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MIDL 4/52: Softening Into Breathing


In MIDL Mindfulness Training 4/52 you develop your skill in softening your relationship towards all experience. Your skill in softening is then brought into mindfulness of breathing and your daily life as a way of bringing about mindful non-participation. This creates the basis for deconditioning habitual patterns within your mind. Softening is an abandonment skill that refers to turning the experience of mental hardness associated with resistance into the experience of mental softness associated with acceptance.The foundation for the MIDL Softening skill is trained in MIDL Mindfulness Training 3/52. Submit Your Question

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MIDL Mindfulness Training 4/52

Our Fourth Training:
MIDL Mindfulness Training 4/52: Softening Into Breathing

1. Develop a foundation for the Second Pillar of MIDL, the ability to Soften our relationship towards all experience.

2. Develop a heightened sensitivity to the relationship between our breathing patterns and our current state of mind.

3. Develop the ability to abandon all resistance within our body inline with each out-breath.

Basic Instruction:
Meditation is practiced in a seated position.

The Four Stages:
1. Lengthen and strengthen your diaphragm by slowing down your breath just in your lower belly, hands below your belly button while seated.

2. Learning the full breath, from your lower belly, to your ribs, opening the top of your chest; relaxing with the out-breath. One hand below your belly button, the other on top of your chest to help you feel the breath while seated.

3. Learning to breathe from your lower belly - ribs - top of your chest - relaxing with the out-breath, without your hands.

4. Learning to align with and borrow the natural deflation of the body with each out-breath to refine the MIDL skill of Softening Into.

Practice daily for 1 week, play with how little effort you can put the breathing. Your aim is to be able to move your diaphragm slowly (down on the in-breath, up on the out-breath). This can not been done through force but only through, gentle patient training. Observe the desire to control as an over-effort and relax this effort whenever it arises. Bring in your 'grounding' skills developed in MIDL Mindfulness Trainings 1 - 2/52. Investigate what it means to "align your awareness" with the deflation of your body with each out-breath and what it means to "give up all effort" within your body, allowing gravity to balance you and the earth to support you.

1. Significant lowering of stress / anxiety in daily life.

2. Significant lowering of defensive postures and emotions in daily life and seated meditation.

3. Significant lowering of the Five Hindrances to Meditation in seated meditation.

4. Increased sensitivity to the relationship between subtle changes within breathing and resistance / attraction within the mind.

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Please Explain Softening Breathing

Your Question: Could you explain what softening breathing is, how do I do this breathing and if there any discernable movement of my body with each breath?

Stephen Procter: The breathing associated with Softening is focussed on using slow, deep diaphragmatic breaths in order to bring about deep physical and mental relaxation. While intentionally breathing with your diaphragm you will experience some movement associated with the inflation and deflation of your body with each breath.

When training your Softening skill it is helpful to picture your breath coming in from below your belly button, then moving it upwards towards the base of your ribs and into the top of your chest. As you let the breath out, do so slowly. Like you are deflating; allowing your whole body to relax.

As your skill develops the movement of your body with each breath will become more refined until it is barely discernible. You will no longer need to control your breathing and will be able to relax deeply just by observing the expansion and deflation of the natural breath within your body.

You can now use your skill in Softening with your breath any time you experience attraction or aversion to any experience within seated meditation and daily life. You will have developed the skill of Softening all resistance with each natural out-breath.

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Heaviness And Relaxation

Your Question: I don't understand the concept of my body feeling "heavy.". I don't understand how that should feel. You always refer to it in your meditations. Can you help me understand what it should feel like?

Stephen Procter: Heaviness is the experience that arises when we fully relax, it is the experience of gravity pulling our body down. If you are holding tension in your body and not giving up the effort to hold your posture then the experience of heaviness will not appear to you. To fully experience heaviness during meditation it is important to have a balanced posture.

If you do not experience heaviness this is also ok, you do not need to. Just acknowledge whatever your experience of your body sitting in meditation is, this is all you ever need to do. To develop your understanding of 'heaviness' do this exercise:

Hold your arm straight out in front of you now.
Relax the muscles in your arm.
The drawing downward feeling is the experience of heaviness.

