In this MIDL Mindfulness Training we take the first step and move from mindfulness of our body to mindfulness of breathing in order to develop accuracy of attention and concentration. The first hindrance to this that we experience is the habitual desire to control the breathing. To decondition this control we simply breathe out, relax and wait for the breath to draw in by itself. Whenever we notice any tightness or control within the breath we repeat this training until we can mindfully observe the breathing free from any control of the mind. Submit Your Question
Your Question: There is barely any difference between this meditation and the previous one!
Stephen Procter: Perhaps there is a misunderstanding of purpose of each of these trainings, I will try to clarify it here. The previous guided meditation, MIDL Mindfulness Training 5/52: Skill of Softening Into, is a MIDL Softening Skill that refines slow diaphragmatic breathing as a means of relaxing all mental resistance towards what is being experienced ‘now’. This rests on the foundation of development of MIDL Mindfulness Trainings 1 – 4/52.
Once developed the MIDL Softening skill is then used as a means of relaxing any resistance we experience within seated meditation and our daily life. Softening resistance gives rise to what could be referred to as ‘mindful non-participation’ and is the basis for deconditioning habitual patterns of reaction.
MIDL Mindfulness Training 6/52: Experiencing the Natural Breath is not a MIDL Softening Skill, it is an Attention Training Skill. This training is concerned with observing how the mind habitually interferes with the experience of natural breathing and develops the skill of abandoning control as a basis for mindfulness of breathing. As this skill develops and we decondition habitual mental control of our breathing, we also start to decondition the desire to habitually control things within our life.
Your Question: What is the difference between mental focus and mental tension?
Stephen Procter: Mental focus has to do with the structuring of awareness which can be very wide or very focused just like a camera - this is the knowing aspect of the mind. Mental tension is the result of excess effort to focus attention and leads to mental agitation.
Your Question: Thanks for this guidance, Stephen. I'm not sure I understand what you mean when you say to 'mentally' feel the breath as it seems primarily a physical sensation. Could you clarify please?
Stephen Procter: The breath is experienced as a flow of changing physical sensations within our body. The awareness (knowing) of those physical sensations is mental. There are always two components to any experience, the sensations found within sense experience and the knowing of these sensations. This is the interaction between the mind and the experiential world.
During MIDL mindfulness meditation we start off by being asked to become aware of the sensations within our experience and as our meditation develops we become aware of the awareness itself. Mentally feeling the breath means to hold a clear awareness of the awareness of the sensations. The experience of mentally feeling the breath is the intentional bringing and rubbing of awareness on the flow of changing sensations.
Your Question: I'm not sure what is meant by "watch from a distance". Is it, for example, picturing myself across the room and watching myself breathe? If I try this I find I cannot watch my breath, I begin feeling it physically and the illusion of distance is gone. Also, I don't understand what "mentally feeling" the breath is. I feel it physically. It seems I am missing something fundamental here but I am not sure what.
Stephen Procter: Yes, developing the skill of being able to observe something without the mind interfering with it is one of the main training's in MIDL Mindfulness Meditation. To understand "watch from a distance" let’s look at it in terms of your eyes.
If you hold your hand up, palm facing you, at full arms length you can see your hand. Now focus on your hand only. Notice when you focus on your hand only, notice that you hand comes into focus and everything else falls into the background. If you continue to concentrate on just your hand the intensity of the looking will increase and everything except your hand will disappear to you. This is looking closely - concentrating on one thing.
Now hold your hand up at arm’s length again. Look at your hand but this time be aware of the room around the hand - allow everything else to be in focus as well. Notice when you look in this way there is a feeling a space between the looking and the hand - the looking is gentle and your attention does not absorb into it. this is the experience of "watch from a distance".
To "watch from a distance" in MIDL practice do not look closely at the breathing but instead keep a general awareness of all the sensations within your body - keep the experience of 'sitting' in mind and be aware of the breathing moving through your body. ‘Keeping your whole body in mind’ means that the movement of breathing within your body becomes clear to you rather than just the breath itself.
