In MIDL Mindfulness Training 6/52 you begin mindfulness of breathing by creating the conditions to observe habitual control within the breathing itself. Breathing makes a wonderful meditation object for observing control because it can be intentionally controlled or happen autonomously. To decondition habitual control in this training you simply breathe out, relax and wait for the breath to draw in by itself. Whenever you notice the tightness of control within the breathing you simply repeat this training until you can mindfully observe breathing free from any habitual control of your mind. Submit Your Question
Our Sixth Training:
MIDL Mindfulness Training 6/52: Experiencing The Natural Breath
1. Develop the ability to experience the natural breath, free from control, as a foundation for mindfulness of breathing.
2. Develop a heightened sensitivity to control as it arises within the mind through observing it in the natural breath.
3. Decondition habitual control through softening to intentionally abandon.
Meditation is practiced in a seated position.
The Three Stages:
1. After grounding awareness within your body as in MIDL 1/52 observe the breath naturally flowing within your body.
2. Gently breathe out, relax and wait for the breath to draw back in by itself. Observe and soften into any fear that the breath will not come in again or ‘holding’ of the breath. Experience the natural breath free from control.
3. Observe any tightness or tension that gradually arises within the breath as a reflection of habitual control. When observed breathe out, relax and wait for the breath to draw in again by itself.
Practice daily for 1 week, begin mindfulness of breathing by creating the conditions to observe habitual control within the breathing itself. Breathing makes a wonderful meditation object for observing control because it can be intentionally controlled or happen autonomously. To decondition habitual control in this training you simply breathe out, relax and wait for the breath to draw in by itself. Be aware of the fear that arises at the end of the out-breath that causes each in-breath to come in and use your softening skills to relax it. Within the natural breath whenever you notice the tightness of control within the breathing you simply repeat this training until you can mindfully observe breathing free from any habitual control of your mind.
1. Significant lowering of desire to control within daily life.
2. Increase in the refinement of the ability to soften into difficult situations that arise within your life.
3. Refinement of the skill of abandoning the Five Hindrances to Meditation in seated meditation and daily life.
4. Ability to be with difficult experiences that arise during meditation and daily life.
5. Ability to intentionally decondition habitual tendencies based on control.
Your Question: I have been practicing Meditation 6/52 and am really enjoying it. However, I definitely notice tension that Stephen says is a result of effort and doing as opposed to just letting the breath happen naturally. I try “softening” into that control, but I don’t know if I am doing it effectively. I essentially just take a deep, slow belly breath, and on the out breath I try quietly sighing while intending to relax. Should I be doing something differently? How will I know if I am practicing softening correctly?
You said “...I definitely notice tension that Stephen says is a result of effort and doing as opposed to just letting the breath happen naturally...”
Wonderful, this training is designed to allow you to observe the habitual tendency towards control within your mind. We are using the breath to observe the mind. Breathing can happen autonomously, regulated by the brain or it can be over-ridden by an intention within the mind. For example you can allow your breathing to happen naturally or you can intentionally take a deep breath in and out now. We are using this characteristic of breathing as a way of observing and deconditioning the tendency of habitual control within the mind.
You said “...I try “softening” into that control, but I don’t know if I am doing it effectively. I essentially just take a deep, slow belly breath, and on the out breath I try quietly sighing while intending to relax....”
Stephen Procter: When we learn the softening skill we initially take deep, slow belly breaths, this is like the training wheels on our bicycle. As we refine our softening skill in MIDL 5/52 this skill becomes much more subtle until the breath control is hardly perceivable at all.
All you have to do in this training is to slowly breathe out through your nose then relax and wait, whenever you notice your mind interfering with the breathing. You do not need to take deep breath in and out, just a gentle breath out, relax and wait for the brain to produce a signal to breathe in again. The breath will then draw in by itself, its experience will be different to the controlled breath. If you experience fear at the end of the out-breath then this is where you soften that fear. You do this by learning to give up the effort of the fear, the effort of the fight.
What is also interesting is that when the natural breath occurs, controlled by the brain, the diaphragm engages in that breath. This is what we see in stress breathing, the mind out of fear has taken over control of the breath, disengages the diaphragm causing anxiety to arise.
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 don't understand the difference between "soften" and "relax". Are they the same thing? Second, how can one relax the frontal cortex? I mean it's not a muscle so I don't get what I am supposed to do! Third, I thought the "softening breath" was the big deep belly/ribs/chest then let all go on the out breath. But then you used this term for the unregulated gentle breath. So I feel confused about that. Lastly, towards the end, when my attention wanders from my feeling of sitting there and breathing naturally, you instruct me to take a deep softening breath to bring me back into my body. We have been using this breath to let go/relax. Im not sure how to use this breath to do that.
