Sunday, February 21, 2010

Mindful Breathing

I started breathing in 1960, and yet nearly 50 years later I am still learning to breathe. Living here where the air is clean allows us to go through life ignoring our breathing. Inhaling and exhaling is such a natural, involuntary act, that we mostly never think about it. Yesterday I began a journey to learn to breathe, to focus on my breath, to engage in "mindfulness of breathing."

A few miles up the road, tucked into the pine woods along the meandering Piscassic River, lies the Aryaloka Buddhist Center. I've visited their website many times, but not being a Buddhist, I had not stopped in for a visit or a class until yesterday. Of course anyone can visit anytime, they always welcome visitors. I just never ventured down the side road that leads to the Aryaloka, which is part of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order.

For quite awhile I've thought about meditating. Until now I felt that my woodland walks provided ample space for meditation, or that my yoga offered similar benefits. However, I never focused on my breathing and I certainly was not mindful of my breathing, unless I was out of breathe. And often my mind was wandering, unfocused, with lots of "internal chatter." So, on Saturday I joined 11 others in my first class on Mindfulness of Beathing, one of two forms of meditation taught at the Aryaloka.

Our teacher, Viriyalila, welcomed us as we sat around in comfortable chairs on the second floor of a renovated barn, the sun shining in through big windows. Tea and coffee and fresh fruits were available throughout the day and a healthy vegetarian lunch was served. Most everyone was there to learn how to focus the mind, to block out distractions, to calm the restless mind. None of us said we were there to learn how to breathe.

During the course of the session Viriyalila led us through five 10-15 minute meditation sessions. First though, we had to "take our seat." We knelt on large square cushions and sat on a set of smaller cushions or a small bench to minimize strain on muscles and joints. You don't want to be disturbed by physical pain during meditation. People with joint pains can sit in an upright chair with feet flat on the floor.

After we all nestled into our positions, made adjustments as needed, and placed our hands comfortably in our laps, we started. Viriyalila tapped the meditation bell in front of the 2-foot high bronze Buddha and lighted candles, and started us on our mindful breathing. Part of settling into the meditation posture includes a body scan -- a long and deep body scan or a brief tuning in to where you are sitting, focusing on your body. This was my favorite part of the day. Viriyalila talked softly as she asked us to think about the soles of our feet, our five toes, our ankles and legs, and on up through the other parts of our body. This "felt" good.

The rest of the day we learned and practiced the four stages of mindfulness of breathing: counting at the end of each breath, counting at the beginning of each breath, watching the breath come and go without counting, and then focusing on the sensation where the breath first enters the body. I focused on the tip of my nose and it started tingling like I was smelling fresh mint in the garden on a spring day. The counting in stages one and two occur at the same time, but the experience is completely different - counting at the end of a breath versus counting at the beginning of a breath. That is a bit startling.

At the end of each 10 to 15 minute session we shared experiences. We all felt our mind wander during each of the stages, and as Viriyalila spoke intermittently and softly during each stage she brought us back, helping us concentrate our minds on breathing. This is normal and part of the meditation process, and is not failure. Like any exercise, at the beginning it seems like work.

Several people asked what to expect, how to feel, how to measure success. Viriyalila gently expressed the idea that each person is different, each experience is unique. I was just happy that I could breathe.

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