Try the following: sit back and just breathe for a few moments. But before you actually "do" this, let us get clear on one point: there is no "doing" involved in this exercise, just witnessing of your breath exactly as it is at any given moment - for a few moments.

You might be thinking: nah... I don't need to try another breathing exercise. Well, it's not. It's not a breathing exercise. It's an exercise in not breathing, an exercise in allowing yourself to be breathed...

So, don't just keep on reading. Go ahead and take a moment to "do" this to see how hard it is to "do nothing" and to allow yourself to be "done."

Welcome back.

You see, mind is like a child testing one's limits: it grabs, it touches... It wants to interact with whatever it pays attention to, testing one's power to modify and manipulate one's environment. As such, this grasping engagement with the world - either inner or external - is natural. This never-ending interface with reality is but a life-long, full-time process of learning about what we can control and what we cannot control.

One lesson, however, that many of us tend to overlook is that just because we can control something it doesn't mean that we necessarily should.

Just witnessing your breath, without "breathing it," without trying to manipulate it in any way, is an opportunity to practice this skill of non-interference, of letting something be exactly as it is, even if we are capable of controlling and changing it.

Let's go back to this breathing exercise. Whether you've tried it or not, let's do it again. But this time, let us zoom in even closer on this automatic reaching of the mind in the hope of learning how to keep the mind's sticky fingers at bay.

Here are a few subtleties and nuances I'd like for you to track and notice.

Notice how when you make a conscious choice to pay attention to your breathing, the breathing that felt so effortless in its previous automaticity suddenly becomes imbued with mental effort. To catch this emergence of tension, try to start paying attention to your breathing several times trying to tune in to this transition from effortlessness to effortfulness.

Now, by effortfulness I do not mean "labored breath" or any "shortness of breath." What I mean by this is the effortfulness that stems from supervision, the sudden burden of responsibility that the mind feels as it tunes in to the workings of its own body.

Work on this for a few minutes, just going from paying attention to your breath to shifting your attention away to something else entirely, and then going back to paying attention to your breathing. As you dive in and out of this "attendance" of your breath, as you re-enter this mode of supervision, keep noticing the subtle emergence of tension.

Ponder what this tension is about. Perhaps, your mind is playing out some expectations of what your breath should be like. Perhaps, it's caught up in the tension of staying focused on the breath. Notice how hard it is to just witness without some kind of interference or intervention. Marvel at this automatic reaching of the mind, at this seemingly hard-wired itchiness to do something...

Strange, isn't it?

It is as if mind is a kind of hyperactive do-it-yourselfer that, having hired a five star plumber from the Angie's List, cannot just let the contractor do what he or she is hired to do. This consummate manic do-it-yourselfer, this mind can't help itself but meddle and monkey in what's going on, trying to fix what's not even broken...

When I introduce my clients to relaxation and guide them through breath awareness, I often remind them that the body knows exactly how to breathe at any given time. And while it is certainly true that we have conscious control over the pace of our breathing (we can, for example, at will decide to hold our breath, or we can, at will, take a series of rapid breaths or purposefully slow down the pace of our breathing) it does not mean that we have to exercise this control.

Our body has been in the business of breathing since day one and will breathe on our behalf until the moment we die. And, yet, here we are, in the primitive narcissism of our reality-testing minds, presuming that somehow we know exactly when to inhale and for how long to exhale.

Preposterous, isn't it?!

Or, in the course of attending to your breath, try to tease out whether the current breath took place on its own or if you somehow participated in its emergence... Ask yourself: Did I consciously will this breath into life or did it happen on its own - not against, but despite my will?

Or, as you notice the sudden arrhythmia of your current breath, allow yourself to wonder for a moment: Am I witnessing an irregular rhythm of my body or am I, in a subtle, barely conscious attempt to maintain the current breath rhythm, inadvertantly interfering with what would have been an otherwise regular rhythm of my body?

So, as you keep practicing crossing this threshold of awareness of your breath, see if you can get to the point where the fact of your paying attention to something does not alter that which is being attended to...

If you can learn how to let your breathing be as it is, you'll set an important precedent at letting go... of this delusion that just because you can control something that means that you should.

As a result of this non-breathing precedent, you just might build on it later by consciously choosing to let something be exactly as it is... Maybe, as you sit in traffic, you will choose to just stay in your lane, without trying to pseudo-optimize the traffic flow. After all, how can you flow any faster than the river you are part of? Or, perhaps, when a server in the restaurant brings out your food and sets it out on the table in front of you, perhaps, you will not rush to automatically re-arrange the suggested placement of dishes and utensils (just because you can) until you feel you need to... Or, perhaps, you will spare yourself and your companion the social friction of unnecessarily correcting their trivial misperception of some fact unless you feel it poses an immediate and fundamental obstacle to your and their co-existence in this given moment...

Now, you might say: but what about all this business with taking a deep breath, breathing from the diaphragm, chanting "Om," TM breath suspension, and extending the exhalation phase?

That's all good but that's Tantra and Yoga. I am talking about Zen here, about letting things be as they are, whenever you can.

So, don't rush to take a deep breath. Instead: un-inhale your aspiration to control.

Pavel Somov, Ph.D., author of 'EATING THE MOMENT: 141 Mindful Practices to Overcome Overeating One Meal at a Time" (New Harbinger, 2008)
Copyright, 2009

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