You asked: "I don't understand the difference between "soften" and "relax". Are they the same thing?"
Relaxation is what we experience when we give up any effort in our body or mind. Relaxation has an aspect of physicality to it, like to relax the effort of the muscles in your body to hold you upright or to relax the effort in your mind to do.
The word Softness or Soften is used because it describes the experience of mental resistance and acceptance. When we mentally resist something our mind becomes 'hard', we experience tension. When we 'soften' this hardness through acceptance and surrender our mind becomes 'soft' and pliable. Softness is of the heart / mind and is based on our relationship towards what is being experienced now, namely any attraction or aversion towards pleasant or unpleasant feeling. Softness arises within the mind when we 'soften into' our relationship towards what we are experiencing now, when we abandon our participation with it. As softness grows in the mind it also appears within the body, softening from the outside inwards.
RELAXATION & SOFTNESS During the instructions you will find an interchange of the words 'relax' and 'soften'. This is because softness is always preceded by relaxation. While relaxation within itself does not always contain softness of mind, softness of mind always is preceded by relaxation. This comes from the relationship between mind and body, as our body relaxes then our mind can take on that relaxation, as the mind softens through a change in relationship towards experience this softness also appears within the body.
You asked: "....how can one relax the frontal cortex? I mean it's not a muscle so I don't get what I am supposed to do!.."
Stephen Procter: The first thing to understand is that meditation is always discussed in terms of 'personal' experience, when deciphering meditation instructions they are always based on the experienced world rather then the physical world. For example, when we talk about the breath in meditation we are not referring to the process of respiration but rather the experience of respiration which we call breathing. Physical respiration is located between the nose and the lungs, breathing can be experienced in your belly, toes, hands and head, it is common in yoga to 'breathe into' a muscle to help it relax. In the physical world this is nonsense but in the experienced world people experience this as being real every day. The experiential world is not defined by physicality.
When using the word 'frontal lobes' I am pointing towards the 'experience' of tension in the area in the front of the head that arises when we mentally engage in any activity. While the frontal lobes in the physical world may not be able to relax as they are not a muscle, experienced through the eyes of meditation they can definitely be experienced as tense and can very clearly be experienced as relaxing.
You said: "...I don't get what I am supposed to do!.."
Stephen Procter: Your not supposed to do anything, this is a giving up of doing, a relaxing of doing, an abandoning of doing. Any attempt to do anything will have the opposite effect and cause more mental tension. Doing = tension. The softening of this effort within the mind first comes about by learning to 'borrow' the natural relaxation of the deflation of your body that occurs with each out-breath. This means aligning your awareness with the deflation of the out-breath and giving up all effort in-line with that breath.
This sits on a basis of diaphragmatic breathing as trained in MIDL 3/52 and will not work if stress breathing, breathing in the upper chest, is normal. While stress breathing tightens the body with each out-breath, diaphragmatic breathing inflates and deflates the body like a balloon creating natural relaxation. In MIDL 4/52 we borrow that natural relaxation through abandoning in our body with each out-breath. In MIDL 5/52 we bring this relaxation into the mind to give rise to softness through aligning awareness on the slow exhale of the out-breath through the nose while allowing the area of the frontal lobes to relax and eventually soften.
When relaxation appears within the mind the frontal lobes feel heavy, when softness arises in the mind all cognitive mental activity ceases, including thinking, and experience of content peace arises within the mind.
You asked: "I thought the "softening breath" was the big deep belly/ribs/chest then let all go on the out breath. But then you used this term for the unregulated gentle breath. So I feel confused about that."
Stephen Procter: The 'Softening Breath' is not just a big breath in and out, it is developed from gross to subtle.
1. Learning to breathe with the diaphragm.
2. Learning to 'borrow' the relaxation of the deflation of the out-breath to relax the body.
3. Learning to 'borrow' the relaxation of the deflation of the out-breath through the nose to relax the mind.
4. Learning to soften the mind.
You asked: "...when my attention wanders from my feeling of sitting there and breathing naturally, you instruct me to take a deep softening breath to bring me back into my body. We have been using this breath to let go/relax. Im not sure how to use this breath to do that...."
