Just a few years ago, I remember flicking through the bookshelves of my local library, my hands coming to rest on a little book called How to Breathe.
“How to breathe?” I muttered. “I already know how to breathe. Everybody does. What could this be about?”
Intrigued, I picked the title up and began leafing through the pages. Expecting a guide to lung capacity and oxygen saturation, I was surprised to discover that this wasn’t a book about science at all. It was about mindfulness. It was about peace of mind.
That little book, even though I didn’t get around to reading it in full, transformed my perspective on everything — on life, peace of mind, and most importantly, my breathing.
As Thich Nhat Hanh puts it,
‘Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.’
But what exactly does that mean? Breathing is my anchor? Let’s find out.
Conscious Breathing as an Anchor
Our breathing is something that many of us take for granted, and we can be forgiven for doing so. It’s not exactly something we have to give much thought to. We just breathe.
And in all of its modesty, our breathing can actually serve as a really powerful tool when it comes to our mental wellbeing and peace of mind.
The thing is, we’re all incredibly busy. We’re all endlessly rushing here and there, vowing to take time off at some arbitrary point in the future (that never comes). I saw a hilarious tweet from Kramski that summed it up perfectly,
“I love how being an adult is just saying ‘but after this week things will slow down a bit again’ to yourself until you die.”
Sadly, that’s how a lot of us live our lives. Bouncing around always trying to get things done, never really stopping just to enjoy this moment. Our focus is always latched to the past and future, but never really on now.
And that’s where conscious breathing comes in.
How Breathing Can Help You
Aside from obvious reasons, our breath can help us in a lot of ways, especially when it comes to bringing our awareness to the only thing that really matters: right now.
See, our breath is always flowing in and out. As soon as we take a breath, it becomes the past. But each new inhalation and exhalation exists in the present moment.
Whenever we’re feeling stressed or anxious about the future, we can tap into our breath. All we need to do is begin focusing on the flow of oxygen in and out of our lungs, following it as it moves through us. That’s what Thich Nhat Hanh meant when he said that conscious breathing is his anchor. It reconnects him to the present.
How can this exercise stop us from feeling so busy and stressed out, then? Well, it’s actually quite simple.
First, as soon as negative feelings arise, we have to notice them. Just acknowledge them without passing judgment. Focus on your thoughts, feelings, and the physical sensations in your body.
Next, become aware of your breath. Take one, long deep breath in. Then out. And then remain focused on your breathing for a little while, watching it as it moves back and forth.
As you do that, your thoughts will slowly begin to dissipate. Your busy mind will start to settle as it latches onto your breathing. The fog will lift, and in its absence, you’ll be able to see the world for what it really is — rather than what your thoughts tell you it is.
How to Breathe
This practice, mindful breathing, isn’t just something we should use when stressed. It’s also an incredibly useful habit we can all bring into our day-to-day lives.
Ever heard of meditation? Of course you have. Meditation is, in essence, mindful breathing — but mindful breathing with purpose.
When you meditate, you dedicate a set amount of time specifically to mindful breathing. Rather than tapping into your breath only when needed, meditation involves tapping into it for set lengths of time on a daily basis. Why? Because, by doing so, you strengthen your ability to unhook yourself from your thoughts.
See, when you practice meditating every single day, you get pretty good at it. You become skilled in present-moment awareness — that way, when you need it most, it becomes easier to make use of.
An experienced meditator is well-trained in deflecting their thoughts. If anxiety arises, they’ll just turn to their breath and, for want of a better phrase, ‘snap out of it.’
That’s a skill that we can all make use of. What we’re doing isn’t meditating, but retraining our minds.
Am I saying that mindful breathing is an instant cure for anxiety, depression, and mental illness? Of course not. Am I saying it can help to alleviate their symptoms, even if you’re not prone to them? Absolutely.
While we all know how to breathe, what most of us aren’t aware of is the sheer power of mindful awareness. Our breath is the perfect tool with which we can practice being mindful.
When we’re stressed or anxious, chronically or momentarily, simply tapping into our breathing can help to unhook us from our busy mind and reconnect with reality.
The practice is as simple as it sounds. When moments of unrest crop up, first, we should notice how we’re feeling. Then, we should focus intently on our breath. And finally, we can watch peacefully as our chaotic mind begins to settle.
Sometimes, it really is that simple.