For you second question about 'mentally feeling' the breath. You mention that you 'feel' the breathing physically but not mentally. The experience of your body and the breathing is always both mental and physical - they always exist at the same time.
The physical aspect of your body is the sensations - hard, soft, heavy, light, wet, dry, hot, cold, tense, movement etc. The mental aspect is the 'knowing' of them, the awareness that they are present to you. Both these aspects always function at the same time but the ability to observe the 'awareness' itself is something that only develops through deeper meditation practice.
You can see how this functions in this way, if you were unconscious, that is all awareness ceased, there would be no awareness of the sensations within your body even if they were present. This means that any time you experience sensations there is always awareness present. When you are experiencing breathing during meditation what you are actually experiencing is the sensations that arise as the breath touches and moves through your body. To mentally 'feel' the sensations that arise due to breathing you 'touch' 'rub' your mind against them and 'feel' them through this touch. this is what is meant by 'mentally feeling' the breath.
Your Question: The first 5 weeks where quite ok but I find this week very challenging. I have the feeling that I don’t have enough breath and I am also yawning a lot. I’ve read some reviews and notice that I am not the only one finding this exercise somewhat difficult.
Stephen Procter: MIDL Mindfulness Training 6/52 is all about observing and deconditioning the habitual tendency towards control, breathing is a really good tool to observe this.
The ability to do this training is based on earlier trainings, in particular the refinement of the Softening Into skill. The Softening skill gives us the tools needed to relax the desire to control the breathing when it arises.
The shortness of breath and yawning sounds like stress breathing, check to see if your breathing has moved into your upper chest during meditation. If it has it will give you the experience that you are not getting enough air, even though what actually happens with stress is that we tend to over-breathe. Stress breathing may have come about because you’re trying too hard in your meditation or it may be on all the time in your daily life.
MIDL Mindfulness Training 3/52 is designed to decondition this stress breathing. I would suggest returning to the Softening techniques and refining your skill in them in particular 3/52. If your stress response is on when you try to observe natural breathing your breathing will tighten into your chest and MIDL 6/52 will not be possible.
Your Question: I couldn't work out during this meditation whether I was controlling the breath or not. Can you please make more clear how to do this meditation?
Stephen Procter: The habitual control over breathing can be very subtle and difficult to discern at first. Anytime you think you may be controlling your breathing try this.
1. Breathe in gently then breathe out slowly through your nose.
2. Do not breathe in again but relax and wait - (Do not hold your breath).
3. Wait and relax and the breath will come in naturally.
4. Gently 'mentally feel' the breathing as if from a distance. The breathing will now be light, smooth, and beautiful.
5. Notice any tightening that appears within the breathing - this is your mind habitually trying to control it - relax the control.
6. If your breathing tightens then repeat this process to develop your skill.
Your Question: I keep losing the rhythm of my breathing when your instructions no longer matched it and this causes some restlessness. Also when I have to feel the air move through my nose and then chest etc I tend to 'start' controlling the breathing, meaning it's no longer spontaneous!
Stephen Procter: Use the guided meditation as a guide in how to apply your attention during the meditation rather than as a description of what you are experiencing. Adjust the instructions to your own breathing patterns and learn to practice free from guidance, in this way you will then experience the most benefit.
The restlessness is not the enemy of mindfulness meditation but rather it is the content, what you are observing is a habitual defensive posture of your mind when it feels it is not in control. This is wonderful because this offers you an opportunity to understand it.
Does the restlessness arise because of the guided meditation or does it arise because of your relationship to it?
This is where you should investigate. Feeling the air as it moves from your nose - chest - belly means to become sensitive to the sensations within the breathing. In reality this is the only way you ever know that you are breathing. The desire for to control your breathing is a separate fear based response of your mind, this is a reflection of your minds desire to control that which doesn't need to be controlled.
When you notice that your mind is interfering with the breathing, gently breathe out, soften / relax the desire behind it and the breath will draw in and once again flow naturally.
Your Question: I'm just having trouble with relaxing enough to let go of controlling my breath. I find that when I try to let go, my breaths are very shallow and unsatisfying. I usually meditate lying down, could this be the problem? What is a natural breath like, is it like the way we breathe when we're asleep?
