The Power of the Breath

During the pandemic, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had something that will improve our sleep, digestion, immune and respiratory functions, while reducing our blood pressure and anxiety? The good news is there is something and it is called ‘breathworks.’

These days people seem to be in a constant state of stress and anxiety, and this is caused by an over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which puts us into the fight or flight mode. This can be caused by not breathing properly, especially breathing too fast.

When we breathe properly, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest and digest mode, which promotes inner calm and physical relaxation. Proper breathing provides a healthy means of reducing anxiety, restlessness, and stress, and this can be achieved by breathing from the diaphragm.

By breathing properly, you increase the oxygen in your bloodstream, making more oxygen available to your brain. The brain uses up to three times as much oxygen as your other muscles do, and this translates to more physical energy, mental clarity, and greater productivity and creativity.

By learning to direct your attention to your breath, you can condition yourself to shift out of the fight or flight mode and into the rest and digest mode. So, from stress and anxiety and into calm and relaxation.

Do this test a moment, put your left hand on your chest and your right hand on your stomach. Now, breathe normally and notice which hand rises higher when you breath in. If it is your lefthand on the chest that rises more, you are breathing incorrectly or you are stressed.

Now, do this test. Take some slow, deep breathes in through the nose and notice if your shoulders rise up. If they do, then again, you are breathing incorrectly.

You may be thinking that your breath is involuntarily, and you have no control, but breathing is both a voluntary and involuntary function.

Involuntary breathing is an automatic bodily process. Voluntary breathing occurs when you bring your awareness to the process of breathing. Here are a few breathing exercises you can do.

Diaphragm Breathing

The proper way for us to breath is with the diaphragm. There are several diaphragm breathing exercises and techniques that you can do that will help you to use your diaphragm correctly.

The following diaphragm exercise can be a little tiring at first but the more you do it, the more natural it becomes.

  1. Sit in a comfortable position with your feet flat on the ground.
  2. Relax your shoulders, head, and neck.
  3. Put your left hand on your upper chest and the right hand on your stomach, so you can feel the movement of your diaphragm.
  4. Inhale slowly through your nose for the count of 3 and notice your stomach rise.
  5. Keep the hand on your chest as still as possible.
  6. Hold your breath for the count of 2
  7. Exhale through pursed lips – like you’re blowing a candle out – for the count of 6, keeping your left hand on your chest still.
  8. Continue breathing like this for 5 to 10 minutes and repeat 3 times a day.

Breathing for Relaxation

Alternate Nostril Breathing has been shown to enhance cardiovascular function and to lower heart rate. It’s a simple yet powerful technique that settles the mind and relaxes the body. It is especially helpful to slowdown your racing thoughts if you are experiencing anxiety, stress, or having trouble sleeping.

  1. Choose a comfortable seated position with your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Gently close your left nostril and breath in slowly and fully through your right nostril.
  3. Hold the breath for a moment.
  4. Close your right nostril and open the left nostril. Exhale slowly and gently through the left nostril.
  5. Keeping your right nostril closed, breathe in through your left nostril.
  6. Pause for a moment.
  7. Release your fingers to open your right nostril and close your left nostril. Exhale through right nostril.
  8. This is one cycle.
  9. Continue this breathing pattern for 3 minutes to begin with and then slowly build it up to 5 minutes.
  10. Finish your session with an exhale on the right side.

Breathing to Increase Energy

The Three Part Breathing focuses first on the diaphragm, then the abdomen, and lastly the chest to increase oxygen in the blood and stimulate the body. Sit up straight and place your feet flat on the ground.

  1. Relax your shoulders, neck, and head.
  2. Place one hand over your stomach and inhale deeply, feeling your stomach rise as it inflates.
  3. Exhale and feel your stomach deflate.
  4. Repeat five times.
  5. Now move your hand higher to your rib cage.
  6. Inhale and feel your rib cage expand. Then exhale, and feel it deflate.
  7. Repeat five times.
  8. Finally place your hand on your chest and inhale feeling it rise.
  9. Exhale and feel your chest lowering.
  10. Repeat five times.

