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About the Author
Danny Penman, PhD, is a meditation teacher and award-winning writer and journalist. After gaining a PhD in biochemistry, he worked for The Independent and the BBC. He is the co-author with Mark Williams of the million-selling Mindfulness. He lives in England and can be reached at www.franticworld.com.
Read an Excerpt
IN THE BEGINNING
Six paragliders are circling like eagles on powerful currents of rising air. Far below, a cluster of children gaze with open mouths as the giant parachutes dive and swoosh silently above their heads.
Then, suddenly, something starts to go wrong.
One of the paragliders is hit by a powerful gust of wind, turning the canopy inside out. The pilot starts spinning, spiraling like a sycamore seed toward the earth.
After an eternity, the young man smashes into the hillside. He lies face down on the ground. Broken.
But he is alive. After a moment of stunned silence, he begins screaming in agony. It will be at least thirty minutes before the paramedics arrive. And another hour to reach the hospital.
Alone, he knows that he can't afford to lose consciousness in case he never again awakens. So he begins forcing himself to breathe.
Slowly. Deeply. With a supreme effort of will, he focuses his mind away from his broken body and onto his breath. In. Out.
Inch by inch, the agony recedes. Before, finally, he reaches a state of calm tranquility.
Of pure mindfulness.
I was the young man who crashed his paraglider.
For thousands of years, people have used the art of breathing for equally profound effects on the mind and body.
Some have used it for relief from chronic pain. Many more to cope with anxiety, stress and depression. Some claim it led to spiritual enlightenment.
But I'm as spiritual as a housebrick ...
... so I use it to help me appreciate the bittersweet beauty of everyday life.
Your breath is the greatest asset you have. It's naturally meditative and always with you. It reflects your most powerful emotions and allows you to either soothe or harness them. It helps you to feel solid, whole, and in complete control of your life while grounding you in the present moment, clarifying the mind, and unshackling your instincts.
The art of breathing kindles a sense of wonder, awe, and curiosity — the very foundations of a happier and more meaningful life.
It grants you the courage to accept yourself with all of your faults and failings. To treat yourself with the kindness, empathy and compassion that you truly need, and helps you to look outward and embrace the world.
When you've mastered the art of breathing, you will finally be at peace with yourself and the world.
As long as you are breathing, there is more right with you than wrong with you. — Jon Kabat-Zinn
It all begins with your very first breath ...
Just after being born, imperceptibly at first, but with slowly building momentum, your tiny lungs began to inflate.
Nestling in your mother's arms, you began learning how to breathe. It wasn't easy.
A baby's breathing isn't naturally rhythmic. Babies breathe only when they need to, often with terrifyingly long gaps between breaths, not with a natural fluid motion.
As the weeks passed into months, your breathing developed its own natural rhythm. But, even now, you can soak up the rhythms of another's breath.
Lovers' breaths are entwined. Crowds breathe in harmony. Even the breaths of our pets can become entrained with ours.
None of us are separate.
Although it feels stubbornly so.
REMEMBERING TO BREATHE
Your breathing is so ordinary, so mundane, that its true significance can easily pass you by.
Lie flat on the ground with a cushion under your head. Place your hands on your stomach. Feel them rise and fall as you breathe in ... and out.
As the breath waxes and wanes, the abdominal organs rise and fall by 4–5 centimeters. This pumps oxygen and nutrient-rich fluids through the lymphatic system, flushing out toxins. The physical movement of the breath in the body also massages the liver, kidneys, intestines, joints of the spine, indeed everything, so they're kept healthy, supple, and well lubricated.
The breath is life ...
... on countless levels.
Your breathing both reflects and amplifies your emotions
But there is an alternative ...
Most of us breathe incorrectly.
Breathing relies on the big, powerful muscles of the diaphragm, the abdomen and the intercostal muscles that lie between the ribs. It is helped along by the smaller secondary muscles of the neck, shoulders, and upper ribs.
When you are upset, anxious or stressed, the abdomen tenses and prevents the big primary muscles from working. Instead, they begin tugging against each other, leaving the secondary muscles to do all the work. But the secondary muscles are only designed to shoulder 20 percent of the burden, so they become stressed.
If this continues, it can lead to chronic tension in the shoulders and neck, to headaches and fatigue, and to increasingly shallower breathing.
It really is as simple as breathing ...
To breathe correctly, all you need to do is set your breath free. Mindfully submit to its natural rhythm. Feel the air as it flows in and out of your body. Allow yourself to relax into the breath's fluidity.
Feel your shoulders loosen and unfurl. Close your eyes (if you want to) and feel the ground beneath your feet.
If you feel anxious, distressed, unhappy, or exhausted, then begin to consciously breathe in and out.
