Here at OPEX Baltimore South, we advocate deliberate living in order to achieve your life’s goals. Your breath can play a critical role in this work. The previous articles in this series talk about how I think about breathing, its biology and biomechanics, different kinds of controlled breathing and touched on how breathing can affect mental states. Here we’ll expand upon the relationship between breathing, the mind, emotions, and psychological health.
Breathing and Meditation
In this article on different kinds of controlled breathing, I discuss how different types of controlled breathing can be used to achieve different physical results. I also drew attention to the fact that breathing can affect how someone feels. If you pay attention to the breath in everyday life, it can tell you about your mood, how much stress you’re under, and whether or not you’re feeling in control. Meditative breathing takes the “feeling” aspect of breathing a step further to changing the mind itself.
By focusing on the breath longer periods than a few seconds for a check-in, you can use your breath as an “anchor.” In meditation, anchors are used as stable reference points that allow you to recognize when your mind has drifted. And if you’re like most non-meditators, until you start meditating, you may not understand what a drift is like, or why it might be important to be able to recognize drifts.
Attention and Mental Activity
This may come as a surprise to you, but if you’re able to pay attention long enough, you’ll discover that you are not in control of your thoughts or feelings. In fact, you control your thoughts and feelings about as much as you control the weather. Your mind drifts from one subject, memory, to-do list, relationship to another all on its own. And for most people, it’s nearly impossible to stop this process for more than a few seconds at most. This is what some people refer to as “monkey brain,” where your attention (what you’re able to experience from moment to moment) and mental activity (thoughts and feelings) are connected and inseparable. You’re basically being taken for a ride by an unending stream of self-generated thoughts and emotions.
This is normal and natural. Your mind is designed to drift and react to the world. In fact, most people live their entire lives in this state of being pushed and pulled by the world and carried away by their thoughts. The drawback is that when your thoughts constantly arrest your attention, you miss what’s happening right in front of you and it’s easy for your mind to go places that you might not want to go. Life’s precious moments, that can only be captured in the present, pass you by; and if your mind goes to dark places, it's difficult to even recognize that things could be different.
Building a Way Out...
Meditation offers a controlled escape from this default state, allowing you to separate attention (what we experience and can control) from mental activity (our thoughts and emotions that we can’t control). By developing this ability, meditation allows the practitioner to truly experience the present moment as it exists, instead of through a fog of racing thoughts and emotions.
With practice, it becomes easier to recognize when your thoughts and emotions are carrying you away, and easier to experience life fully. Once a practice is more developed, the mental abilities it fosters have beneficial implications for everything from being more present with your family, to controlling symptoms of depression and/or anxiety, to recognizing or enacting habitual change.
Where to Begin and What to Expect
I like to think of meditation and the abilities it gives you as mental muscles:
- In the same way that you shouldn't expect to deadlift 3-times your bodyweight after a week of personal training, you shouldn’t expect (for example) to snap yourself out of depression, or have a spiritually transformative experience after a week of trying meditation.
- But just like training to do a 3X bodyweight deadlift, every step toward being able to do one makes you that much more capable - that much stronger.
It takes time, but it’s worth it:
- Every time you sit to meditate, it’s just like a workout.
- Returning your attention to the breath when your mind inevitably drifts, is just one more repetition.
- And every time you recognize something new about the nature of your own mind, it’s like hearing, “Woah! Have you been working out? Cuz you look amazing!”
So, where do you go from here, right?
Everyone is different and there are dozens of ways to start a meditative practice, but in my opinion, the lower the barrier of entry, the better.
- Headspace is a quick and easy way to get started and I recommend it to all of my clients.
- You can try it for free, it has helpful educational videos, and offers a great path for beginners to start a meaningful practice.
- Waking Up is another fantastic app for those of you who are a little experienced but who also might be a little more cerebral.
- At the time of writing this, you could still get the app for free by emailing the Waking Up team, but IMHO it’s worth every penny of a subscription.
Note to the reader: This article is the 4th in a series on the broader topic of breathing. You can find the articles linked below.
1. Understanding breathing as a continuum (3-min)
2. Why breathing matters for your movement (10-min)
3. How to change your breathing (8-min)
About the Author:
Adam is an OPEX CCP coach at OPEX Baltimore South with 15 years of fitness experience ranging from Yoga to CrossFit. He’s also a Certified Nutrition Coach (PN1), specializes in corrective exercise (FMSC) and is a parkour trainer/practitioner.