Why (and how) Meditation on the Breath Actually Works

Estimated time to read: 8 minutes

Whether you’ve meditated before or not…or whether you’ve even heard of meditation before…I’d be willing to bet you’ve heard of some sort of breath based technique.

Maybe you’ve heard of that calming thing where you breathe into a bag. Or perhaps it was counting your breaths, or breathing through your nose and out your mouth, or maybe breathing in a certain number of counts and breathing out a certain number of counts.

Suffice it to say, there are a lot of different schools of thought around how the breath can be used to positively affect our mental state.

There may be dozens or hundreds or thousands of different breath “practices” that can help us, but the fact remains is that working with the breath really…works.

Breathing Meditation Really Works

And why shouldn’t it? The breath is a massively important facet of the human experience, albeit often an unconscious one.

Have you ever noticed how the breath constantly and consistently reflects our emotional state? Take a few more extreme examples. Ever been so angry that the way you breathe started to become really intense? Super sad? Super happy? The breath changes from emotion to emotion.

The fact is, the breath is always doing this — even for subtle thoughts and feelings, even for subconscious thoughts and feelings. The breath reflects our own minds.

Take some time to consider that. Pay attention to your breath right now. How are you feeling in this moment? What’s your breath like in this moment? Comment below what you notice.

There are a couple of other main reasons why practice with the breath is considered so damn awesome.

The breath is with us from the moment the body is born till the moment the body dies.

That’s right! It never goes away. You can practice with the breath all day long. All night long. 24/7. Yeah baby, be mindful alllll the time.

The other great thing about the breath is that it can be both very very strong and obvious and also extraordinarily subtle and quiet. It’s suitable for a mind that’s filled with stuff and distracted and a mind that’s concentrated and one pointed.

Let’s come back to this in a bit, it’s important. First, we’re going to talk about some breath practices.

The practice of controlling your breath. Pranayama. What the heck is it?

Inhale exhale meditation

Pranayama is a Sanskrit word. Prana means “life force,” or “energy.” Yama means “control.” Pranayama makes “control of life force,” or in this case “control of breath.”

This article isn’t about how to control your breath, nor is it going to detail different pranayama practices. I just want to talk about what it means to control your breath.

Have you ever been in a stressful situation and then reminded yourself or been told to take deep, calming breaths? Did it help?

A little earlier, I told you that the breath reflects our mental state. Well, it goes both ways, to a certain extent. Therefore, if you can control your breath, you can affect your mental state. Don’t take my word for it. Try it now. Try slowing your breath down and taking deeper, comfortable breaths. How’s that feel? Comment below.

I wish that I could say by simply consciously deepening our breaths we could solve all of our emotional woes. If only it were so. Here’s where we meet the limitations of breath control.

You may be able to calm yourself down once, a hundred, a thousand times with deep breaths, but if the root cause of your lack of calm isn’t addressed, it’ll come back again and again.

Breath control is an incredibly useful tool for us. We can help shape the way we approach ourselves and our lives simply by changing our breath. And control of the breath requires that we be mindful of it, to a certain extent, which brings us more deeply into the present moment. Presence is never a bad thing (well, depending on how you look at it, but let’s not get into that now.)

You might think: “Well, I’ll just control my breath all the time and therefore keep myself in a calm state of mind permanently.”

Great idea. Go for it. Come back in a week or a month and let me know how it went.

If you don’t address the root issues, the symptoms will reoccur again and again and again.

By itself, breath control works with the symptoms. It certainly can do more, as a tool, but by itself breath control simply works with the symptoms.

So are there any breath practices that allow us to deal with the roots rather than solely the symptoms?

Why, I’m so glad you asked! You read my mind. Let’s first briefly touch on what meditation is and what that therefore entails.

Meditation is a systematic process of transforming the mind. Namely, you’re training the mind to let go.

But wait! Aren’t there, like, so many thousands of different meditation techniques? How do we differ from what meditation is to what meditation isn’t?

Well…I don’t really have a necessarily satisfying answer for you. There are structured systems of meditation and there are unstructured systems of meditation. I can’t really paint broad strokes and tell you absolutely how you can differ meditation from non-meditation. It’s really something that only an individual can know for themselves.

But there is a question you can ask yourself.

Am I present?

Yes? No? Are you here? Now? Are you watching? Are you feeling? Are you experiencing? What are you seeing? Hearing? Thinking?

Throughout the process of self-observation, we can start to notice when we we are not present and we are present – and let me tell you, there’s quite a difference!

Presence is the magical quality that allows us to see and subsequently remove the roots of our mental obstacles.

Learn to Meditate with Project Mindfulness

Presence has two key qualities that make it presence. The first quality is awareness.

