Working with Breath when the Breath is Difficult

When I was first studying meditation, whenever I would encounter the instructions to focus on the breath, I would think, “why would I want to do that?”

I have always had respiratory issues. From asthma, to year-round allergies, to bouts of chronic bronchitis, the breath has never been a sanctuary for me, it’s been a source of frustration and pain. So when I would hear people talk about finding bliss by focusing on the breath, I would feel discouraged at best, and jealous at worst.

It took a while for me to just allow myself to use other focal points. They seemed inferior, and there was a bit of ego involved when the teachers that I looked up to extolled the breath, and others seemed to make so much progress with it.

Eventually, I decided that I shouldn’t torture myself with something that only seemed to make me more agitated, and decided to settle on other focal points. I would concentrate on a place in my body that was far from the lungs, like my hands. Or I would focus on my visual field, or sounds. All of these worked well when given time, and whenever I lead breath-focused guided meditations today I try to offer alternatives.

After some time though, I decided that my issues around breath were worth investigating. I decided to go back to that focal point as a challenge to see if I could change my relationship to it.

I understood why it worked so well for others—so much of our emotions show up in the breath. Looking at the breath reveals things that we might otherwise not notice. Things about our mood, stress levels, emotions, fatigue, energy, etc., all show up in the breath. And the breath in turn affects how we feel, so it can easily become a negative feedback loop, with negative emotions affecting our breath, and our breath making us feel worse. Focusing on the breath breaks that cycle, and can even reverse it, turning it into a positive feedback cycle. Even I had had some limited success with this, enough to understand how it worked.

But most of the time when I focused on the breath something different happened. I might start to feel less unpleasant for a while, but before it would ever actually become pleasant, it would start to feel negative in different ways. Ways that were challenging to work with.

Like most people in mindfulness practices, I had been given the instructions to not control the breath. Meditations that control the breath are often used to generate altered states. We don’t want altered states, we want a very natural state, a resting but aware state. And so we try to breathe naturally.

However, eventually I heard the instructions that you can control the breath a little bit. Thanissaro Bhikkhu gives the instructions to “nudge” the breath toward feeling more pleasant, and other teachers have given similar messages about asking the breath what it needs.

Armed with this, I attended a retreat with the intention of getting to the bottom of my issues around the breath. It wasn’t easy. At first when I sat down I would recognize how my breath was uncomfortable and it would be simple to adjust it, to slow it down until I calmed down, or make it a little deeper, or whatever I needed, but after a while I wouldn’t know any more. Did I need more air, or less? I couldn’t tell. It all felt bad.

So I would try not to control my breath at all, but I found that my mind would keep returning to controlling it, creeping into uncomfortable cycles of too much or too little air. Agitation would arise again and again.

Many days into the retreat, I was still working with the breath. I tried working on observing it in different locations in my body. So many of them had bad associations. My often congested head and itchy nose made anything close to those areas uncomfortable. A back injury made anything around my diaphragm unpleasant. Close to the heart seemed to work best for me. After a while I felt like my consciousness was perched in my trachea, feeling life giving breath flowing through it.

A little calmer, I began to examine my need to control my breath. What would happen if I really let go of all control? A fear arose, and I examined that as well. From trips to the emergency room because of my wheezing as a kid, to the time I woke up unable to breath when I had bronchitis, I had a lot of reasons to be afraid regarding the breath. And then there’s the big fear—that this breath will stop someday. Some breath will be my last, that is certain.

But I have a lot of reasons to be grateful as well. My challenges have given me a special appreciation of the breath, an awareness of how amazing each breath is. For as long as I’ve been alive I’ve been surrounded by an abundance of oxygen. That feels like an incredible gift.

Then I tried it—I stopped controlling my breath completely. I watched as my breathing slowed to a stop, just as I had feared. I sat there in the silence for a while, feeling the fear. Then, from a deep place in my belly, much lower than before, the breath resumed. This time it felt like it had nothing to do with me. My body was breathing all on it’s own, and I was just observing it. A pleasantness arose that I sat with for a long time.

Since then I’ve had a kinder relationship with my breath, even as I struggle with spring allergies and other issues. I still do that practice from time to time—let my panicked, fearful, controlling mind relinquish the breath, and watch as it slows, then resumes on its own. It’s like a trust fall, and each time I do it I feel a sort of reset. A more relaxed confidence in my body’s ability to take care of itself.

Then, sometimes I do the opposite, and give myself permission to control the breath as much as I want. I went for so long worrying about not controlling the breath, it feels great to just take in a big wonderful lungful of air and watch how it makes me feel.


We are grateful for your dana (generosity)

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