inside us (or feel controlled by it).
Noticing new things puts us in the here and now, and being engaged in the present produces an array of other benefits.
When we embrace our power to choose, we own the exercise of our choices, hopefully, seeing the power of our choices as a responsibility to make life in and around us more wonderful. Being present, curious and interested in the moment makes life exciting. This and more are the gifts of being alive in the moment.
Wondrously, nothing needs to be boring. By setting an intention to be in the present, we see the world with fresh eyes. We can see, hear, smell, feel or taste in the moment. We can observe, and not judge. We can whisper calming words to our self, such as “Now. Now. Now.”
Mindful breathing is also a tool we can use to shift the energies inside us, as necessary, to create optimal emotional states. An optimal emotional state is, for our body, an optimal physiological state, a state in which life-enriching hormones nourish the cells of our body.
We have this inner capacity at hand to command these processes. It’s not as easy as it sounds, however. It requires us to make choices in how we respond to life situations, at any given time, and to respond in new ways that may make us feel uncomfortable, especially at first.
Every aspect of our growth, however, consists of painfully stretching out of old comfortable places. We may be born with the equipment; however, the less we use or access our inner resources, the weaker they become.
It’s not easy to learn to turn to these inner resources to soothe our mind and body. It takes conscious effort. Perhaps the toughest part is breaking free of the fear of letting go of old familiar patterns of dealing with what triggers us, linked to rigid beliefs about what ‘should’ happen in certain situations, and so on.
At first, it takes work, determined effort. Paradoxically, the more fun we have, however, the more we get comfortable, and learn to accept and to enjoy the process, the easier it becomes.
Where do we begin? Our thoughts.
Thoughts are energies that trigger emotional sources of energy that fire and wire neural patterns. Emotions shape our behaviors, and our choices, as they decide the overall direction of these energies inside. What think (perceive, believe, etc.) at any moment activates felt emotion-driven dynamic processes throughout our body that are either, in varying degrees, optimally healthful or detrimental to us, emotionally, physically and mentally.
If we ruminate on what we are not happy about in our life, for example, our mind automatically triggers fear-based emotions such as anxiety and depression that, in turn, can keep our focus on what we lack. Unpleasant emotional states cause stress for the body, and prolonged stress leads to illness.
In contrast, we can use our breath to consciously calm our mind and body, to remain in the present moment, where we can make more informed and wise decisions—and self-directed changes.
We can choose to optimize our experience, or what we prefer to experience, in a given situation. We can make changes, for example, to consciously choose thoughts that energize positive physiological states, such as confidence or enthusiasm, compassion or gratitude.
By setting an intention to command our thoughts and create the optimal physiological states we want to produce throughout your body, we also prevent upsetting emotions from taking us out of the present moment. Our breath makes this process possible, and more easily achievable.
Amazingly, it becomes easier to remain connected empathically to our self and one another. We own the power to create the inner sense of safety and calm we need to express our compassionate nature, and to remain engaged in the moment, to allow our body and mind to work together, optimally, as they are wired to do. We can do so knowing we always have a choice at any given moment.
In sum, deep breathing is a life tool we have at hand to use, at any moment, to enhance the flow of energy between our mind and body.
Mindful breathing helps us regulate this life energy inside that, depending on the quality of our breathing, can make or break the inner sense of safety we need at any moment to allow our body and mind to optimally communicate, so they work together as a team.
The healthful effects of mindful breathing increase in proportion to the quality of our inner focus, our sense of presence in the moment, and our skill in maintaining an optimal emotional state.
Practicing presence means being aware of what is going on in and around us in the present moment, and having the ability, at the same time, to remain empathically connected to our experience in the present moment. This allows us to stay fully engaged, and in particular, to process any upsetting emotions as information or action signals – rather than allow them to activate our body’s survival system.
Absent this connection to inner sources of nourishment, we human beings tend to get lost looking, perhaps in desperation, to find outside sources of this ‘feel-good’ in other persons, substances, food or activities, and so on.
We cannot fool our body for long, however. We are wired to seek to empathically ‘connect’ to something that gives us a deep and lasting sense of feeling safe enough to feel our love, our life and we, as a person, matters in life.
An addiction is perhaps a cry-for-help, a signal from our body (or subconscious mind) that it has lost control of its ability to regulate our body’s energies via homeostasis, and that it’s up to us to take the reins as captain of our life, mind and body and lead us out of shark infested waters, so to speak. Quick fix releases of the safety-and-love hormone, oxytocin, or the reward hormone, dopamine, will simply never work.
Neither will new wonder drugs to artificially stimulate the release of oxytocin or dopamine. Drugs are the best option for the industries, such as pharmaceutical, that stand to profit from them.
What a gift, it would be to welcome our breath instead, as a partner that supports us to remain calm and confident in our ability to take command of our emotional energies, and release these nourishing hormones naturally. We do so when we:
- Set an intention to access our breath regularly to connect to our experience of life from within. An inner focus helps us access the vital sources within that optimize our power to choose. A sense of choice and personal agency fulfills inner yearnings, thus, can spark the release of feel-good hormones.
- Set an intention to notice what is happening in present moments, to see and think of our self as a curious student of life, an observer, rather than a judge. A present awareness works together with an inner focus to help us replace the habit of rushing past the present moments of our life, a common experience in busy lives.
- Set an intention to reach for optimal emotional states, and accordingly, to refresh the energies of our mind and body, and to consciously release these healthful feel-good hormones. An optimal emotional state prevents upsetting emotions from grabbing us out of the present moment, and sending us to places of anxiety about the future, or guilt about the past.
Perhaps, one of the most important skills we learn in life is how to manage (balance) the emotional energies of our body. It’s also one of the most vital skills to teach to our children, as parents or teachers, or leaders in some capacity.
Children need us, more than ever, to lead them to connect to their human nature and to the real sources of nourishment inside them that technology can never replace.
A fulfilling life depends on cultivating this ability, and knowing we have the power to do so. We can lead the flow of energy within us in a direction that creates the optimal emotional state we need, in a given situation, to most support us to be at our best.
So, let your breath delight you, and turn most daily challenges into joyful, present moments of relative calm for your mind and body, as you grow confidence in nourishing your own growth, healing and transformation.