Speaking of exercises and practice, over a year ago a friend of mine challenged me to do what she called “mindful breathing”—that is, breathing with full awareness but without trying to influence the way in which one is breathing. She suggested I start my day by breathing mindfully five times. Since then I have done this pretty much every day although, perhaps, “tried to do” would be more accurate. What never fails to amaze me, even though I am no stranger to breathing exercises, is how hard it is. Quite often I get up to three and realize my mind is already all over the place or I’m trying intentionally to relax my jaw or breathe more deeply or affect the process in some other way. It will come as no surprise that I find it even harder to do when I’m under stress.
It’s breathing, for heaven’s sake. How can it be so difficult? You may need to try it yourself to find out. For me I suspect it’s partly that I have a long history of doing things with my breath. I started at around age 12 when my brother told me about what he called “yoga breathing,” have over the years practiced various forms of meditation based on breathing in a particular way, and trained as a classical singer (which one teacher described as being all about air and words). This means that paying attention without trying to influence the process in any way feels funny. Add to that the fact that I like to have control over things and mindful breathing seems almost like the ultimate exercise in curiosity. Even after a year I’m still learning how to let go and see what my breath does without any intervention from me. Still, I find the practice interesting, challenging, and peculiarly worthwhile so I’ll keep trying.