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How to Make Breathing Interesting
The game of breath meditation
Do you find your own breath interesting? The OG Buddha taught ānāpānasati, which is “mindfulness of breathing,” as a fundamental meditation technique. It’s also taught by modern spiritual teacher types, with variations including where you focus your attention (e.g. tip of the nose or the whole body) to controlling breathing patterns (e.g. boxed breathing, Wim Hof method.)
Yet a lot of us have a hard time meditating on the breath because it can be quite “boring.” And given the wide variety of breath meditation methods, how does one know what is the “right” thing to do?
Here’s an analogy:
Imagine you’re hungry. You open the fridge, and see there are ingredients for you to assemble a nice meal. But you’re so hungry and don’t want to cook on an empty stomach. So you scrounge and eat the cucumber with hummus in the back of the fridge to tide you over. Now you have enough energy to keep preparing the ingredients for a proper meal.
Breath meditation practices are like different kinds of food in the fridge:
Breath work = ready-to-eat snacks
Counting breaths = leftovers
Noticing the sensations of the breath= simple meals
Silent awareness of the breath = 4 course meal
What you “eat” depends on how hungry you are.
For meditation, the “hunger/fullness level” is called “availability.”
“Availability” is a subjective measure that fluctuates depending on a number of factors like energy levels, life challenges, whether we have exercised recently, etc. I also constructed the food analogy based on subjective experience, and your mileage may vary (e.g. you may find breath sensations more captivating than counting breaths.)
So for breath meditation, gently account for your availability. I often start with breath work, followed by noticing the changing temperatures of the breath (cool in, warm out) then transition into silent awareness. However, if I find myself not being as available (e.g. discursive thinking,) I will transition back into practices like counting breaths, or associating the temperature of the breath with a mantra (cooling of concerns, warming of the heart.)
Breathing meditation is a game one plays with oneself. We gently test our availability against a technique that is less and less “attention grabbing” (in the fridge analogy, foods that take increasingly more work to prepare.) The goal is to gently transition into silent awareness and develop a base of supportive calm states, so that inner wisdom may arise.
May you have fun with your breathing.
At our last Kind Camp, we explored these breath practices together to invite inner wisdom to arise. You are invited to join us for upcoming sessions. Kind Campers report the sessions to be beneficial for epiphanies and burn out recovery.