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When approaching MIDL training we start by creating two foundations. These are based on the ‘grounding’ skills of immersing awareness within the sensate quality of our body and also by developing sensitivity to the movement of the diaphragm in the process of breathing.
The initial skill of immersing awareness within the sensate quality of our body is trained in MIDL Mindfulness Trainings 1 & 2/52. These become the anchor point in our viewing platform during seated meditation and for Mindfulness in daily life. Since our state of mind reflects within the sensate quality of our body, this immersion of awareness not only creates a ‘grounding point’ but it also allows us to observe when our state of mind changes, due to the shift of the arrangement of the sensations within it.
The second ‘grounding’ skill in MIDL is sensitivity to the relationship between the diaphragm and the Stress Response. We start to develop this sensitivity in MIDL Mindfulness Training 3/52: Retraining Autonomous Breathing. Whenever we are resisting anything in life, even if we are not aware that we are resisting, there is a correlating tightening or locking of the movement of the diaphragm due to the triggering of the Stress Response. This increased sensitivity to the engagement or disengagement of the diaphragm within the process of breathing offers us a path for deconditioning stress and anxiety from our life.
At one stage of our life autonomous diaphragm breathing was natural and we all "breathed like a baby". For many of us, as we have grown we have been exposed to many stressful or traumatic experiences. This continuous exposure creates a hypersensitivity of the Stress Response causing it to switch on and not switch off. It then sits idling in the background placing us in a continuous, defensive, Fight or Flight mode.
This retriggering of the Stress Response happens because of reliving trauma within the obsessive defensive thinking patterns produced by mind as it tries to find safety. Also the fear of experiencing anxiety and emotional pain feeds the cycle. This cycle can trigger at a very young age and for many of us has made stress breathing our normal breathing.
Is breathing in the upper chest normal for you?
Take a couple of deep breaths in and out now.
Did your breathing move from the top of your chest downward?
Do you feel tightness at the bottom of the breath around the lower ribs?
If so then your diaphragm muscle is probably locked - you are stress breathing and will be experiencing a process of suffocation. If your diaphragm was engaged and you were breathing naturally the breath would have started from your belly and moved up to the top of the chest. Literally natural breathing and stress breathing are up-side-down to each other. You can do an extra check now.
Take a few deep breaths. If your breathing is natural natural autonomous diaphragm breathing, once you have stopped taking the deep breaths, you will feel your diaphragm re-engage within your belly moving gently, as opposed to stress breathing which will be short and shallow in the upper chest.
What does this have to do with MIDL Mindfulness meditation?
Chest breathing creates a process of tightening of the chest and hyperventilation which leads to us to expelling too much C02. Literally we over-breathe. This causes an imbalance of oxygen and C02 which we experience as becoming mentally dull, foggy, incredibly agitated with thinking going at 100mph “How can I escape from this?”
We are caught in a self perpetuating anxiety cycle.
The unpleasantness of this cycle of adrenaline and suffocation then gives rise to all our defensive emotions and personality traits as they try to push away the perceived threat. If we do not address this cycle of suffocation due to the stress response switching on and not switching off, then when we sit down to meditate we will just end up in a battle between breathing, thinking and emotions.
If we learn through MIDL Softening skills how to turn off this stress response, then we will experience autonomous, natural diaphragm breathing and our mind will become clear, thinking will settle down and MIDL Mindfulness of Breathing can develop. The first step in breaking this anxious cycle is to retrain autonomous diaphragm breathing. When we first start this we may find that the diaphragm muscle is weak and moves quickly and awkwardly.
Do not concern yourself with this, the diaphragm responds readily to exercise and will strengthen quite quickly. We strengthen the diaphragm by learning to engage then move it slowly. Through this training autonomous breathing temporarily re-engages relieving the symptoms of anxiety. It is temporary because we still need to remove the habitual trigger behind this stress response. Continued training in this way corrects our breathing patterns and autonomous diaphragm breathing becomes our natural breathing pattern again. We breathe like a baby.
If diaphragm breathing is already your natural breathing then you can still benefit from this training. MIDL 3/52: Retraining Autonomous Breathing is not just about turning off the Stress Response, it is a foundational exercise for MIDL Softening Into skill, Mindfulness of Breathing and also Mindfulness of resistance within daily life.
To understand how to retrain the diaphragm to desensitise the Stress Response it is helpful to first understand what the diaphragm is. The diaphragm is a dome like structure of muscle fibre that sits at the base of our rib cage. Its task is to contract downward into our belly to create a vacuum to draw air into our lungs and to return back again to expel the air. When we are not experiencing stress this breathing happens autonomously, triggered by our brain and can be experienced as the gentle movement of the diaphragm in our belly.
This autonomous breathing has a calming effect and is a sign that there is no mental resistance within our mind. We can observe the gentle movement of breathing in babies and young children within their belly as the diaphragm naturally moves down and back up again. When the child is unwell we instinctively notice the change, their breathing becomes short and shallow within their upper chest. This short, shallow, rapid breathing is stress breathing and has occurred because the fight / flight response has tightened or locked the diaphragm movement.
In MIDL, during seated meditation and within daily life, we use this reflection of the minds resistance within the movement of the diaphragm as a red flag. The process of tightening of our breathing warns us that the stress response has switched on and can also be used as a basis for deconditioning habitual defensive reactions within the mind itself.
