I find that bringing awareness to the breath is one of the best ways to bring my mind home, to come back to mindfulness. I say come back, because I believe that being in a mindful state is our natural state of mind. So when we practice mindfulness, all we are doing is coming home and resting in our natural state.
This idea of resting in our natural state is clearly expounded in the Dzogchen and Mahamudra schools of Buddhism. As a practicing Buddhist, I feel it’s important to acknowledge Buddhism’s role and influence in modern secular mindfulness practice. However, I also believe that this natural state of mind and mindfulness are not exclusive to Buddhist philosophy or practice. Mindfulness as a secular practice is not spiritual. So, regardless of whether we have a spiritual inclination or not, we can all practice mindfulness and gain the many benefits from resting in our natural state, paying attention to and having awareness of our breath, our body, mind and of the world around us. These benefits include improved mental, emotional and physical health; trusting in one’s own wisdom; improved clarity of mind and decision making; improved relationships with ourselves and others; less stress, anxiety and depression; and more happiness.
In the mindfulness class I facilitate, we learn to become aware of our breath and use it as an object of meditation. Throughout the course, I often ask students to bring their mind to what I call the three breath anchors. We anchor our attention or awareness on the breath at the nostrils, the chest or the abdomen. Unlike many yogic practices, we are not trying to change the breath in any way, to make it slower or faster, deeper or more shallow; just to be with it as it is.
For the first anchor, we focus on the sensation of the breath at the nostrils. We notice what we feel in this region – the flaring of the nostrils, the feeling of the breath touching the skin below the nostrils, maybe a tingling of the lips with each inhalation and exhalation. I practiced this technique extensively during my Goenka Vipassana training.
For the second anchor, we focus our awareness on the chest region. We become aware of how the body moves with each breath, noticing the rib cage, the chest, upper back and shoulders. We may become aware of sensations such as tightness or heaviness, as we often store tension in our upper body.
Lastly, we focus on the lower abdominal region; the dantien (Chinese), or hara (Japanese). We again notice the movement of the body – the belly, lower back, and waist. Placing our hands just underneath the navel can help new students connect more easily with movement in this part of the body. This anchor is often practiced in Zen, Daoist and yogic mediation.
We can also utilise our breath to bring our mind fully into our everyday lives. Awareness of the breath naturally cultivates a mindful attitude, which helps us enjoy life to the fullest. We can experience nature, our loved ones, good food, art, etc., with a deeper appreciation. Our experience becomes more vivid, rich and fulfilling. Mindful awareness can also cultivate vitality, energy, creativity, happiness and joy, as we become more spacious, open, relaxed and spontaneous.