Stephen Procter: Breathing has a particular quality that no other meditation object has: It can be controlled intentionally - you can breathe in and out now - controlling it or when you are not controlling it, it will naturally come in and out - without your help. This is one of the reasons breathing is used as a meditation object, it is perfect for observing your desire to control things within your life that do not need to be controlled.
Your breathing - or the tightness within it - is trying to teach you how to 'let things be', how to put down control. The hard part about this is that much of the control that we apply to life - and also to the breathing - is conditioned; it is a habitual pattern of reaction. This means that it will happen without any obvious participation on your part.
In this MIDL practice we are working with these habitual patterns and deconditioning them - that is where the freedom can be found. This is not 'just about the breath' this is about observing the habitual functions of your mind as they 'reflect' within your breathing.
You asked what the 'natural breath' is like - by natural I do not mean 'how it is now' but rather how breathing is experienced when it is free from control - free from mental interference. "The 'natural breath' is slow, deep, soft and wispy like a cloud". It is beautiful, enchanting and endlessly interesting.
To work with 'control' I would like you for now to stop using guided meditations, instead sit in a quiet place and be aware of the feeling of your whole body - 'heaviness and touch'. Notice that you can feel the breath moving in and out of your body. "Can you feel any tension within the breathing?" Is your breathing shallow or deep?"
If there is tension present or your breathing is shallow then there is some sort of control within the breathing. Each time you notice this I would like you to gently breathe out though your nose and 'relax and wait' for the breath to come in naturally - 'by itself' (don't hold your breath). The breath will then draw in by itself, observe the difference of a breath without control - without resistance. Notice that during this breath your diaphragm engages. Then observe your breathing and notice every time it becomes shallow or there is tightness and 'rinse and repeat' - This is your training.
Your Question: How do I handle the sense of panic that arises when I am observing the breathing and what is making it happen? I tried to soften but the feeling wouldn't go away.
Stephen Procter: The survival part of your mind has switched on and is signifying danger by switching on the fight / flight response. When it does this you will feel an unpleasant feeling flush through your body, your body will then respond with a tightening of your muscles, diaphragm, a shallowing of your breathing, raising of the heart rate etc - you are going into partial shock ready for a battle.
You are probably concentrating on the breath closely, as the concentration develops your mind has to temporarily remove its protective armours - and it feels naked and scarred when it does this - this is why the danger signal was triggered and you experienced unpleasant Vedana. This is part of deconditioning your defensive armours and also part of the natural progression of deeper Mindfulness practice.
I have a question for you to consider: "When you softened into the panic did you soften to try to get rid of, to escape from, to remove the panic and anxiety?"
If you did this then the panic, anxiety and unpleasant feeling would have gotten worse. This is because the unpleasantness demands that you fight or run - if you Soften to get rid of it, if you Soften to change or escape from what you are experiencing, then you are telling your survival mind that what is being experienced is definitely dangerous. Your mind will then increase the unpleasant feeling in your body to support your react in order to encourage you to run away even more.
This is the anxious cycle.
1. When the anxious feeling arises widen your awareness, do not keep it narrow and one-pointed.
2. Train MIDL Mindfulness Training 3/52: Retraining Autonomous Breathing, learn what it means to breathe slowly with your diaphragm. When the anxious response happens ask this question: "Is my diaphragm moving now?" If the fight / fight response is switched on than your diaphragm muscle will be locked up under your ribs and your breathing will be shallow and fast in your upper chest. Re-engage your diaphragm with three slow deep breaths with your lower abdominal muscles just below your belly button. These slow, deep breaths will re-engage your diaphragm and switch off the stress response removing the feeling of panic. This is why we study Softening.
3. When Softening Into experience first ground your awareness in touch, second notice the sensations of the reaction arising in your body, third identify the unpleasantness of the experience, then Soften Into your resistance towards the feeling of unpleasantness like you would relax into the coldness of water - fully accepting it. Again never Soften to escape from any experience rather Soften Into the "I don't like, I don't want".