Last Updated: April 8th, 2019

The following has been excerpted from Looking at Mindfulness: Twenty-Five Paintings to Change the Way You Live, in which psychiatrist Christophe André uses well-known paintings by famous artists to help teach readers the core concepts of mindfulness. 

Front cover of Looking at Mindfulness - Mindful breathingBreathing, the core of meditation

Breathing has always occupied a central place in meditation practices. It is the most powerful means to connect to the present moment (or to realize that we find it hard to connect … ). This is why one of the simplest and most effective pieces of advice beginners receive is to take the time to breathe, just breathe, for two or three whole minutes several times a day.

There are several reasons for the importance given to breath. Since the focus of meditation practice must not put the attention to sleep, it is useful to concentrate on a “moving target.” If we are to avoid overtiring our attention, it is easier to fix it on something that is always present but never still. This is why we can remain fascinated and awake for long periods looking at the waves of the sea, the flames of the fire or the passing clouds—they are always there, but never the same. No breath is just like the one before or after. And of course there’s the symbolic aspect—breath is life.

Breath is also important because we can exert a limited but real control over it by speeding it up or slowing it down. The same cannot be said of many of our body’s other automatic functions. It’s hard to alter our heart rate or blood pressure, or to speed up or slow our digestion. Work on breath is useful because it has an impact on our emotions.

We can use breathing to calm ourselves down. Not by controlling it, but by humbly connecting to it and gently observing it. The experience of accepting a painful emotion by simply breathing as we register the feeling is a great introduction to the dialectics of will and letting go. When things are not going well for us, when we are suffering from depression or anxiety, we do not breathe well. Working on our breath at these times will not solve all our problems or take away all our pain, but it will always lighten them. Why deprive ourselves of that?

The lessons of breath

Christians are familiar with Jesus’ words to the paralyzed man: “Take up thy bed and walk.” I sometimes like to imagine a worried man asking the advice of Buddha, who responds in symmetrical style: “Stop thy movement and breathe.” We have so much to learn from breathing.

Breath teaches us about awareness. Our breath is invisible; we constantly forget it’s there, but its role is vital—we have an absolute need to breathe. Similarly, there are many other things in our lives that we rely on but are unaware of.

Breath teaches us about dependence and fragility. Our need to breathe is even more clear and immediate than our other vital needs to eat, drink, love and be loved. Breath teaches us that we are dependent in many ways, and that these forms of dependence feed and develop us. The idea of reliance and dependence is sometimes disturbing to anxious people. “What if it were all taken away from me? What if I stopped breathing one day?” So they try to forget. The solution, of course, is not to repress the thought that our life depends on our breath, but rather to reach acceptance of this idea—which is an unavoidable reality—by contemplating it frequently and letting it wander through our mind unchecked. By making it familiar, we can defuse its charge of worry.

Breath teaches us about subtlety. It is simultaneously inside and outside us. It blurs the distinction between what is me and not-me. These distinctions are often illusions, and sometimes sources of suffering. It is not good to cling too closely to the certainty that we are on one side and the world on the other. This is why meditating in the warm summer breeze is an experience to savour. After a little while, the air inside us becomes one with the air in the world outside.

Breath teaches us about humility. Breathing is at once voluntary and involuntary, teaching us to accept that we cannot control everything. This is something that our society is keen to have us unlearn, trying to make us think that everything can be controlled and mastered. But breath also teaches us not to remain passive and resigned. It shows us that we can still act, humbly yet effectively, with things that we do not completely control.

Breath teaches us about reality. Breathing is so important, yet breath has no identity of its own. It constantly forms and unforms. This is what Buddhists call emptiness—it’s not that it doesn’t exist, but it is not a solid reality in the way that we think, to which we can cling for safety as we would wish. Breath is like clouds, wind, waves and rainbows—very real, but fleeting, always there but always passing.

Breath is always here

Breath is always here with us. It’s a resource that is always available to us in becoming aware and connecting to the present moment by observing the movements of our breathing throughout our whole body, without trying to change them.

Breath is the anchor of mindfulness, helping us attach ourselves to the present moment. Sometimes it’s what sailors call a floating anchor, the kind that allows a ship to slow down and not to capsize in the storm, when other maneuvers are no longer possible. Breath is like a friend who is always there for us. We must not ask it to give us the impossible. There’s no point trying to breathe in order not to feel stress, anxiety, fear, sadness or anger. But breathing will stop us being engulfed. We focus on respiration in the way that we ask a friend to be with us when we have to face some problem or ordeal.

Woman tipping head back and breathing - Mindful breathing

Are you in pain? Breathe. Are you in distress? Breathe. At first, this message seemed very limited to me. And then I understood. The real, full message is, “Start by breathing. Then everything will become clearer.” The thing to do or think will then become more obvious. Breathing does not change reality, but it does change how we experience it, and preserves our ability to act on it.

Once we have adopted the habit of regular practice, it’s no longer we who are breathing and observing our breathing. Our whole body breathes, we are in our breathing—indeed we are our breathing. This is not an illusion or autosuggestion, it’s simply that awareness has led us to the core of one of the thousand phenomena that make us living beings.

Breathing then becomes much more than respiration. It becomes a special path of communication and exchange with all that is inside us and around us, the painful and wonderful alike. For we can, of course, also breathe when faced with beauty and loveliness.

If you’re new to meditation, you may want to try out JUST ONE BREATH: Week one of an eight-minute meditation program for beginners»

Christophe André is a French psychiatrist and best-selling author who has participated in meditation for many years. He runs meditation groups at the Sainte-Anne Hospital in Paris, helping people to free themselves from suffering and enjoy their lives. After many highly acclaimed books, this is his most original and personal work.

Excerpted from LOOKING AT MINDFULNESS with permission of Blue Rider Press.
image 1: Caleb Roenigk (Creative Commons BY); image 2: Minoru Nitta (Creative Commons BY / Cropped from original)