Full Awareness of Breathing

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Photo by Adobe Stock/Negura Dincolo. 

Excerpted from Pause, Breathe, Smile:Awakening Mindfulness When Meditation Is Not Enough, by Gary Gach. Sounds True, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

In the heritage of mindfulness, there’s a foundational meditation practice. While it comes to us from across two-and-a-half millennia, it’s still flower-fresh. It’s called Full Awareness of Breathing. Please note: This isn’t about taking deep, full breaths, as in yoga. Rather, it’s about full awareness: grounded in the present moment, living fully. How? By centering our awareness on our breathing.

Full Awareness of Breathing is practiced by millions around the planet, in Zen, mindfulness, and other traditions. Our version has been handcrafted by Thich Nhat Hanh. If a Pause, Breathe, Smile makes up a fifty-second meditation, Full Awareness of Breathing can form the basis for an in-depth, formal meditation. Beginners often struggle to sit still for more than five or ten minutes. Here, spending four minutes on each phase, you have a twenty-minute meditation; a done deal. It can be practiced even longer, for forty minutes or for hours. Once you are familiar with it, you can do a speed-through in just a few minutes. It can be accessed at home alone or with a facilitator in a group — or right now, breathing and reading.

The setup is akin to the mindfulness verses. We focus our breath and full awareness on pairs of images, with each line summed up by a key word. For example:

Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.         [ in ]

Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.     [ out ]

In is the key word for the first line, and out is the key word for the second.

I’ll start with the guidelines. You can always discover new layers of meaning and application.

The basic outline as Thich Nhat Hanh teaches it goes like this:

Breathing in, I know                                       [ in ]

I am breathing in.

Breathing out, I know                                     [ out ]

I am breathing out.

Breathing in, I notice my                                [ deep ]

breath has become deep.

Breathing out, I notice my                              [ slow ]

breath has become slow.

Breathing in, I calm my body                          [ calm ]

and my mind.

Breathing out, I feel at ease.                           [ ease ]

Breathing in, I smile.                                       [ smile ]

Breathing out, I release.                                  [ release ]

Breathing in, I go back                                    [ present moment ]

to the present moment.

Breathing out, I know this                                         [ wonderful moment ]

is a wonderful moment.

Our job is only to be aware of our in-breath and nothing else; then our out-breath and nothing else. Breathing in, we focus on the first line, and breathing out we focus on the second line. Then, once we’ve settled into it, we can say to ourselves just the key word: for example, in with our inhale, out with our exhale. We might elongate the key word to fit the measure of our breath: iiiin . . . owwwwwt. Or mentally repeat it like a soft bell: in . . .in . . . in . . . out . . . out . . . out.

When we coordinate our words with our breathing, we allow our spirit, body, and mind to come together as one. The pairs of lines and then their key words serve as cues for your awareness until they become your awareness. Once you get it, and feel fully settled into it, then you can let go of the words. You’ll know when you get there. Rest in your awareness of breathing like a bird swaying softly on the gently undulating surface of a calm ocean.

Each of the five phases can take from five to fifteen breaths each. After feeling fulfilled by one pair of phrases, please move ahead to the next pair and then their key words and then silent, open awareness.

In, Out … Deep, Slow

This grand meditation is quite easy to memorize. The key words make a kind of poem:

In, Out

Deep, Slow

Calm, Ease

Smile, Release

Present Moment, Wonderful Moment

This can also be sung.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t think you sing well. In and of itself, singing can stimulate and regularize the breath, while focusing the mind on a few simple, meaningful points instead of 10,000 scattered thoughts. If you’re singing together with a group of friends, “sing with your ears”: loud enough to hear your voice seamlessly as part of a chorus, but not as loud as a soloist against a back-up choir. It always inspires me when it feels as if a community is coming out of everyone’s mouth, my own included, a voice of common humanity. I feel like a drop of water flowing as a river.

Singing is a universal reminder to celebrate life. Don’t be like one of those two-leggeds about whom the birds in the trees gossip: “There goes that sad species without any time to ever just sing and dance!”

Excerpted from Pause, Breathe, Smile:Awakening Mindfulness When Meditation Is Not Enough, by Gary Gach. Sounds True, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

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