Stephen Procter: When your attention wanders from the experience of sitting towards thinking, this is a habitual movement within your mind. This habit of thinking contains a relationship of interest towards the story within the thoughts. By taking an intentional, gentle softening breath at this stage and relaxing mentally the relationship towards the thoughts is dissolved and you can then bring your awareness to the experience of 'sitting' or whatever meditation object you are using at this time.
The skill of Softening is not separate from our meditation practice, we use softening in many ways:
1. When you notice you are distracted, acknowledge it and soften.
2. When you notice that you are stress breathing, acknowledge it and soften.
3. When you notice that you are attracted or averse towards an experience, notice it and soften.
4. When you want to strengthen positive qualities such as loving kindness, then soften into the feeling.
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".
Your Question: When this week meditation instruction tells us to breath freely with no control, I have a conflicting feeling that my natural breathing is not “right” and that it should involve full movement of my diaphragm, but that involves controlling my breath, in this way I am confused. Can you help me understand?
Stephen Procter: Firstly, intentional, controlled diaphragm breathing and natural diaphragm breathing controlled by the brain are two different things. While we make the movement of the diaphragm longer when training it in order to strengthen and lengthen the movement, when the breath is controlled by the brain it will adjust the breathing rate to suit the oxygen demands. This means when you are seated in meditation, doing nothing, that the movement of your diaphragm will be short and shallow. If you were walking or running this movement will become bigger, this is how it is. If you are doing nothing it will idle, if you are active it will increase in revs like in a car. When you relax it will go to idle again.
The feeling that your natural breathing is not right and your natural breathing are two separate things. As mindfulness meditators we observe our breathing as it is now. If your breathing is short, tight and shallow, then that is how it is. If it is slow, short and gentle then this is how it is. If it is long and deep then this is how it is. This is why we meditate, to find out what is going on. This then gives you information that will allow you to make a decision to improve it.
But the feeling that your natural breathing is not right has nothing to do with the breathing, this is a fear judgement produced by your mind, a judgement based on the fear of giving up control, the fear of letting things be. MIDL 6/52 is designed to allow you to observe your minds fear of letting go of control, your fear has arisen as judgement of the breath. Ironically it could be this very judgement of the breath not being right, your habitual desire for things to be perfect, that creates the tension in the breathing in the first place.
This is the fun games we play with the mind.
Question Continued: “...Hence , I don’t know what to do in this situation. I just give up and allow my natural breathing to continue....”
Stephen Procter: Yes this is the correct thing to do when practicing MIDL 6/52, just allow your natural breathing to continue. However as mentioned above there are two skillful areas that you can investigate as a meditator:
1. Allocate a period of time to intentionally retrain your breathing patterns.
2. Observe your resistance towards your breathing not being a certain way.
You said: “...Also, no matter how hard I try to fully relax and give up control , breathing with my stomach always leaves me with some sort of turbulence and unrest....”
Stephen Procter: Yes this is the anxiety arises when the mind is exposed to something that is new and out of its control. ‘Trying’ and ‘relaxing’ are two different things, we cannot try to relax, they are different directions and we also can not try to give up control for this is control. These are the paradoxes of the mind and why we become stuck within them.
In MIDL 6/52 when I say “breathe out, relax and wait” what I mean is to get out of the way, to allow whatever is going to happen to happen. This then exposes resistance and fear within the mind of abandoning control.
When we notice this resistance / control then we soften. To soften means to relax all effort, to give up the effort it takes to resist. If you feel you don't understand softening yet I recommend revisiting and refining your skill in softening, your skill in abandoning as practiced in MIDL 3 -5/52. These create a foundation for this particular training. Do not concern yourself with being left behind, MIDL trainings 7 – 10 are quite easy and you can still work with control and softening when doing these.
Question Continued: “...However , when I switch to just observing my breath at the nose area I immediately feel relaxed and peaceful. Quite an extraordinary difference just by switching the area of observation....”
Stephen Procter: Isn’t this interesting, you are able to observe the habituation of your mind. You have been observing what happens within your mind when you go against or with its habitual patterns. When you do what it wants it becomes your best friend and gives you pleasure, when you go against it tendencies it throws a tantrum and gives you unpleasant feeling to try to make you do what it wants. This is habit, this is addiction. It is so wonderful that you are observing this, this is the meditation path.
Also, what you are seeing is not confined to seated meditation, this is a snapshot of your mind in daily life. After all we aren’t doing anything special, we are just closing out eyes, breathing out and waiting for the breath to come in by itself, it isn’t complicated yet the mind makes it so out of fear.