Awareness of what? Well, anything. Everything. If you’re walking down the street, you might be aware of the sounds around you, or the motion of your body, or the feel of the ground beneath you, or the thoughts in your head, or the feelings you’re experiencing, or some other internal or external physical sensation, or the taste in your mouth, or the smells, or the sights, and so forth…

Awareness of any one of these is awareness of the present moment.

But the elixir is not complete! The other component of presence is spaciousness.

I’ll be honest, I just came up with that term “spaciousness.” I sat here trying to think of a word that fits what I mean, and that’s what I came up with. So what does it mean?

Let’s take an easy example. My personal suffering. I mentioned it a bit in the last article, but when I was a teenager I was suicidally depressed. It sucked, yo. A common symptom of high levels of anxiety, depression, and so forth, is that there are these mental voices that crop up that are always talking shit. They talk a lot of shit. And a lot of us have fallen into the habit of believing the voices. We trust the voices. We think what they’re saying has some validity, even if we intellectually disagree or rebel against it.

Actually, that very battle against those voices gives them more energy.

Listen, you’ve probably experienced what I’m talking about, right? Some negative, self critical mental voice or thoughts that crop up — even if you don’t have a history of mental illness, this type of thing is relatively universal.

So you might try, or may have experienced:

  • Fighting it
    • Pushing it away
    • Arguing with it internally
  • Running away from it
    • Suppressing/repressing it (I’m going to play video games, read a book, exercise, study, talk with a friend, do drugs, watch TV, browse social media, count to 10…there are a lot of things that can be used as suppression tactics. Even if we are under the impression we are not suppressing!)
    • Pretending it’s not happening
    • Pretending it’s something else
  • Being completely ignorant to the fact it’s happening at all
    • Yes, this is a thing

While all of these common tactics might seem to make sense, and they may even help for a time, ultimately they don’t address the issue. In fact, we end up cementing our beliefs that these negative voices are an integral part of ourselves.

Okay…so, if that’s all true, how do get out out of these negative feedback loops?

Well, that’s where spaciousness comes into play. As a teen, I was extremely aware of my own painful thoughts. But I was wrapped up in them. I was fighting them, running away from them, and ignorant to their subtleties. As I matured (and learned meditation) I started adding in spaciousness. I would watch the feelings and the thoughts rather than being deeply involved.

I wouldn’t push them away. I wouldn’t run away. I would just let it happen, and notice it happening.

The habitual self-harming thoughts came knocking on my door over and over, but I didn’t answer. I just noticed their knocking. Eventually, they got bored. They stopped knocking.

Change your habits for the better with meditation

It really works. But it can be super hard to practice in an abstract way, which is where a lot of different meditation techniques come in. These techniques facilitate both awareness and spaciousness through different means and the development of different qualities, allowing us to cultivate the presence necessary to let go of our harmful, blinding habits.

Let’s take a practice with the breath, for instance. Let’s mix in awareness and spaciousness.

My favorite practice to guide is a breath practice. It has to do with paying attention to the touch of the breath. But the main thrust of the practice isn’t concentrating on the breath. No, the main thrust is when distractions start to arise.

The distractions that start to arise in meditation aren’t coming from nowhere. They’re a manifestation of our personal habits, conditioning, life experience! You might get distracted by a certain movie whereas I get distracted by a game. You might have a certain trauma come up and I have a certain trauma come up.

The distractions don’t have to be specific either. They can come as agitation, or excitement, or different feelings and emotions. The point is that they are not random!!!!!!!!!!!!

You have this amazing fucking opportunity to now work with these distractions. And the way you work with these distractions in meditation is going to totally transform your habits and the way you approach yourself.

Alright, so we’re paying attention to the breath and these distractions come up. What the heckin’ heck do I do now?

Notice the distractions. Say hello. Acknowledge what it is. Then gently return to your breath.

This is a training!

We’re training the mind to let go.

The distraction arises, and we look at it. We then gently return to the breath. Over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over.

At first, it’s a flood. With time, we become more and more adept at simply being with what comes up. Acknowledging it, like an old friend. Returning gently to the breath. What comes goes and that’s okay.

Now you know. Now you know why meditation with the breath really works. And now you have the opportunity to verify my words with practice of your own.

Never meditated before? Want to learn a practice? Join the course.

Reach out to me, comment below – there are resources here for everyone.

I look forward to next time.

Greg Jacoby
Greg has heart and passion for supporting others in their practice. He is the visionary behind the design of the website and a devout practitioner of Bhakti Yoga. With over 7 years of dedicated practice, he's come to see that there are as many doors to truth as there are individuals in the world. Greg is experienced in guiding meditation groups and teaching about the heart of Mindfulness.

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