Mindfulness of breathing

How can you be more present to whatever you are doing?  Bring your attention to your breath.  It is always there.

Full Text: 

Mindfulness of breathing

March 4, 2015 – Genesis 2:7


Then the LORD God formed man out of the ground,

and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.


            Let’s begin again today the way we did last week – with a brief experience of mindfulness meditation:

            First, I invite you to take a relaxed but alert position.  Sit comfortably, but upright, not tense but attentive.  Let your feet lie flat on the floor.  Let your hands relax in your lap.  Let your eyelids fall, even to close.

            Now, bring your attention to the fact that you are breathing.  You may notice your breathing most clearly in your nostrils or in your chest or in your abdomen.  But wherever it is, bring your attention there.  And there is no need to change your breath in any way, to make it longer or shorter, faster or slower. Simply let it be as it is.

            Let your thoughts wander to what has happened so far today – whatever have been your highs and lows – and set them aside for now.  Also, whatever your plans are for the rest of the day – what concerns or hopes – you have about the rest of the day – acknowledge them and set them aside for now. 

            No matter what arises in your mind, whatever sounds rise around you, whatever sensations arise in your body, simply acknowledge them and bring your attention back to your breath – the in-breath and the out-breath. 

            And now I invite you to open your eyes.


            Last week I defined mindfulness as awareness with acceptance.  So often our minds go somewhere else – anywhere else – than the present moment because there is something about the present moment we want to avoid.  We do this more often than we think and it is rarely a very good coping strategy.

            Matt Killingsworth is a researcher at Harvard University.  He has conducted one of my favorite studies about mindfulness.  He asked people, at random times during the day, three questions:

    • How do you feel?

    • What are you doing?

    • Are you thinking about something other than what you are doing?


            Killingsworth collected more than a half million reports from over 15,000 people during 22 different activities.  He found that their minds were distracted 46.9 percent of the time –  close to half the time.  But what I find most interesting about this study is that even when people were thinking about something pleasant they tended to be less happy than when they were focused on the task at hand, even if the task was unpleasant.

            To be honest, I was quite disappointed to hear this.  One of my main strategies when I confront difficulties is to go to what I call my “Happy Place.”  Rather than face the unpleasantness staring me in the face, I avoid it my thinking happy thoughts.  Through the years, I have realized that this strategy doesn’t work.  The unpleasantness is always still there when I return from my “Happy Place.”  But what this study says is that, even when I am there, I am not likely to be so happy as if I were actually remaining in the present moment and working with whatever difficulty is present.

            How can we come back to the present?  The first step is to bring your attention to your breath.  Then bring your attention to whatever is happening – in your body, in your mind, in front of you, between you and another person.  Continue to repeat the first step as often as you need to.

            The breath is a good object for our attention for a number of reasons.  It is always there.  It is always available – 24/7.  We never have to work it into our schedule.  We never run low.  We don’t have to buy it.  And we don’t have to remember it when we go anyplace.  We never say, “Oh, gee, I forgot to pack my breath!”

            The breath happens in the body, so it’s easy to sense.  Whether in your nostrils or in your chest or in your belly, it’s easy to find.  Your breath (and your body) is always in the present moment.  You’re never breathing in the past; you’re never breathing in the future.  And the breath has a wonderful rhythm to it.  It reflects the pulse of life.

            And the breath is always calming.  Some of that is in the attention we give it.  And some of that is in the breath itself.  

            Your breath is a precious gift.  My favorite quote from the prison comes from a discussion about the breath.  One of the other teachers was encouraging the men to appreciate their breath.

            One of the men said, “I’ve been shot five times!  When I take a breath, I appreciate it!”

            You may not have been shot five times or any times.  But you may have had a close call with death.  You may, at one time or another, struggled for breath.  Those experiences are reminders of how important the breath is.


            So let me give you a few things that might help you appreciate your breath:

            The first is that every breath you take is something you share with every other creature who has ever lived.  And this is not just some New Age fantasy.  Enrico Fermi, one of the great physicists of the 20th century, proved mathematically that every lungful of breath that you take contains at least one molecule from every other human being who has ever lived.  Now I’m not a mathematician, and I’m not sure how it works if that also includes a baby who lived for five minutes on the other side of the world.  But every breath we take we share with every other living being.

            The second is that breath is our first connection with God.  “God breathed into the man the breath of life and he became a living being.”  And this is repeated each time we breath. Each breath is a gift from God.  It is the first thing that happens when we emerge from the womb.  Breathing out is the last thing we do.  But all along the way, each precious breath is a gift from God. 

            The third is that breath is also a connection with have with Jesus.  Yes, Jesus was a living being and so we share breath with him.  (If Fermi is right, we even share molecules of air with him!)  Although the gospels don’t record the first breath he took, they do record the last breath he took.  “Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.” (Matthew 27:50)


            With those thoughts on the preciousness of the breath, let’s take a few minutes now to focus on our breath.  Again, become comfortable where you are sitting.  Remain relaxed, but also awake and alert.  And bring your attention to your breath.

            Inevitably, thoughts will arise.  Instead of fighting them or criticizing yourself, simply bring your attention back to your breath.

            A strong emotion or a painful body sensation may arise.  Be gentle with yourself. And come back to your breath.

            You may get sleepy.  You may get restless.  You might position your body a bit differently so you’re more alert.  You might simply watch your restlessness as it arises in your mind or in your body. And come back to your breath.

            You may wonder – Why am I doing this?  How come I haven’t achieved inner peace yet?  This is a waste of time!  I should be doing something more productive!  Acknowledge those thoughts.  And come back to your breath.


            In the coming week, I encourage you to take a few minutes each day and focus on your breath.  You might try at different points in the day taking three mindful breaths, focusing on the in-breath and the out-breath.  You don’t have to stop what you are doing.  You can do it while you continue what you are doing.

            And, if you aren’t really interested in the mindfulness thing, I invite you to try using your breath in your prayer life.  Use your breath as a way of connecting with God.  Upon taking an in-breath, think to yourself, “Breath of God, breath of life.”  Or, on your out-breath, think to yourself, “And he breathed his last.”

            In that way, we may deepen our appreciation for the precious gift of God for our life, and for the precious offering of Jesus for our eternal life.