By Wes Annac, Editor, Openhearted Rebel
Some people consider deep breathing essential for meditation. The breath, we’re told, opens us to a meditative state and brings our awareness back to the heart. It’s believed that by slowing our breathing from an erratic pace to one that’s more relaxed, we can access deep states of consciousness and connect with a source of compassion and wisdom in ourselves.
Different people define this source of wisdom in different ways. Some call it intuition, whereas others call it their higher self. Some even believe it to be the work of spiritual guides. No matter how you define it, one main goal of meditation is to connect with it. Many people believe that the best way to do so is to focus on your breath.
Let’s take a look at what spiritual writer Paul Ferrini has written about the breath in relation to meditation and the heart.
First, Paul explains why deep breathing is important to accessing the heart.
“You cannot be in the heart if your breathing is shallow or labored.
“When the breath is shallow, thinking is superficial. If you want to live a spiritual life, bring your awareness to your breath. Become aware of the times when you are breathing in a shallow way and bring your awareness to your thoughts. You will see that your mind is chattering. None of these thoughts has depth or significance.
“If you relax and breathe deeply, these thoughts will fly away like startled birds. And then you will abide in the heart. When the breath is labored, thinking is driven by fear and anxiety. Become aware when your breathing is labored. Notice what you are thinking and feeling. Your mindstates will be rooted in the past or future.
“You will be focused on what other people are doing and how you can accommodate them or protect yourself from their actions. You are building a fortress of thought around your heart. Take a deep breath and relax. Now take another one. Breathe and return to the heart. Breathe and return to your essential Self.” (1)
He tells us that the body dies when it no longer contains the “breath of spirit”.
“Breathing is the key to living a spiritual life in physical embodiment. When the body dies, the breath leaves the body. Where does it go!
“Most of you think that the body is the creator of the breath. Actually, it is the other way around. The breath is the begetter of the body. When the breath goes, the body ceases to function. It disintegrates into nothing because, without the breath of spirit, the body is nothing.
“If you want to lead a spiritual life breathe deeply and slowly. Take the air deep down into your abdomen and release it fully. The more air you bring into your body, the lighter it will feel, and the easier it will be for you to accomplish your responsibilities.
“One who breathes is not afraid or overwhelmed by what life presents because he or she has the energy to meet all circumstances. Only one whose breathing is shallow or labored and irregular is de-energized and easily intimidated by the challenges of life.” (2)
Here, Paul draws a link between being stressed or tired and the breath being erratic. According to this idea, if our breathing is imbalanced, then stress, anxiety, and all those other nasty feelings are sure to follow. We can mitigate them by meditating, being aware of the way we breathe, and calming ourselves when we start to lose our balance.
Paul believes something as simple as breathing deeply can provide all the energy we need. This is because in this case, the breath translates into spiritual energy which then becomes physical energy we can expend on far more tasks than before. I can attest that meditation provides unparalleled energy and inspiration, making life seem less intimidating and more exciting.
We’re all different, though, and some might benefit less from meditation than others. But if you struggle with stress, anxiety, and low energy levels, a little meditation each day might help.
Paul believes living in the heart is not only difficult, but impossible without being aware of your breath. He explains:
“Unless you breathe deeply and calmly, you cannot be in your heart. If you do not know what I am talking about, put this book down and begin to breathe into your abdomen, counting to five on the inhalation and counting again to five on the exhalation. Breathe in this way for five minutes, gradually extending your count to seven, or eight, or nine. Do not force. Just expand gradually, as your lungs comfortably allow.
“Now you are in your heart. Notice that you are deeply relaxed, yet surprisingly alert. Your consciousness extends to all the cells of your body. You are content where you are. You fully inhabit your body in the present moment. You feel warm and energetic. You feel safe and secure. Your thoughts have slowed down and become more integral.
“You are no longer focusing on the ‘shoulds’ and ‘what ifs’ of your life. Tension and anxiety are absent. Past and future have receded from your awareness. Your thinking is centered and dignified. You can stay with your thoughts because they are fewer and further between. Now bring your awareness to your heart, as you continue to breathe gently but deeply into your abdomen.
“Can you feel the presence of understanding and compassion in your heart center! Can you see that you hold yourself and others in gentle acceptance! Can you feel the love that dwells in your heart and freely extends to others!” (3)
Breathing deeply can make you aware of your thoughts, the space between your thoughts, and the sense of compassion for humanity we all have but don’t all use. This will have a lasting impact on how you treat others and generally see the world. I’ll let you decide for yourself whether meditation is the only real way to access the heart or be a compassionate person, but in any case, it couldn’t hurt.
The meditative state brings a sense of peace and clarity that goes on to shape your perception of the world. It helps you see that most of us are well-meaning people trying to get by in a world we don’t totally understand. This can change the way you treat people, as you begin to empathize rather than judge or criticize.
Compassion is the starting point for anyone who wants to live from the heart, and for many, meditation is the first step to becoming more compassionate.
I’ll leave you with this quote from Paul in which he explains that the traditions we’ve built our lives upon come into question when we practice meditation and deep breathing.
“If you keep forgetting to breathe, the planet is doomed. ‘Well’, you say, ‘I can handle that’. But it may not be as easy as you think. Try it for a while. Breathe deeply for one day and see what happens. If you are committed to this practice, all that is artificial in your life will begin to fall away. And you may be surprised how much of your life begins to unpeel.
“Consider this. Is your job safe! Not if you go to work out of sacrifice. What about your marriage! Are you with your partner out of duty or love! What about your values and religious beliefs…are they safe! Or have they been fashioned out of guilt and fear! If so, they will not stand the ebb and flow as the breath comes down into the belly and out through the mouth, the nose, and the skin.” (4)
- Paul Ferrini, Silence of the Heart. South Deerfield, MA: Heartways Press, 1996, 9.
- Ibid., 9-10.
- Loc. Cit.
- Ibid., 12-3.