Conscious Breathing: Do I Do That?

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Dear Still Water Friends,

The most basic practice of mindfulness is conscious breathing. Wherever we are, whatever we are doing, we can bring our awareness to our breath.

If we are relatively new to the practice, we may say to ourselves a few times, “Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in, breathing out, I know that I am breathing out,” to help us focus. Or we may keep repeating the words “in”, “out,” to help ground our minds, reducing the frequency of thoughts chasing after thoughts.

Once we become somewhat accustomed to conscious breathing, we may rest for a while in wordless awareness, conscious of the physical experience of breathing, but needing no words to describe what we are experiencing. As Thich Nhat Hanh explains in the excerpt below, conscious breathing, all by itself, is a wonderful practice. It can unite mind and body. It can bring us joy and peace.

Conscious breathing can also help us become more aware of other energies, in addition to the physical energy, which are part of the present moment, such as our feelings, emotions, and states of mind. Through conscious breathing we come to know ourselves as we really are, at this moment in our lives. Again, we are simply aware, with discernment, but without judgment or self-criticism. Thich Nhat Hanh often notes that healing and transformation begin with this indispensable awareness of ourselves in the present moment.

Some years ago, at the beginning of a long retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh, I heard Sister Jina comment that when she listens to Thay she doesn’t ask herself, “Do I know that?” She asks herself, “Do I do that?”

This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will explore the question “Do I do that?” with regard to conscious breathing. When are we able to really do it? When not? What makes the difference?

If you can’t be with us, you may wish to consider these questions on your own.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher

Conscious Breathing
by Thich Nhat Hanh, from Peace is Every Step

There are a number of breathing techniques you can use to make life vivid and more enjoyable. The first exercise is very simple. As you breathe in, you say to yourself, “Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.” And as you breathe out, say, “Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.” Just that. You recognize your in-breath as an in-breath and your out-breath as an out-breath. You don’t even need to recite the whole sentence; you can use just two words: “In” and “Out.” This technique can help you keep your mind on your breath. As you practice, your breath will become peaceful and gentle, and your mind and body will also become peaceful and gentle. This is not a difficult exercise. In just a few minutes you can realize the fruit of meditation.

Breathing in and out is very important, and it is enjoyable. Our breathing is the link between our body and our mind. Sometimes our mind is thinking of one thing and our body is doing another, and mind and body are not unified. By concentrating on our breathing, “In” and “Out,” we bring body and mind back together, and become whole again. Conscious breathing is an important bridge.

To me, breathing is a joy that I cannot miss. Every day, I practice conscious breathing, and in my small meditation room, I have calligraphed this sentence: “Breathe, you are alive!” Just breathing and smiling can make us very happy, because when we breathe consciously we recover ourselves completely and encounter life in the present moment.