The Power of Awareness: Mindful Breathing

Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, in their online Power of Awareness Mindfulness Training, stress the importance of mindful breathing as a universal practice that is foundational to developing mindfulness.  Jack not only leads participants in a mindful breathing practice, but also explains the rich rewards of this practice.

Why practice mindful breathing?

Mindful breathing is, perhaps, the simplest and most accessible mindfulness practice.  It can be done anywhere, anytime because we are always breathing, whether we are conscious of it or not.  Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests that it is lucky that our breathing is not dependant on conscious thought, otherwise we would stop breathing because we are so often unaware of what is going on within and around us.

In a talk to Google staff, he explained to the managers and programmers present that they could easily take a few moments and do mindful breathing at their desk during the day.  Mindful breathing is so powerful because it gives us access to both self-awareness and self-management.

Developing self-awareness through mindful breathing

Jack talks about breathing mindfully as opening a window to ourselves.  If we are having trouble starting the practice – by locating a place in our body where we sense our breath (e.g. in our chest, throat, nose or stomach) – then this tells us something about our lack of awareness.

As a window, mindful breathing allows us to look in on ourselves – to notice the thoughts and their content that pass through our minds, to sense the tightness in various parts of our body and to understand the link between our emotions and our bodily reactions, e.g. fear creating tightness in our chest, nervousness causing us to shake.  We become acutely aware of our emotions and the connection between our mind and emotions and our emotions and our body.

The secret to mindful breathing is to not entertain our thoughts but to let them float by, while noticing what they are telling us about ourselves.  What do we think about most – is our mind always in the past or the future?  Do our thoughts depress us or create anxiety?  Are we always planning, not stopping to experience the moment?

Developing self-management through mindful breathing

Even the way we are breathing is rich with information about ourselves – is our breathing getting faster (anxiety coming on) or slower (learning to relax).  Are we becoming conscious of the space between our in-breath and our out-breath?  With our growth in self-awareness comes the opportunity to develop self-management.

Conscious breathing is used worldwide for self-management in a range of contexts – midwives encourage birthing mothers to breathe slowly and deeply; remedial massage therapists encourage you to breathe through the pain; and people who teach singing, like Chris James, begin with explaining to people how to breathe properly to release the tension in our bodies and vocal cords.

We know intuitively that if we slow down our breathing, we can become more relaxed and less anxious.   Some self-management practices, such as the SBNRR process previously explained in relation to managing negative triggers, begin with stopping and breathing consciously but slowly.

Mindful breathing practice itself does not require us to control our breath, but to notice it by focusing on where we can sense it in our bodies.  Increasingly, we become aware of the stillness and spaciousness in mindful breathing.  However, it does take practice to realise the full benefits of mindful breathing.

Jack suggests that, as a starting point, we practice breathing mindfully twice a day for five minutes each time.  He suggests that if we do this at a regular place and time, the habit will be sustained.  The secret to success in developing awareness is to start small, but start now.

Breathing mindfully helps us to slow the pace of our life, to access our creativity and to develop calm and clarity.  As we grow in mindfulness through mindful breathing, we open the window to self-awareness and enhance our capacity for self-management.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of alfcermed on Pixabay

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You Are Traffic Too!

In one of her presentations, Sharon Salzberg tells the story of driving a friend somewhere and being held up by a traffic jam.  Sharon became increasingly agitated and frustrated by the delay caused by the congestion.  Her friend turned to her and said, “Sharon, you are traffic too”.

This is a great illustration of what Sharon describes as the “centrality” of ourselves.  We forget that we are part of the problem we are complaining about – that we too are the traffic.  By being in the traffic queue, we are contributing to the traffic problem.  However, we see the other vehicles as the ones that are holding us up – what right have they got to be there when we are trying to get somewhere else?

We are entirely focused on our needs in the situation and the impact of traffic delays on us.  We are unaware and unconcerned about the needs of the other drivers and passengers who are also delayed by what is happening (or not happening) on the road we are on.

Traffic delays create a great opportunity for mindful connection.  We could think about frustration of the needs of other people in the traffic queue who are also delayed – rather than obsessing about the frustration of our own needs.