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Posture & Tightness

Your Question: Sitting up while breathing from the belly up into the ribs and the chest caused my chest to feel tight and kind of stiff, why would this be?

Stephen Procter: The most common cause of this is posture. To train Softening breathing while seated requires balance in our posture, if the posture is not balanced then this will interfere with the ability to inflate and deflate the chest. The fault is usually found in rounding of the shoulders and slumping forward slightly, this causes the bottom of the rib cage to tilt inwards and press against the base of the lungs causing a tight feeling in the chest. to adjust the posture push your shoulders forward, up, back and then drop them down into place. Notice how this brings the base of the rib cage out and opens the chest. try the breathing while slumping then try it with the chest open and notice the difference.

The other cause is when we think we are breathing with the diaphragm but we are not. this tightness in the chest is caused by breathing downwards to push the diaphragm down instead of breathing from the lower belly up to pull the diaphragm down. Subtle difference but huge difference in the experience.

You Asked: My body is kind of stiff. Probably my muscles aren't used to work against gravity like this.

Reply: If stress, upper chest breathing is normal for us then there is a significant lowering of the movement and flexibility of the rib cage. Because of this tightness with each in-breath we need to initially help the breath move up by pushing out and opening our lower ribs. With practice this changes and the breath becomes easy and natural.

You Asked:The flow of the breath while doing this training had a slight stuttering quality to it. The slower I tried to breathe, the more I noticed this. Breathing faster caused the flow to be smoother.

Reply: Yes this is correct and good observation. You are observing the tightness and weakness of the diaphragm muscle through lack of use, this is initially why we do this training. The stuttering can be seen in any muscle that is weak and being worked, slowing the movement during this training makes the diaphragm muscle work. I call it strengthening and lengthening. If I go to the gym to strengthen a muscle, when I first start lifting weights to strengthen the muscle the movement is not smooth or controlled. As the muscle strengthen the movement becomes more controlled and smooth, when full strength appears in the muscle I notice a difference in smoothness and solidity of the movement.

The diaphragm is strengthened by slowing the movement down and moving it precisely on the in and out-breath. When this challenges the muscle it starts to become jerky and vibrate, this will gradually go away as the muscle strengthens and is a normal part of training. Of course we should be sensitive to force through over-effort verses skillful training. As a note of interest I have observed this stuttering of the diaphragm movement in every person i have worked with for anxiety and depression. They all have a weakness in their diaphragm, as the diaphragm strengthens the symptoms of anxiety and depression also fade.

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What is Grounding?

Your Question: In this meditation, you say ‘... the pressure of your body as it rests on the floor, grounded...’ What does it mean to be grounded?

Stephen Procter: The purpose of Grounding is to create a reference point to our present experience as a counter to the minds habitual tendency to turn towards the past or future. All meditation objects in this way are 'Grounding' points. This Grounding' point gives us the ability to observe habitual movements of our attention away from it and the coming and going of that attention.

Grounding is the continuous bringing of awareness to the present experience until awareness immerses within that experience and is 'Grounded' within it. In meditation this is called the applying and sustaining of attention and is the effort we apply during meditation. We bring awareness to our object of meditation and keep reapplying that awareness until it sustains by itself.

When creating a 'Grounding' point in MIDL mindfulness meditation we bring awareness to the sensate quality of an experience. For example the ‘warmth’ of our body can be a 'Grounding' point, the ‘pressure’ of the touch of our hands, the ‘hardness’ of our body as it rests on the floor or the ‘heaviness’ of our body as it relaxes. This skill of 'grounding' awareness is practiced in MIDL Mindfulness Training 1/52: Grounding Your Awareness and can be best understood through this training.

In the beginning we are just aware of sensations; with practice awareness immerses into the sensate quality of the body and dwells within it without effort. Grounding of awareness within the sensate quality of our body can protect us during difficult experiences such as you asked about in the later part of your question. The Buddha called this Kaya-gata-sati: mindfulness immersed within the body.

You Asked: What feeling am I looking for?

