The Breath

The rule of threes for survival:

  • You can survive three minutes without breathable air.
  • You can survive three hours in extreme heat or cold.
  • You can survive three days without drinkable water.
  • You can survive three weeks without food.

Each one presumes that the preceding requirement has been met. Ample food and water make no difference if the individual has no air to breathe or has been plunged into the icy depths of artic waters. Higher temperatures increase the speed at which dehydration occurs. And individuals might train themselves to extend their capacity for survival. Magician David Blaine famously held his breath for 17 minutes, setting the world record for such a feat. Nonetheless, ordinary folks need be mindful of these “rules” should they wish to keep living.

I raise this issue simply to note the primacy of air. The breath. It’s the singular sign of life when we exit our mother’s womb to become part of this world. And the absence of breath is a clear marker of the end of life. I know. I was at my father’s side when he took his last breath.

meditationWe use the breath as an “anchor” for meditation practice. Breathing in, and breathing out. Breathing in, and breathing out. In writing about mindfulness of the body, I noted that I use mindfulness of the breath to steady my mind and sustain focus – noticing the length of each breath, attaching a word to an inhale and another to an exhale, and counting the breaths. It gives me an object of attention to quell my tendency toward distraction. But the breath is more than simply a place to “tag up” when the wandering mind takes flight.

The breath provides the means to be present to direct experience, the essence of mindfulness practice. It opens us up to noticing bodily sensations:

  • Cool air passing through the nostril and exiting with a degree of warmth
  • A tingling sensation at the back of the throat at air passes into the lungs
  • The rise and fall of chest, perhaps with a hint of expansion of the rib cage
  • The movement of the belly as if it is an expandable bellows that stokes the fire of life

Those of us who play wind instruments or train as singers have become quite familiar with the latter. Breath control makes all the difference in producing a quality sound and sustaining musical phrases. We must be conscious of it to ply our trades. Mindfulness practice helps… though I’ve often quipped that my next instrumental skill will not require breath control!

So, the next time you find a quiet moment to meditate, be curious and attentive to the breath – to the various sensations it evokes while providing life-sustaining energy for the body. It’s a simple yet powerful means of experiencing mindfulness.