We could think of someone trying to get to see a dying relative for the last time, someone going to the hospital to give birth, someone missing out on an important job interview that they were a “shoe-in” for, someone else going to a specialist’s surgery to find out the results of the diagnosis of a potentially life-changing disease or someone experiencing some impact that is less dramatic.

This process takes us outside of ourselves and our concerns and enables us to become other-centred.  It reinforces, too, our interconnectedness – we are all impacted by the traffic delay for different reasons and to different degrees.

If we cannot readily begin to think of the frustrated needs of others in the situation, we can always begin with mindful breathing to slow down our emotional response to the situation and to bring a degree of mindfulness into play.

Having regained some degree of self-control, we can increase our self-awareness and improve our self-management by adopting the complete process of SBNRR (stop, breathe, notice, reflect, respond) that we described previously.

As we grow in mindfulness, we become increasingly aware of the opportunities in everyday life to be mindful.  We can more readily notice and act on opportunities to grow in self-awareness and self-management if we have actively developed our level of mindfulness through meditation practice and conversations with ourselves.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of Gellinger on Pixabay

Mindful Leadership: Self-Management

Self-management relies very heavily on self-awareness. If we are not conscious of what we are thinking, saying and doing – and the impact of our thoughts, words and actions – we are incapable of managing ourselves.

Self-management, according to the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, is “the process of managing one’s internal states, impulses and resources”.

Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, identified the opportunity space for self- management:

Between stimulus and response, there is a space.  In that space lives our freedom and our power to choose our response.  In our response lies our greatest happiness.

There are a number of ways to develop self-management.  I will discuss two approaches in this post:

1. Managing Your Response to Negative Triggers

We all have situations, people or events that “set us off”.  They may stimulate anger, frustration, annoyance or anyone of the multitude of negative emotions.  As Vikto Frankl pointed out, we really have a choice of how to respond.  In a previous post, I discussed the SBNRR process (stop, breathe, notice, reflect and respond) to help you manage your response to your negative triggers.  Reflect is an important stage of the process because it seeks to get us to move beyond the particular negative stimulus and response to gain insight into any observable pattern, e.g. obstinacy when dealing with a person in authority.

2. Mindful Listening

Mindful listening requires us to be fully present to the other person, to understand what they are saying and the significance for that person.  It also means to be able to reflect back their words and feelings, and the depth of those feelings. It requires discipline to stay with the other person’s conversation and to avoid diverting the conversation to yourself and your own experience.  It also means avoiding interrupting the other person mid-sentence.  All of this takes considerable self-management.  Mastering mindful listening is a lifetime pursuit – in the process you will develop self-management and grow in mindfulness.

Self-management contributes to the development of mindfulness; as we grow in mindfulness it becomes easier to manage ourselves and our responses. Both contribute to the development of mindful leadership.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of moulinaem on Pixabay

 

 

What Sets You Off? – Managing Negative Triggers

There are many things in life that can trigger a negative reaction in us.  What triggers you, may have no effect on me.  A part of mindfulness practice is getting to know our triggers and working out ways to manage our negative responses.

As we learn about our triggers and better understand them, we are able to manage our reponses more effectively.  So one way to grow in mindfulness is to identify your triggers and use a process to help you deal with them mindfully.

The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI) teaches a way to manage triggers, called SBNRR, as part of their mindful leadership program.  The steps in this process are as follows:

STOP – stop yourself from reacting automatically

BREATHE – take a deep breath to relax yourself and help you to manage your reaction

NOTICE – notice your bodily sensations, see what is going on in your body (e.g. becoming red faced, tightening of your muscles, strong sense of unease and agitation)

REFLECT – think about what is going on for you, what is triggering this reaction in you.  Go beyond the words and think about what you are perceiving (e.g. are you interpreting the words as criticism and do you have a sensitivity to criticism?).

RESPOND – now that you are more aware of what is going on for you, choose an appropriate response that does not aggravate you, your friend/colleague or the situation.

The SBNRR processs is a great way to improve your self-management, a key element in emotional intelligence.  When you first start to use this technique, you might have to rely on reflection after the event – “What could I have done differently?”

However, as you grow in mindfulness, you will be able to reflect-in-action and stop youself from the outset.  In this way, you can better manage your response to the triggers that would normally set off a negative reaction in you.

Image Source: Courtesy of Robin Higgins on Pixabay