In MIDL Training 3/52 the first thing we focus on is lengthening and slowing the movement of the diaphragm. We do this by laying down, placing our palms below our belly button and breathing gently into the belly so that the palms lift upwards. Unless you have a blocked nose the in and out-breaths are both done through the nose, our mouth is closed during the whole process.
When we first start this exercise it is normal for the abdominal muscles to become involved and for our belly to extend outwards. With practice we learn to disengage the abdominal muscles and isolate the diaphragm, the movement then changes from extension of the abdomen to a downward movement towards the top of our pubic bone. When this transition happens the belly does not rise but rather ‘rounds out’ as the diaphragm moves downward.
To help you feel the diaphragm muscle cough a few times now, notice when you do this you can feel the diaphragm moving up and down within your belly. Now laugh, feel the movement in your belly? This is also the diaphragm muscle and the one you strengthen during this training. When you cough or laugh your diaphragm moves quickly, to strengthen the diaphragm movement, we move it slowly and precisely on the in-breath and the out-breath.
Breathing only in our belly we now observe the length of the in-breath and out-breath, counting slowly we say 1...... 2....... 3........ We aim to lengthen the movement to 4 or 5 seconds for adults. If chest stress breathing has become natural for you then it is normal for the diaphragm movement on the in-breath to only last for 2 to 3 seconds.
Because of the shortness in the movement of the diaphragm in the beginning you may feel as if you are not getting enough air. If needed to you can take an extra breath. Once the movement of the diaphragm slows down and lengthens and you become accustomed to breathing slowly through your nose, the feeling of needing more air will go away.
Your aim should be to lengthen the in-breath and out-breath by slowing down the diaphragm movement. This is done by paying attention to the very beginning of the movement of the in-breath, starting it slowly, and paying attention to the very beginning of the out-breath and also starting it slowly. In this way your breathing will lengthen. The most important part to focus on is learning to release the out-breath slowly. We do this to allow the depleted C02 levels caused by the hyperventilation to rebalance, and as a basis of using the breathing as a vehicle for deep mental relaxation during MIDL Softening techniques.
During this process if you feel a tightness of the breath as you breath in, it is possible that you are breathing from the top of your chest and using your in-breath to try to push the diaphragm downwards – this will not work. The diaphragm is a dome and cannot be pushed down – it needs to be pulled. It can be helpful to think of your diaphragm as being an upside down plunger, when you pull the handle downward the plunger will suck in air, as you push it back up it expels it. To move your diaphragm, think of pulling it downwards rather then pushing it.
Once you can feel the movement of the diaphragm your next task is to train your breathing to move from your belly up into your chest. As mentioned earlier when we experience stress our breathing reverses and as we take a breath in, moves from the top of our chest downwards. The second part of this exercise reverses this breathing. It is helpful to have one palm bellow your belly button and one on the top of your chest bellow your collar bone.
You now start your breath in your belly so that your lower hand starts to lift and then start to move the breath to the top of your chest. It is helpful to push your ribs outwards and to physically help your chest lift and open in this early stage.
Stress breathing lowers the flexibility of your rib cage through its lack of movement so we need to help our chest expand in the beginning. As your diaphragm moves down your lungs will start to fill, as you make space by raising your chest you will feel them fill to the top of your chest. Now allow your whole body to relax as the breath goes out. You then repeat it again belly – ribs – top of your chest – relax. Belly – ribs – top of your chest – relax. With practice your lungs will raise your chest by itself and you will no longer have to help it.
Once you have completed this next stage your task is to get out of the way – literally. You allow your breath to fully go out then relax and wait. Your brain will then fire a signal and take over the breathing for you, your diaphragm will have re-engaged and move freely and gently within your belly. Be careful of mental control at this time, it can be helpful to bring your attention away from the breathing and into the touch of your body on the floor.
At this stage we need to allow the breathing to happen autonomously. You are now working with two things, relaxing the minds desire to control the diaphragm and return back to stress breathing and also being aware of the gentle movement of the diaphragm in your belly so that your brain starts to realise that this is what breathing is supposed to feel like.
When starting this MIDL training of sensitivity to diaphragm breathing within daily life you may find that throughout the day, every time you check in, that your diaphragm has locked and breathing moved up into your upper chest. This is ok, you are working with a habitual defensive pattern; you just need to retrain your mind.
Think of it like giving up cigarettes, you want to give up so you throw the cigarette away and the ten minutes later you pick up another one. You throw it away and then find yourself picking up another one. Again, every time you fall back into the habit you become more disenchanted with the process until finally when you put it down you no longer have any desire to smoke again. This is the same process. Through patient re-engaging of your diaphragm throughout the day, autonomous breathing will become your natural breathing.
You will experience your breath moving in your belly throughout the day and only moving up into your chest during physical exertion, it will then naturally return to autonomous breathing. At this stage your experience of anxiety and stress will be much lower, more importantly you will have created your Viewing Platform for MIDL.
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This article was written by Stephen Procter, Meditation Instructor from Meditation in The Shire, Kirrawee NSW, Australia. If you wish to post this article on another website or in a publication please respect the author and reference / link back to this website, thank you