This meditation can be learned by most people to reduce stress and literally take the wind out of strong emotional states. Please practice with caution and common sense. With some experience this practice can be applied in many situations as a meditation method.
While I don’t recommend meditation while driving, I’ve found that a few slow, deep breaths has reduced my stress in traffic as well as other situations where intense feelings have in the past gotten the best of me. Consult your doctor before trying any practice like this if you have questions about your health.
From a Buddhist perspective, emotions are considered poison and need to be restrained or transcended fully to achieve enlightenment. Ask any monk or nun about their vows and they’ll tell you – getting carried away emotionally is a no-no. In 12-Step practice, emotions are based on instincts gone wild and need to be leveled off to maintain sobriety. To learn more, talk to anyone with several years of sobriety (clean-time) and they’ll probably admit that an over abundance of feelings is one of the most challenging aspects of maintaining long-term, happy abstinence. Moreover, modern brain science reveals that developmental trauma can lead to a reduced ability to cope with feelings and stress; additionally, that meditation facilitates positive growth in areas of the brain thought to be associated with rational decision making. Addicts are notorious for making bad decisions based on the heat of the moment and have difficulty experiencing healthy emotions.
As a recovering addict with two long stints of recovery (currently 12.5 years), I can state unequivocally that my feelings are generally quite a bit stronger than non-addicts and have a tendency to create difficulties when left unchecked. As someone who feels a lot, and deeply, I’ve been plagued with emotional states that range from serious agitation to non-energetic (and even chronic) depression. In order to gain serenity and regain my energy I need first to address the intensity of my emotional state with a multi-faceted, comprehensive recovery plan that includes, but is not limited to several types of meditation; ongoing, consistent psychotherapy with the same provider, exercise (e.g. gym workouts, yoga, walking, biking); regular attendance and full participation in 12-Step recovery programs. I don’t think of this as a shotgun approach, wherein we try everything and hope something works. But that can be a useful method to get started. My view is to work with practices that have yielded desirable results in people who have what I want.
When I’m at the gym, I don’t ask the skinny twenty-something clerk behind the desk how to develop my biceps. I ask the guy who’s built a bit like me but totally cut and looking great. In meetings I know better than to ask for relationship advice, but when I have it’s been from recovering people who’ve been happily married for decades, not “players” who move from superficial, intense relationships to one night stands to depression to relapse. It’s the same with following Buddhist teachers. I’m interested in those who’ve been able to successfully apply the meditations and practices to their lives over the ones who pontificate, theorize and prop themselves up for vanity. When I studied jazz guitar, I went to the best player I’d heard in town and put in five solid years with him. Point made. Below are some methods that work for me and some people that I work with in my weekly groups and national workshops. Try them and let me know if they work for you or if you’ve found some techniques that might be beneficial to others.
Practice – Pause When Agitated With Complete Breathing
This method involves the breath. One of the most common methods of meditation is to simply watch the breath, without changing anything. The method we’re using here though is to use the breath in more of a yoga style. By learning a little bit of control over my breath, I’ve learned to control my emotions much more than almost any other technique. Be careful not to push too hard i.e. don’t hyperventilate. If you feel dizzy, stop. It might be best to learn this at home, (i.e. laying on a yoga mat with a candle and some light incense) before taking it out into worldly situations. As always, listen to your body and do what is best for yourself.
The in breath is done in three stages. In order to learn this method it’s helpful to focus on one area at a time until we feel the breath as a full and complete experience – all the way in, all the way out.
Breath in to the lower belly, below the navel. I sometimes call this the Homer Simpson stage because we’re intentionally creating the pot belly effect. Breathing in, let the belly expand like a balloon. We can separate this part of the practice into small sessions of 1-3 minutes. In this way, we learn to put our minds and our breath where we want it. In principle the idea is not so different from learning to hold a pose in yoga or any other coordinated physical activity. The difference here is that we’re using it intentionally to create a space of de-charging our emotional or stress state.
The next phase of this breath meditation is breathing in to the central area of our diaphragm. Anyone who has studied singing will be familiar with the principle. We breathe in to the center of our bodies. When doing it correctly, we can feel our ribs open up on the in breath. On the out breath, we allow our ribcage to close naturally. Again, we can practice this stage of the breath in short periods, either laying down on our backs with our feet flat on the floor or sitting upright.
Next we breathe in to our upper bodies. We can feel the clavicles raise up, filling our upper lungs. Breathe in, keeping the throat open and relaxed. If you can hear yourself, you’re trying to hard. This method is supposed to be done in a relaxed manner. When we feel we’re full of air, we can breathe in a little more. With this method we gradually increase the amount of air we take in, which increases the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream and has many beneficial effects.
When we exhale with this method, we allow the process to happen in reverse. That means the air leaves the upper body first, gravity lets the ribs empty the central area and finally the lower part. As we inhaled deeply and completely, we also exhale the same way. Sometimes if circumstances allow, we can lean forward a little bit or gently leave our hand out on our lower abdomen to give a very light effort to become totally empty of air. Then we pause a moment and allow ourselves to be empty. When we are ready to begin the in breath, we start the cycle over by breathing back in to the lower, then the middle and then the upper areas.
As I mentioned above, you can break this up into sessions for each body area or do them as one complete breathe in and out. Feel it out, try focusing on different areas and use the style that helps you relax. For myself, I noticed that my breath tended to be very shallow and short, focused mainly on the upper body. I was sort of panting as my unchecked breathing style. By using the complete breath starting at the bottom and learning to fill each area, I’m able to really feel a long relaxing effect after only one or two breaths.
In short, if I just remember to breathe in all the way, deep and slow, and exhale the stale air completely, pausing in that relaxed state for a moment before grasping for that next hit of air, I feel better. Maybe you will too.
Try this before firing off that next email, before calling a bill collector or ex-partner or while in a long line at the DMV. Use it in the waiting room of your therapists office, while sitting in a 12-Step meeting or before engaging in a written inventory session. Take a yoga class and ask for breathing instruction. Listen to my recent podcast with author and yoga teacher Darren Main on using the breath and other topics.
This was originally posted on the Huffington Post in April, 2010.