~ awake in this moment, at home in the world ~

Listening to the Breath

May 16, 2012
Every spiritual journey begins with awareness, with paying attention to what is going on within and around us. Careful attending to the world allows us to see clearly. And when we see clearly the truth of what is - of who we are and how life works - we are able to respond wisely and with deep integrity.

Or as my wise mother likes to say, "When we are aware, we have a choice."

How do we cultivate awareness? Spiritual disciplines offer a myriad of paths toward clear seeing. One good place to start is with the breath, which offers a perfect entryway into this deep, present, listening world. Simply resting quietly and immersing ourselves in the breath, along with the sensations that accompany it, can help us cultivate a vibrant quality of awareness in every moment of our lives.

Are you interested in giving this inner listening a try? If so, rest in a comfortable position that allows your body to grow soft and easy. Sense the body settling into the earth beneath you. Notice sensations of warmth and coolness both within and around the body. Notice where you feel residual tension in the body. Say hello to all that rests within you.

And then find your breath. Don't try to manipulate or control it in any way (although the very fact that you are paying attention to it will likely change it). Just watch it. Get to know it. Feel the body swelling and releasing with each round of breath.

Notice which parts of you move as you breathe in and out, and which parts don't. Notice how your hips, your shoulders, your head shift as you breathe. Notice which parts of your skin touch your clothes, and notice how that changes with the breath.

Pay close attention to the sensations that tell you that you are alive, that you are breathing. How do you know when you're inhaling, and how do you know you are exhaling? Does anything interesting happen at the end of the inhalation? How about the end of the exhalation? Do any images or colors or sounds bubble up from within as you key into the breath?

If you'd like to explore this inner listening further, use your hands to direct your awareness. Place your hands on your belly, and let your awareness settle into your hands. What do you feel? What do you sense? What happens to your breath?

After a few minutes with your hands in this position, shift them to your chest. What do you sense here? What changes in your body and your breath as you do this? And then you might try shifting your hands to your side ribs, resting your hands toward the outsides of the base of your ribcage.

This journey of inner listening, starting with the breath and moving more deeply to the sensations and feelings within, is endless. You can place your hands anywhere on your body, and surely your awareness (and probably your breath) will subtly shift.

Listening to the breath can be used as an emergency on-the-spot practice, too. The next time you're feeling tense or agitated or cloudy or chaotic, spend just a few minutes settling your awareness with the breath. Drop your agenda and let go of how you want things to be. Instead, commit to getting to know the truth of how they are. Watch the breath rise and fall. Hear the breath. Notice the sensations in the body that accompany the breath. Settle your awareness there. And notice how this exploration changes your mood, your energy, your sense of who you are.

Over time this ability to settle into the breath will broaden into the ability to attend to more and more of life - to feelings, thoughts, sensations, intuitions. This may mean sensing anger arising before it bursts into flame, or noticing a vague unease in a situation long before it grows dangerous, or simply seeing the pedestrian dashing out in front of your car on a busy road in time to slam on the brakes.

You will grow clearer. You will grow wiser. You will act with deeper care and love, as you sense a deeper kinship with all beings. The ultimate endpoint of clear seeing, after all, is understanding that we are all one.

Isn't that beautiful? We start out simply listening to our breath, and we end up breathing and acting out of love, and on behalf of all beings everywhere.