The past few days in London there’s been a collective lightness of step, a general jauntiness in greetings, more smiles in the street. They all point to a consensus that Spring has arrived. Yesterday in my local park there was a cluster of people basking on benches in the late afternoon sun opposite a bank of multicoloured crocuses. It occurred to me that now the chill is beginning to disappear from the air, it’s possible to sit for longer in open spaces – an ideal time to cultivate some meditation on the breath.
Mindful breathing is one of the simplest and most essential ways to surrender to the present moment, since for most of us, breathing is always free, readily available, and unlikely to have negative connotations. In many traditions ‘breath’ is intimately linked with life force itself – the word for ‘spiritual’ comes from the Latin ‘spiritualis’ (of breathing) and the Hebrew word for soul – ‘neshamah’ – derives from the creation idea of God ‘blowing the breath of life’ into the world (an appropriate association for Spring, when life is bursting forth all over the place).
In order to allow the breath to flow freely it’s best to sit in a way that supports an open-ness and relaxation in the body whilst maintaining straightness and a strong support. Actually, park benches are great for sitting meditation if you can get yourself into a position where your feet are flat on the floor and you’re not slumping against the back of the seat. If you like support against your back then a treetrunk is also perfect when the ground’s not too damp. If you do sit on the ground then roll up a coat or blanket underneath you so your hips are higher than your legs – this supports the spine and makes it more comfy to sit for longer. Wherever you sit, visualize your sit-bones and buttocks as a bulb firmly planted in the earth and your spine rising like a green shoot from this base. You feel the natural pull of gravity in your legs, feet and shoulders but an alertness in your back. Your chest should feel open and spacious, but not thrust forward, and your belly as relaxed as possible. You can close your eyes or let them rest somewhere in the mid-distance with a ‘soft’ gaze, not focused on anything in particular.
Now, for a few moments, become aware of everything happening in your experience – sights, sounds, smells and thoughts – and try letting them slowly fade into the sense of your body breathing. It’s as if you were refocusing the lens of awareness from wide open to a much smaller aperture. If you can, feel the breath as the diaphragm expands and releases in your abdomen; you can also pay attention to the rising and falling in your chest if you prefer. The idea is not to change the pattern of the breath in any way but to simply notice and accommodate it. You may like to imagine your breaths as waves in an ocean with your attention like a raft resting on the natural swells and currents.
In time, you will hopefully notice the different qualities of the in and out-breaths: the inhalation energizing, opening, oxygenating your cells; and the exhalation dissolving, releasing, letting-go.
If your mind becomes distracted or pulled off onto tangents or abstractions then very gently guide it back to the breath. You can take some deliberate deep breaths from time to time, enjoying the feeling of your lungs filling with air if you feel you need to ground yourself again. It may feel impossible to concentrate at first but noticing how distracted you are can be just as important as the action of paying attention to the breath itself. It’s sometimes only when we stop and consider that we can see things from a more meaningful perspective. It’s also important not to judge or criticize yourself because in doing this we shut down the opportunity to open up to experience however it arises.
Consider these instructions from Larry Rosenberg in his book ‘Breath by Breath’:
1. When possible, do just one thing at a time
2. Pay full attention to what you are doing
3. When the mind wanders from what you are doing bring it back
4. Repeat step number three several billion times
5. Investigate your distractions.
You can practice Mindfulness of Breathing for one minute or half an hour. However long you manage, always be aware of the transition back to your surroundings, being careful not to rush and move on too quickly. You can continue mindfulness of the breath in walking too. You may notice an enhanced appreciation for your surroundings or a sense of peace….or perhaps nothing much. All are valid. With repetition this exercise can yield powerful results.