Wednesday, October 5, 2011

breath as an anchor

Being aware of one's mind is the very valuable characteristic of mindfulness.  That means that sitting quietly and keeping your attentional focus on something as an anchor, concentrating on that anchor.  The reason for doing that is to wait for the mind, in its ever-changing, ever-refreshing way, to light on something else than the anchor.  If that shift is noticed by the mind's owner, the noticing itself develops the habit of mindfulness.  The habit of being aware of what is the current focus of the mind is steadily showing itself to be a health tool, an educational asset, an aid to being what you want to be in relationships, etc., etc.

Once the practitioner has caught her attention moved off the target, she returns to attending to the anchor.  Another shift occurs.  Another detection and noticing and another return to the anchor.  Ten minutes of such a practice a day vastly changes the knowledge and awareness of one's mind.  Even 6 seconds of such a practice at a traffic light, waiting for an elevator or a phone to be answered increases awareness of what one's own mind is doing.

You know what they say: if you are too busy to spare a few minutes, you are too busy.  Make some changes.

For years, the idea of a spot on the wall has been my notion of a good anchor for my concentration.  Since I tend to be aware of what I am looking at, where I have my eyes pointed, I tend to notice when I shift my vision to something other than my chosen anchor.  However, Susan Greenland has worked with the problem of helping children develop mindfulness and her book "The Mindful Child" first mentions using the breath as the focus of attention, as the anchor.  

The breath is a very old anchor in the development of mindfulness, maybe the first one.  For the ancients, the breath was fascinating and not all that well understood.  There are religious images of God forming the first human of clay and then breathing life into His creation.  Breath is one of the only bodily functions that can be controlled both by our conscious effort as when we hold our breath but falls back under the control of the sympathetic system that keeps our heart beating and our organs functioning and cooperating.

Focusing on the breath is the main idea in the Yoga practice of pranayama.  Deep, cleansing breaths is a common method of calming oneself.  A deep breath can be very satisfying physically.  Arousal, as in anger or running, affects our breathing and our breathing rate and depth affects our emotional state.  That's why we get the advice to take three deep breaths if we want to calm down.  John Arden in his "Rewire Your Brain" writes that abdominal breathing, where the abdomen is loose and relaxed and allowed to expand with the inhalation is a valuable tool for achieving both calmness and a positive mood.

Since the breath moves between the conscious and the sympathetic body systems, Susan Greenland is able to use a stuffed animal lying on the belly and being "rocked to sleep" as a tool for youngsters to practice deliberate calming and attentiveness.

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