Breathing to Reduce Stress and Anxiety

This four-square breathing exercise is an effective way to reduce stress or anxiety and increase feelings of calm and peacefulness. When you become anxious, your breathing becomes fast and shallow because you start to chest breathe. This can cause you to inhale too much oxygen and may cause you to become light-headed. Instead, you need to breathe slowly and deeply, which turns off your ‘fight or flight response’ and switches on your ‘rest and digest response.’

As you breathe slowly, deeply, and evenly, in and out through your nose, you should naturally feel your stomach rising on the in-breath and falling on the out-breath.

  1. Take a deep breath through your nose and slowly count to four.
  2. Pause and slowly count to four.
  3. Exhale through your nose to a slow count of four.
  4. Pause and again slowly count to four.
  5. Inhale – one, two, three, four
  6. Pause – one, two, three, four
  7. Exhale – one, two, three, four
  8. Pause – one, two, three, four
  9. Repeat this cycle for 3 to 5 minutes.

There are so many different breathing exercises these days, so test them out and find the ones that work for you. But remember, there is only one correct way to breath and that is diaphragm breathing. This needs to be practiced daily, so it becomes your involuntary way of breathing.

You can read more blogs, listen to podcasts, watch videos and practice guided meditations on the Buddhism Guide app. Available from the Apple Store and Google Play. You can also visit my website.

If you would like to become a supporter of Buddhism Guides work, such as podcasts, blogs, videos and guided meditation practices, please visit here. You can support for as little as $2 a month.

Making Friends with Your Emotions

This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they are a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honourably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing and invite them in. Be grateful for whatever comes because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.

The Guest House by Rumi

Rumi was talking about emotions in this poem. He is suggesting we welcome our emotions in like an unexpected guest, because each has been sent as a guide.

What we usually do is try to fight against our strong emotions, suppress them or get totally tangled up in them. None of these are going to be helpful. The more we fight against the emotion, the stronger it becomes. Acting this way, we will eventually make the emotion into our enemy. But emotions are not our enemies, they are our teachers. They don’t just suddenly appear for no reason. They come to inform us that something is happening, and we need to deal with it.

There are two types of emotions: connective and protective. Connective emotions are compassion, gratitude, happiness, contentment and so on. Protective emotions are usually the ones we fight against and they are anger, frustration, jealousy, pride, etc.

When we are in the grips of a protective emotion, we need to stop what we are doing and ‘welcome and entertain them,’ as Rumi put it. This means we need to investigate why the emotion has arisen and what it is trying to teach us. We can do this by following the ‘Six-Steps to Making Friends with Your Emotions.’

Firstly, we must calm ourselves down. When the protective emotion is strong it can activate our threat system and we could very easily go into the fight or flight mode. To prevent that, we need to do a mindfulness practice, such as becoming aware of our breath. This will bring us back to the present moment, calm us down and help us focus. A great practice to do is Rhythmic Breathing.

As you inhale, count to 4, hold for the count of 2 and then exhale for the count of 4. Keep doing this for some time to get a nice rhythm going. Then, inhale and count to 5, hold for the count of 2 and then exhale for the count of 5. Again, get a nice rhythm going. Finally, inhale and count to 6, hold for the count of 2 and then exhale for the count of 6, and get a good rhythm going. Do this for 2 or 3 minutes, or until you feel calm, focused, and present in the moment.

Secondly, we need to acknowledge we have the emotion. We can do this by labelling it. So, name it to tame it. By doing this the emotion will already start to lose its power. 

The third step is to accept that the emotion is there. This is a very important step because if we don’t accept the emotion, we could end up suppressing it or trying to ignore it. When we accept the emotion is there, it is important to not identify with it.

If we say, “I am angry,’ or ‘I am sad,’ we give ourselves very little room to work with the emotion. We are telling ourselves that we are the anger/sadness or whatever emotion we are experiencing. What we need to say is, ‘At this moment there is anger.’ This separates us from the emotion and gives us space to be able to work with the emotion. Remember, an emotion is a process in the brain and so, comes to go. By identifying with it, we stop it from going.