Reply: What ever sensations are present to you at that time is correct, there are no right or wrong sensations, all of them are present.

You Asked: I’ve been able to relax better, I’ve become better at noticing my breath in daily life, I’ve been much more able to counter anxiety and aversion.

Reply: This is a sign of real progress, keep doing what you are doing and keep investigating what it means to Soften.

You Asked: I’ve had a harder time doing this meditation.I have a meeting with a person who’s a bully. I prepare myself by meditating. I freeze as the bullying starts and start to cry. I feel fear and anxiety afterwards. Is there anything one can do in the midst of an ongoing difficult situation from an MIDL point of view, when one’s Softening into skills simply aren’t refined enough?

Reply: I am sorry to hear what you have had to experience Eva, what you are experiencing is perfectly normal and expected in this situation. This situation will trigger your survival minds defenses beforehand, during and after this experience. This is your minds immune system and to be expected. Your relationship towards this person, due to your past is such that this will be what you will experience. As a meditator it is not your task to try to stop experiencing this but rather to make peace within yourself with the experience.

First you have two choices: "You can separate yourself from the situation or you stay in this situation".

Often it is our won fear of leaving that binds us in these cycles of abuse, as if the pain I am experiencing now is more familiar, more known then the pain I might experience by leaving the abuser. This being said there are times when we cannot separate ourselves from the situation and it has nothing to do with the courage to leave. In this case our path is to get to know intimately our own pain, embrace and accept it. If we can't escape from it then we need to make peace with it.

When we are dealing with trauma in the beginning we cannot do anything about it while we are in the middle of it except surrender to our pain and allow it to be there. The pain of trauma however, like everything else, flows in cycles, there are peaks and there are troughs just like waves. As a MIDL meditator we take advantage of this, we do not try to bring the cycle to an end while it is in its peak, we do this while it is building and after it has ebbed.

You are correct in preparing yourself with Stillness and Softening; this is like removing some fuel before the fire comes through. During this time you are also learning and refining your skill in Softening and Stillness, do so with the intention of understanding what it means to Soften, what it means to enter Stillness.

When you are in the situation you can only apply maintenance to the level of your skill, it is very early days in this. When the fire is burning fully, all you can do at this stage is the protect yourself, the skill to douse the fire when it is strongest will come later, you are only just starting to find some benefits in daily life: "...I’ve been able to relax better, I’ve become better at noticing my breath in daily life, I’ve been much more able to counter anxiety and aversion...."

Be pleased with these small and gradual victories. If your mindfulness collapses during the trauma do not struggle or fight against it, Soften to accept that there is nothing that you can do at this time. Be gentle with yourself, just look at keeping yourself safe.

You Asked: I feel fear and anxiety afterwards.

Reply: Yes, of course you do..............but this is ok; know that it is ok to feel scared, it is ok to feel anxious afterwards, you have not failed. Even when a raging fire has past, there are still burning embers left behind for days. These embers are there for you to learn your skill, you learn how to put out the embers with Softness, put out the embers with Stillness. This fear and anxiousness are your Survival Mind continuing to protect you, reliving the trauma. This is where you meditate; this is where you Soften into Stillness.

Your task here is to shorten the length of time that the residue from the trauma lasts. At first after one of these episodes the fear and anxiety may linger for weeks. Through learning to Soften to this residue it will shorten in its intensity and how long it lasts. It will start to last for days, a day, hours, 30 minutes after the event. Become better at abandoning through Softening at this point. Shorten the length of the residue, this is doable.

This is where you meditate, in the gap between the peaks; this is where you develop your skill. In this way you will start to notice that the fear and anxiety is not personal, it is an immune system of your mind. You will also start to notice that as you Soften and experience Stillness in these gaps that the intensity of the reaction during the trauma will also start to weaken, gradually it will weaken while it is happening and it will also shorten in how long it lingers afterwards. In this way the peaks become smaller and even though you may still feel some fear and anxiety, it will no longer control you.

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Is this Meditation?

