The breath is a funny thing. With us from the moment we’re born until the instant we pass on, it is our lifeline. Yet, we seldom notice our breath in everyday life. And why should we? Like other basic physiological functions, the breath is automatic. It’s like background noise—nothing about it seems particularly interesting. Despite this fact, something magical tends to happen when we do attend to our breathing…
Take a second now to tune into your breath.
What sensations do you notice as the air enters your nostrils? What is it like to watch your belly rise and fall? How does it feel to put your full, undivided attention on the breath, as if it’s the only thing that exists? Breathing in, breathing out. Noticing the sensations that accompany your breathing, observing your feelings with a sense of curiosity.
This brief exercise may or may not have influenced the way you feel. What researchers have found, though, is that mindfulness practice does tend to influence our inner experience over time. Many experienced meditators notice improvements in mental focus, calmer moods, and an increased sense of purpose. Thus, it’s no surprise that mindfulness has received so much research and media attention in the last few decades. Although watching the breath is the most common type of mindfulness meditation, there are many ways to practice.
So what really is mindfulness, and how does it work?
Mindfulness is noticing life on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgment. It works on several levels to support emotion regulation. First, mindfulness helps us cultivate insight. It can give us the space to better understand our inner experiences.
Second, mindfulness guides our attention away from negative thinking and rumination. By focusing on a neutral stimulus—such as the breath—old cycles of thought can be disrupted and changed.
Third, mindfulness activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest and recovery.
Taken together, mindfulness can amount to big changes in the way we think and feel. Although this may be helpful, it isn’t actually the point of mindfulness.
What’s the real point of mindfulness?
The reason we practice mindfulness is to simply observe our experience without judgment. In this way, we are able to adjust the relationships we have with our thoughts and emotions. As we become more mindful, we gain control over our emotional experiences. This is exemplified by a classic Zen story.
One day, a student went to their meditation teacher and exclaimed, “My meditation is horrible! I’m distracted and my legs ache!” The teacher replied, “It will pass.”
A week later, the student came back to his teacher, saying “My meditation is wonderful! I feel so aware, so peaceful, so alive!” The teacher, recognizing the impermanence of life, again told the student, “It will pass.”
So, whether you’re having the best day of your life or the worst, know that your current feelings will morph and change. This is OK. Watch and observe those changes non-judgmentally. Rest assured that, through mindfulness practice, you can learn to accept life’s changes with the same equanimity as that old Zen master. No matter who or where you are on life’s journey, mindfulness can help create a life worth living.
About the Author:WIlliam Schutt is a Ph.D. student in Case Western Reserve University's Clinical Psychology program, and a practicum trainee at CEBTOhio. His research interests include spiritual growth, morality, and the overlap between creative expression and spirituality.