Step four is to investigate why the emotion has arisen. We can do this by asking ourselves the following questions:

  • Why has this emotion appeared?
  • What is it trying to teach me?

We need to answer these questions as honestly as we can. While answering the first question don’t blame others for the emotion arising. Playing the blame game is never helpful. Look at the emotion with a curious mind, as though we have never seen this type of emotion before. The emotion may be painful, so ensure you observe with a sense of kindness and compassion for yourself.

Once we have answered these questions, we can move on to step five. Now we know why the emotion is here and what it is trying to teach us, we can ask ourselves this:

  • What do I need to do to learn the lesson and let the emotion go?

If it is sadness, maybe we need to speak to someone. If it is anger, maybe we need to get some fresh air. If it is loneliness, maybe we need to meet up with a friend. Whatever it is, think of a plan that will help you let the emotion go.

The sixth, and final, step is to put the plan into action.

Throughout the whole of this process, ensure you are being kind and supportive towards yourself. Emotions can be painful and overwhelming, but by following these six simple steps you can learn from the emotion, put it behind you and move on.

You can read more blogs, listen to podcasts, watch videos and practice guided meditations on the Buddhism Guide app. Available from the Apple Store and Google Play. You can also visit my website.

If you would like to become a supporter of Buddhism Guides work, such as podcasts, blogs, videos and guided meditation practices, please visit here. You can support for as little as $2 a month.

Cultivating Virtuous Qualities

I believe there are three qualities everyone should cultivate. Not just for our own benefit, but also for the benefit of everyone we come into contact with. The three qualities are being humble, contented, and grateful.

Setting Pride Aside: Humility

I personally feel more at ease in the company of humble people. They do not waste time bragging about what they have, who they are, or where they have been. They play down their achievements and are more attentive to others’ needs.

The opposite of this is true for proud and conceited people. It is a challenge for me to spend much time with someone who boasts. They are only interested in selling themselves and seem to have no interest in who you are or what you think or know.

I have always found people with pride to also have the biggest egos — and usually the biggest mouths to go with them. But a humble person is quiet, respectful, and attentive. Which one would you rather be around? Which one would you rather be?

We must stay open-minded at all times. Just because we know a way to do something doesn’t mean another person doesn’t know a better or easier way. We shouldn’t assume we know best. Humble people will continue to learn throughout their lives.

So, what are the causes of pride? There are many, but two main causes are dualistic thinking and an inflated sense of self.

When people think in a dualistic way, it can stir up pride because they start thinking “I am good and others are bad,” “I am handsome and they are ugly,” or “I am intelligent and they are stupid.” It is this type of thinking that causes us to fixate on “I am this, I am that.” We start to emphasize the sense of self, which leads us to become attached to who we think we are. Both of these lead to pride and conceit. In the Sutta Nipata, Gautama Buddha states:

“By being alert and attentive, he begins to let go of cravings as they arise. But whatever he begins to accomplish, he should beware of inner pride. He must avoid thinking of himself as better than another, or worse or equal, for that is all comparison and emphasizes the self.”

It is clear that humility is a trait we have to work at, or we could find ourselves getting wrapped up in pride. The pride I am talking about here is our overinflated sense of self. It is not the pride we have for our children, loved ones, and so on, which stems from love and compassion — this overinflated sense of pride stems from our ego.

Meditation Practice for Humility

In a meditation session, look at pride and humility. Which one do you lean toward? Think back over the past few days and see what situations stir up pride in you, and which ones make you humble. Only when we become focused on these situations are we able to make changes in ourselves.

Need vs. Greed: Contentment

Oh, to be content. If only we could, but it seems human beings have a natural urge to never be content. Or can we? We have to look at what is need and what is greed. I think we can satisfy our need, but we will never satisfy our greed.

What we need is food, clothes, work, money, and human contact. These bring us security and are things we can satisfy to some degree.

What we want is the latest smartphone, expensive clothes, big cars, huge houses, exotic holidays — in short, we want to not only fit in with society, but we also want to stand out.