Your Question: Cognitively I get the purpose in developing breath awareness and the softening skill. My resistance lies in my mind thinking this is not real meditation because of the exercise vs sitting with a "normal" meditation focus. I became of aware of thinking "I'm never going to become enlightened this way" as well as my desire to put meditation in my tool box of self enhancement.

Stephen Procter: You have raised some very important questions that I will try to clarify.

You Said: "....experiencing resistance to this meditation......thinking this is not real meditation.....thinking "I'm never going to become enlightened this way"....."

This is a normal concern to arise within your mind and you have handled it in a very skillful way by observing it. Most meditation techniques have a very specific way of structuring attention, this then gives rise to a very specific path of experiences that a skilled meditation teacher, within a tradition, can use to guide your meditation practice. This predictability of the conditionality of experience is one of the purposes of specific meditation techniques in different traditions. When you structure attention in this way you will get a specific experience. This predictable path of experience is needed for without this, it would be very difficult for one person to guide another in meditation. This predictability of a specific technique also provides a sense of stability and safety and is based on the development of concentration.

MIDL on the other hand takes a different path and this path is more practical when we wish to develop mindfulness meditation while living a normal life. MIDL does not attempt to structure awareness in order to give rise to a specific path of experience or to change our state of mind. Instead it seeks to observe the mind, as it is, in its natural state, without interfering with it.

The mind in its natural state, without the structuring of attention, is messy as it wanders between the six senses. You will experience this messiness when practicing MIDL, it gives a feeling of being out of control and of experience being impersonal. To clarify this mess without changing it, MIDL focuses on developing the watching, the observing, mindful awareness that does not alter the structure of the habitual mind. This is done in order to develop understanding of the interaction of the mind and the six senses to develop Wisdom.

While structuring attention in a specific way gives rise to a specific path of experience allowing a skilled teacher to guide the meditation path, MIDL does not have this luxury. Instead of using a specific path of experience to guide a meditator's practice, the skilled teacher of MIDL, since concerned with the 'observing awareness', guides the meditation path through observing the relationship of that awareness to the experiences that arise within the mind, instead of the experiences themselves. Since this path is based on relationship, the path itself is transparent and awareness can be structured in different ways in order to challenge the habitual patterns within the mind.

Since the path starts with a mind that is based on habitual attraction and aversion and ends with a mind that is equanimous towards all experience, specific tools are needed to tread the path. The first is based on developing a flexibility of awareness, so that the structuring of attention does not interfere with the mind. The next is the development of the skill of Softening any habitual attraction or aversion that arises within the mind, dissolving the stickiness of awareness as it grasps onto experiences. Stillness is what arises within the mind when the stickiness of attraction and aversion come to an end. At first temporarily due to Softening, eventually permanently due to Wisdom.

As in the repeated stanza in the Satipatthana Sutta, describing the mature meditator "... In this way they dwell independent, not clinging to anything within the world. ..", it is all about the relationship of clinging.

The resistance that you experienced is this habitual clinging and why we meditate.

Within this we can however see the development of your MIDL practice. You said: "...in terms of noticing sounds and grounding in body sensations. It felt like I was able to be more observant more quickly..." This tells me that your ability to observe your mind, without interfering with it is developing. You also said: "..Gently brought myself back and was fairly successful at not judging myself..." This shows your ability to observe and Soften your relationship towards your experience is developing.

So since the mind observed in this way is messy how can you know if your practice is developing?

Again: "..dwell.....not clinging to anything within the world. .."

You will start to notice an increase in self awareness in seated meditation and through out the day. There will be a 'calming' or 'softening' of your personality, your defensive cycles will last for shorter period and you will have less extremes of highs and lows. Everything starts to calm down. Your desire to control in everything will start to fade, as will attraction and aversion within your mind. Periods of equanimity will start to arise and your mind will regularly fall into stillness. The drama will calm from your life and life itself will flow, your concern with past and future will come to an end.

Because the habitual mind, free from control is a mess, it can seem that there is no clearly defined path of meditation. But when we understand that the path is not what arises within the mind but rather observation of the relationship of awareness towards its object, a clear path reveals itself to us, one that has no confines, shape or form. One that is not confined by structure, posture or situation.

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