by Esteban da Cruz
Developing breath-centered awareness is a fundamental practice that is very often mentioned but rarely explained in a class setting. It permeates Buddhist and yogic practices across the board, from the meditation cushion to the yoga mat, and can serve as an indispensable tool as we progress along the spiritual journey of moving inward. But why is the breath so important? And why must we continually bring ourselves back to it?
It is useful to understand that what we are seeking is not breath-centered awareness itself, but the concentration that is cultivated through it. In order to grow the mind’s ability to remain fixed on one point—which is a basic pre-requisite for meditation—we must give it an object of contemplation, something to hold onto. This can be any kind of mental formation, thought, or object that we can hold in our awareness, as long as it possesses a gravitational pull strong enough to continually bring us back from the incessant distractions, daydreams, forecasts, memories, and theories that the mind attempts to repeatedly drag us into. In fact, the object could be anything at all. Some people use mantras, prayers, inspirational people or concepts, areas of the body, or certain specific visualizations. If one were to truly enjoy oranges and find they brought a measure of peace and tranquility, one could even fix the mind on an orange, or something just as mundane, which eventually would lead to the realization that nothing is mundane if we are present for it.
There are, however, several advantages to using the breath over the other objects. First, it immediately re-connects us with the body, as it can only be experienced through the body. In using it to drop into the physical vehicle, we move away from the compulsive—sometimes hysterical—patterns of the thinking brain, and we drop into the feeling heart; that receptive seat of awareness in which we are free to experience sensations, thoughts, and emotions that make up our reality, before our rambling mind has had time to form wildly incomplete theories about them, which it rapidly rejects or becomes attached to. It is also a tangible object of meditation, more readily accessible than any other we can use; it is with us at all times, whether or not we are present for it. The breath simply waits patiently for us until we are ready to find it.
As we begin our practice of focusing the mind, we will encounter frustration and question whether we are capable of doing the necessary work. At first, we will rarely maintain our focus within an hour-long practice, but will soon notice that we can do it with increasing ease and decreasing effort. Eventually, if we persist, we can immediately drop into the breath, and away from the rambling mental discourse we usually find ourselves so engrossed with, and stay there for the duration of a practice. Then, we take the concentration practice off the mat, and the cycle begins anew; first we only sporadically remember and maintain the breath-centered awareness off the mat, but as we persist and repeatedly come back to it, we begin to form a habit of being present in the body, through the breath, until we can focus the attention evenly throughout the day, and always remain in a steady state of contemplation of the self. Once this happens, we are free to observe the neuroses, compulsions, and habits that drive the body and mind, at which point we are finally able to have a choice in whether or not to respond to them, as opposed to perpetuating them mindlessly.