We have to train ourselves to know when enough is enough. If we just blindly follow our desire to want more, we will never be content. We have to think carefully to see if we really need something or if we are just trying to buy happiness. That is a fool’s game. If we buy something to be happy, it will not last. As soon as a new version comes out or the thing breaks, we will become unhappy and discontented. To try and buy happiness is like drinking saltwater to quench your thirst — it will only lead to dissatisfaction. Just think, if you could buy happiness, all the wealthy people in the world would be totally content, but they are not. They are just like the rest of us, always searching for something to make them happier.

The desire to want more and more brings us anxiety, worry, and stress, whereas contentment can bring us peace of mind and calmness. The fear of losing our happiness leads us to frantically search for more happiness.

When we cannot obtain the thing of our desire, we become sad and angry; disappointment and despair set in. There are two main reasons for this type of suffering. One is our inability to be content with the present moment. The other is when we make our happiness dependent on someone or something outside us. Our discontentment leads us to have more desires in the hope of escaping this type of suffering.

A note of caution: We shouldn’t take contentment to mean we don’t have to put in the effort to better ourselves — of course we do. We have to find our own level of contentment, and once we do, it will be better than any wealth or material belongings.

As Gautama Buddha says in the Dhammapada, verse 203, “…contentment is the greatest wealth.”

Meditation Practice for Contentment

In a meditation session, look at the following questions:

  • Am I content?
  • Do I have enough to satisfy my needs?
  • Do I chase after happiness in material things?
  • Do new things bring me happiness?
  • How long does it last?

Give all of these points a lot of thought.

Everything Is Interconnected: Gratitude

Gratitude means to be thankful for, and to remember, the help others have given us. We should also try our best to pay back any help we have received if and when the person who has helped us needs it.

In the Dullabha Sutta, it states:

“These two people are hard to find in the world. Which two? The one who is first to do a kindness, and the one who is grateful for a kindness done and feels obligated to repay it. These two people are hard to find in the world.”

Lately, it seems that people have very short memories where being grateful is concerned. Gratitude is a virtue we should do our best to cultivate.

This is only one part of gratitude as far as Buddhism is concerned. The Pali word katannuta has been translated as “gratitude,” but this doesn’t quite cover it. It literally means that you know what someone has done for your benefit. So, instead of it being an emotional thing as gratitude is usually seen to be — for example, we say things like “I feel grateful” — the literal meaning makes it more intellectual. This translation seems to involve an element of knowledge; we know what has been done for our benefit.

This is an important point because it takes in the interconnectedness of everything. If we just sit down and eat our dinner without being aware of what we are eating, who planted and harvested it, who packaged and delivered it, we will not be fully grateful. Being grateful is connected with an awareness of the world around us, how it works, and who is doing what to benefit us.

Meditation Practice for Gratitude

In a meditation session, think about your last meal and follow the process back from your plate to the seed in the ground. Think about all the people involved in the process. It could be a fairly long list. We should be grateful to all of these people because they have benefited us by providing food that we can eat.

It isn’t always easy to set pride aside, focus only on what you truly need, or recognize how everything is interconnected, but it’s worth it to try. Allow yourself the room to learn from past ways of thinking that have kept you separate from the benefits of these essential qualities of humility, contentedness, and gratitude. As you cultivate these virtues, you’ll find you’re giving a gift not only to yourself, but to the world around you.

You can read more blogs, listen to podcasts, watch videos and practice guided meditations on the Buddhism Guide app. Available from the Apple Store and Google Play. You can also visit my website.

If you would like to become a supporter of Buddhism Guides work, such as podcasts, blogs, videos and guided meditation practices, please visit here. You can support for as little as $2 a month.

Changing Your Behaviour

What I’m going to talk about today is a subject that I don’t usually talk much about, because people seem to think it’s a magical or mystical thing or it’s handed down to us from some god or a higher being; none of these are true. I am talking about karma.

Many people think that karma is handed down to us from lifetime to lifetime, and we can’t avoid it.  Actually, karma means patterns of behaviour we have done so often they have become habits. It is no more mystical or magical than that. This means karma is one hundred percent in your own hands. You produce your own karma, not anybody else.

