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Soulful Sundays: Three Breaths

"Slow is smooth and smooth is fast." -US Navy SEALs

"To breathe properly is to live properly." -Robin Sharma

The late Thick Nhat Hanh, one of the greatest spiritual leaders of our time, teaches a powerful lesson on contentment (via a piece of fruit) in his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness. He states that the key to lasting satisfaction lies in how we choose to eat mandarins. According to Hanh, when enjoying an orange it is essential to eat each segment deliberately and then move on to the next segment. This is far from how most of us go about eating. Before even finishing the piece we are currently on, we are already thinking about what the next one will taste like, before we finish our entree we are thinking about dessert, and before we finish dessert we are planning the after-dinner activity. On and on it goes.

The tendency of our minds to become distracted robs us of the experience of being alive and diminishes the quality of whatever task we are performing. Thick claims that the way out of the distraction cycle is to slow down and focus on a single experience at a time. My own personal way of doing this involves breathing three deep breaths. For the sake of experimentation, go ahead and take three of the longest breaths you can manage right now. Take your time. I'll wait.

You will probably notice A) how weird and long that felt and B) how good it felt. Most of us never slow down enough to breathe consciously. Think about that for a moment. We take anywhere from fifteen to twenty thousand breaths in a single day, yet rarely take any of them on purpose. Physical practices like meditation, yoga, swimming, running, biking, and weightlifting force the participant into focusing on the rhythm of breathing. On top of the physiological and psychological benefits, part of the therapeutic effect of exercise comes from the fact that we are simply paying more attention to our breath.

The deeper you go down the respiratory rabbit hole (so to speak), the more important it is to remember that breathing better is a practice, Mastery takes many years, especially if you are trying to unlearn bad habits as an adult. Trying to change patterns too rapidly can actually create undue stress on the system. I am speaking from experience here. I remember when I first learned about feeling the sensation of air going in and out of my nostrils. I over-focused on it so much that I actually became a little anxious that if I didn't control my breath I may pass out. This was a fleeting fear but it taught me to respect the power of the mind's attention.

If you are just getting into some kind of mindful breathing practice, I recommend that you get at least ten hours under your belt using a guided meditation or teacher. After that, you can branch out on your own. The more basic the breathing practice is, the easier it will be to adhere to. When I work with people in the clinic I instruct a deep diaphragmatic breath in and out through the nose. I usually don't have people take more than three to five breaths at a time, punctuated by 'normal' breathing. With practice, people start taking more deep breaths together. Eventually, it will become an unconscious pattern, like it was when we were infants.

I have made it a habit to take three breaths before each meal, and any time I feel anxious. I encourage you to try it for yourself. The next time you find yourself in traffic, waiting in line, impatiently tapping your foot, or hurrying through something, challenge yourself. See if three big breaths can put a different mood to your current predicament. The next time you are doing something that you deem tedious (like cleaning dishes, sweeping, etc.) see if you can make it a practice of meditation. An expression of your attention to doing things thoroughly and with more intention - to living more fully.

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