Take a long, deep breath while counting slowly to 5 in your mind. Pause for a moment. Then breathe out while counting to 7.
You can alter the speed of the counting to reflect the unique rhythm of your breath. Try not to rush things.
Repeat this 5/7 breathing until you feel more solid, whole, and in control. You can come back to it as often as you like.
The art of breathing lies in paying attention to your breath in a very special way. It's the heart of mindfulness and as old as meditation itself. You can learn the basics in just a few minutes ...
... but mastering the art of breathing takes somewhat longer.
Breathing meditations are very simple but people often make them difficult and complicated.
Firstly, meditating in the lotus position is very uncomfortable. You can't meditate if you're not comfortable. Take a deep breath ...
... and ask why the chair was invented.
Secondly, you don't need any equipment, mantras, incense, fancy bells, apps, or even a quiet room.
A person whose mind isn't wandering, isn't meditating.
Did you feel restless and uncomfortable? Discover a few aches and pains? Perhaps there was a long list of things that needed doing RIGHT NOW, THIS MINUTE.
Maybe you had wild swings of energy. One moment you were bubbling with enthusiasm, then suddenly ... exhausted.
And the powerful emotions that swept you along — the frustrations and disappointments, the feelings of inadequacy followed by the bitter taste of defeat as yet again you realized that your mind had wandered away from your breath.
You probably felt that your mind was so chaotic you will never be able to focus for more than a few seconds at a time. What a mess ...
This is normal.
It's your first lesson.
This leads to the central guiding principle of mindfulness: you cannot fail. Realizing that your mind has wandered away from the breath is the meditation.
It is a moment of mindfulness.
MINDFULNESS IS FULL CONSCIOUS AWARENESS.
It is paying full conscious attention to whatever thoughts, feelings and emotions are flowing through your mind, body, and breath without judging or criticizing them in any way.
It is being fully aware of whatever is happening in the present moment without being trapped in the past or worrying about the future.
It is living in the moment not for the moment.
MINDFULNESS IS NOT A RELIGION
Nor is it "opting out" or detaching yourself from the world.
It's about connecting and embracing life in all of its chaotic beauty, with all of your faults and foibles.
THE AIM OF MINDFULNESS IS NOT TO INTENTIONALLY CLEAR THE MIND OF THOUGHTS
It is to understand how the mind works. To see how it unwittingly ties itself in knots to create anxiety, stress, unhappiness, and exhaustion.
It teaches you to observe how your thoughts, feelings, and emotions rise and fall like waves on the sea.
And in the calm spaces in between lie moments of piercing insight.
YOU ARE NOT YOUR THOUGHTS. YOU ARE THE OBSERVER OF YOUR THOUGHTS.
It's a subtle distinction that's only perceived with practice.
Your thoughts are a running commentary on the world; a "best guess" of what's truly happening. Often, your thoughts will reflect the powerful emotional currents swirling through your mind, body, and breath.
Sometimes they are true, sometimes they are a frantic work in progress, sometimes they are wrong.
Mindfulness teaches you to take the long view, to put your thoughts, feelings, and emotions into a broader context.
And when you do so, your most frantic and distressing thoughts simply melt away of their own accord, leaving behind a calm, clear, insightful mind.
Happiness is fleeting whilst unhappiness lingers.
It's called the "Negativity Bias" and it's hardwired into the very core of our being. It skews perception and makes the world seem far harsher, bleaker, and more competitive than it actually is.
But life really is full of opportunities and pleasures.
It's just that the brain routinely tricks us into thinking otherwise. Luckily, we can redress the balance with the art of breathing.
It works like this:
Nature compels us to avoid threats and seek out resources. It's one of the driving forces behind Natural Selection, but it comes with a powerful, inbuilt bias. Far better to avoid threats, and survive, even if it means we fail to gain any number of rewards.
Instinct encourages us to assume the worst, to err on the side of caution, to live in fear and hide in the background.
The Negativity Bias ensures that it takes five positive experiences to balance a single negative one of equal magnitude.
This is a little dispiriting.
But then again, Nature doesn't care if we're happy but she does take a keen interest in our survival.
That's the point of Natural Selection, after all.
Thankfully, we are conscious creatures, so we can restore the balance and gain a happier and more accurate picture of the world.
It's no more difficult than periodically tuning into the breath while paying attention to the little pleasures of daily life. It means noticing the sights, sounds, smells, and textures that surround you and soaking up the tastes and aromas of everything that you eat and drink.
It means giving your senses the attention they deserve while allowing them to intensify naturally.
And, while you do so, gently remind yourself that ...
... most of life's difficulties are only half as bad as they appear, while the good things are two or three times as intense.
Begin by eating some fruit.
BUT HABITS KILL CURIOSITY.
And around half of your life is ruled by habit.