When we do an act for the first time, we plant a seed in our mind. For example, you tell a lie to this person for the first time. That plants a seed, and that seed becomes a potential. If you never tell another lie, then that potential will just sit there dormant, and nothing will happen. But if you tell another lie, what you’re doing is watering that seed, and it will start to grow. The more you keep lying, the more you keep watering that seed, and the more that seed will grow. That seed will now grow into a habit, it grows into a pattern of behaviour, and that is what karma is. It’s a pattern of behaviour.

 

When you keep acting in a certain way, that pattern of behaviour keeps growing, and it becomes part of your character. When that happens, you begin to act in that way from your unconscious mind. You’re now lying without consciously thinking about what you are doing. So, in the first instant when you planted that seed, you are doing it consciously. You consciously made a choice to lie, but the more that you’ve watered that seed, the more it becomes an unconscious way of acting. It is now a habit, your behaviour, your character.

 

It’s nothing to do with a god or higher being, it’s nothing to do with anybody else, it’s everything to do with you. And that’s the good point, because if it’s to do with you, it means that you can change. You can break that habit.

We all have behaviours that we don’t really like, or we don’t want to be that type of person, but we are. If you’re an angry person, if you’re a jealous person, if you tell lies or if you steal things, these are all learned behaviours. You are not born with any of those behaviour. No baby was born a thief, or a criminal, or a murderer, a liar, a cheat. These are all behaviours that we’ve learned. So, because we’ve learned them, we can unlearn them. We can change our behaviour.

If we keep doing the same behaviour, we’re going to keep getting the same result. Now, that is such a simple thing for us to get our heads around. But we all keep doing the same thing and expecting different results. The only way to get different results is to do different things. If we want to change our lives, if we want our lives to be happier, if we want to be contented, we have to change our behaviour.

We need to analyse the behaviours we don’t like and start to think of different ways to act. To help with this I have written an acronym called A.W.A.R.E. We can use this practice during our meditation sessions. The A stands for attention, W is why, A is assess, R is reality and E is examine.

 

While sitting in meditation, focus on your breath for a few minutes. This will help calm you down and focus the mind. Now, think of a behavioural pattern you wish to change. Then bring an incident into your mind when you behaved in that way.

Now use the AWARE practice:
Attention – look at this behaviour and see if you are working from your conscious mind, or are you working from your unconscious mind. Are you on autopilot, is this simply a habit? You bring your full attention to how you acted.
Why – And then you look at the why you acted that way. Now, when we look at the ‘why’ what we’re looking for is what’s my motivation? What is my intention of acting this way? Why did I behave like this
Assess – then we assess if the action was an ethical way to be. Am I causing harm to somebody else or am I causing harm to myself?
Reality – a lot of the time when we are on autopilot our actions are not based in reality. We tend to generalise or catastrophise. So, here we ask ourselves am I just generalising? Am I catastrophising?
Now we’ve looked at our behaviour and understood that it either stems from our conscious or unconscious mind. We have looked at why we acted that way. Assessed the situation to see if it was ethical and if it was based in reality. So, now we need to examine a better way to act in future.
Examine – if you don’t want to act in the same way in future, you need to explore better ways to act. Ways that are helpful, skilful, ethical and kind. By reflecting on a better way to act, you are planting seeds for the future. So, the next time you find yourself in the same situation you can act in a different way. This will help you water the new seed and the more you do that, the more your behaviour will change. This is obviously a slow process and it will take time and a lot of effort, but it is doable.
I am sure we all have lots of behaviours we would like to change. Just start with a simple one, because once you start to see changes in that behaviour, it is going to motivate you to change other behaviours.
You can read more blogs, listen to podcasts, watch videos and practice guided meditations on the Buddhism Guide app. Available from the Apple Store and Google Play.
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A Sense of Self – The Buddha Dharma Series

In Buddhism, one of the most difficult teachings for people to understand is anatman or non-self. The doctrine states that in humans there is no permanent entity that can be called a self or a soul. This denial of “any Soul or Self” is what distinguishes Buddhism from other major religions, such as Christianity and Hinduism, and gives Buddhism its uniqueness.

The teaching is not only difficult, it is also controversial and one of the most poorly understood teachings in Buddhism. Many teachers believe it is more important to learn about karma and rebirth, but I would disagree. Most people usually misunderstand these teachings and they end up reinforcing a sense of self. They believe their karma gets attached to the self, and then this self is reborn. So, personally, I believe, if you want to reduce your suffering in this life, you should understand the teaching of non-self.

This sense of being a permanent, solid, autonomous self is an illusion. The problem is this illusion is so ingrained into our ordinary experience. We have a sense of a permanent, individual self, but that is all it is, a sense, a feeling. If I ask you, ‘Who are you?’ you may tell me about your job – I’m a lawyer, doctor, teacher and so on. But this is not who you are, this is your work. If you changed your job, would you stop being you? So, you are most defiantly not your job.

You may tell me about your family or nationality – I’m from a wealthy, middle-class, poor family. I’m Indian, British, African, and so on. Again, that is not who you are, it is just you in relation to others.

You may tell me you’re a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, etc. But that is your religion and not who you are.

You may say you are your thoughts or feelings or emotions, but these are all impermanent, so they cannot be you. The same goes for your body or your experiences, they are also impermanent and cannot be you.

We can go on with this exercise forever, but everything we find will be impermanent and superficial. There really is nothing within us that is independent and never changing.

So, if you are thinking here that Buddhism is saying you don’t exist, it isn’t. What it’s saying is, you do not exist in the way you think you do. We are not permanent, individual, solid entities. Instead, we are changing moment to moment, like the water flowing down a mountain stream. Giving ourselves a fixed name or identity doesn’t make us permanent, it is just a convention we have come up with so we can talk about ourselves. If you took me apart and laid all of my bits and pieces on the floor, you would not find an inherently existing Yeshe.

So, a question everyone asks when they come across this teaching is, ‘If I am not who I think I am, who am I? Instead of a permanent self or soul the individual is compounded of five factors that are constantly changing (See How we experience the world). These collection of five changing processes, known as the five aggregates, are: the processes of the physical body, of feelings, of perceptions, of responses and of the flow of consciousness that experiences them all.


When we identify with the process of the physical body, we get attached to our physical form. When we identify with the process of our feelings, our perceptions, and our responses, we become attached to them. Our sense of self arises whenever we grasp at, or identify with, these patterns.

The sense of a self is perpetuated because we pay attention to only the surface of our experiences. We never take the time to delve deeper. We identify with what we like and don’t like, what we want and don’t want, our dreams and beliefs. We think our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and physical sensations are a part of us, instead of seeing them as passing phenomena.

If we allow ourselves time to observe these processes come and go, we would be able to see them as just experiences that arise and fall away, and not a self. If we had a permanent self, we would never be able to change. So, if we want to grow and change, we need to let go of this idea that we have a self that defines us.

The next question people ask when they hear about non-self is, ‘So what? Why should I care if I have a self or not?’ This idea of a self produces harmful thoughts of ‘me’ and ‘mine’, selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism and other defilements, impurities, and problems. In fact, in Buddhism, it is said that the illusion of a self is the source of all our suffering.

When we identify with our physical, emotional, and mental experiences we become attached to them; the threat of losing any of these is deemed a threat to our very existence. But we are going to lose them because they are impermanent. This means the illusion of a self is setting ourselves up for failure.

When we observe the rising and falling away of all phenomena, we see that everything arises from nothing and then goes back to nothing. This includes our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and physical sensations. If we examine our experiences in this way, we begin to see that our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and sensations are not a self. This allows us to let go of our attachment to them. This in turn releases us from our suffering.

So, you may still be thinking, ‘if this teaching of non-self is true, then who’s reading this? I would answer, a growing, changing being that is in constant flux, and not a solid, permanent, individual self or soul.

You can read more blogs, listen to podcasts, watch videos and practice guided meditations on the Buddhism Guide app. Available from the Apple Store and Google Play.

If you would like to become a supporter of Buddhism Guides work, such as podcasts, blogs, videos and guided meditation practices, please visit here. You can support for as little as $2 a month.

This blog was first released in January 2018 and is being reposted as part of the Buddha Dharma Series.

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