They may streamline your life and free up time and energy for you to do more useful and interesting things.
But they can also become a trap ... quite a vicious one. Habits begin wearing grooves in the mind and become hardwired into your brain.
One habit triggers the next, and the next, so that whole chunks of your life are run on autopilot. Unless you're careful, they'll control almost every aspect of your life, including your taste in food, clothes, music, and even your choice of partners.
Habits govern how you interact with everyone around you, how you solve problems, how you conjure up "new" ideas, and your entire approach to the world.
As Aristotle once said, "We are what we repeatedly do."
Habits can enhance limitations and trap you in negative states of mind. And the more often you criticize yourself, the easier it is to slip into the same habit the next time, and the next, and the next.
* What's up with me today?
* Why do I keep doing stupid things like this?
* Why can't I just do it?
* My life's a bit of a mess.
* I'm exhausted.
One thought triggers the next, and the next, in an endless downward spiral.
It's the sound of your inner critic — and it's always with you.
Your inner critic is the voice of the Negativity Bias. And you're ushering it along by habit.
In fact, you can breathe them away.
Habits arise when your mind is elsewhere.
They dissolve when you mindfully bring your focus back to the present moment. Observe your habits often enough and their underlying neural patterns will wither away to leave behind a calmer, clearer, more insightful mind.
So, when you realize you've been snared by an unwanted habit, or feel trapped by your inner critic, or suffer from anxious, stressful, bleak, or otherwise negative thoughts ...
... do something they'll really hate.
CURIOSITY KILLS HABITS.
Things to break and do ...
Habits are the mind's sheepdogs. Set yourself free by unleashing your curiosity. Do as many of the following as you wish.
Whatever you do, do it consciously, with full awareness.
Be Curious. Be Energetic. Be Alive.
When you were a child, the world was a magical place. You'd go to the park and collect pinecones and flowers. Birds inspired awe and dogs were mythical beasts.
You could hardly make it home without your pockets becoming stuffed with twigs, stones, and other souvenirs.
Where did all that playful curiosity go?
It's simply become paved over with expectations, conditioning, and maybe a little shyness and cynicism.
It's time to breathe freely again.
Breathe. Be playful. Stay curious. Paperclip something you found on your scavenging trip to this page. It could be a rose petal, a bus ticket, or a leaf. The choice is yours, but make it consciously.
All that is solid melts into air.
It ensures that you see the world as a reflection of yourself — rather than as objective reality.
Fancy a nice cup of tea?
If you want someone to like and trust you, give them a warm drink. Empathy and trust are warm.
If you're seeking a more masculine aura, give them something hard to hold. Masculine is hard. If you want something to appear more valuable, make it heavy. Valuable is heavy.
Embodied cognition is the body's shorthand. It summarizes and simplifies so you can make quick decisions in a complex and rapidly changing world.
Unluckily, embodied cognition can lock you into negative spirals that lead to anxiety, stress, unhappiness, and exhaustion.
A fleeting moment of stress creates tension in the body. The brain senses this physical tension and interprets it as stress. The body tenses a little more, breathing becomes a little shallower. The brain feels a little more stressed.
It's a downward spiral.
The same holds true for many other states of mind. The mind is reflected in the body — and the body in the mind. So states of mind and body can all feed back off each other in complex and unexpected ways.
When you think about it, it's amazing that we're as sane and well balanced as we are.
But, luckily, we have this magical thing called consciousness.
It allows you to see the interconnections between your mind and body, and releases you from negative and reactive states of mind.
So instead you can learn to respond rather than react.
And such awareness is only ever a single breath away.
Mindful breathing teaches you that your most powerful states of mind are reflected in the body as physical sensations.
Be aware of these sensations. Each one is a message.
If you ignore them or suppress them, then they will become ever more insistent and distressing until you can resist them no longer.
It's one of the most powerful sources of unhappiness and distress.
But there is an alternative.
If you consciously listen to these messages by actively feeling them in your body, then something miraculous can happen. You'll realize that they rise and fall like the waves on the sea or your breath in your body.
And before long they'll begin to melt away of their own accord, leaving behind a calmer, happier, and more insightful mind.
Listen to your body.
Listen to your breathing.
Mindfulness is the observation and acceptance of your wandering thoughts.
Whatever happens, always remember that you cannot fail at meditation.
MINDFULNESS IS OBSERVATION WITHOUT CRITICISM.
When you are meditating, try not to set yourself a definite goal, such as clearing your mind of thoughts or aiming to become happier or more peaceful or content.
These are often happy by-products of meditation. But if you aim for them, you will miss.
It may seem like an annoying paradox, but it is also true.
When you meditate, you find what you find.
Excerpted from "The Art of Breathing"
Copyright © 2018 Danny Penman, PhD.
Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
IN THE BEGINNING,