Is Mindfulness Really The Answer?
Or is mindfulness just the punctuation at the end of the question?
My wife recently told me something she thought was strange. ‘When you sleep you breathe backwards,’ she said.
‘What do you mean I breathe backwards?’ I asked.
‘Your chest doesn’t move and your belly expands. When I breathe my chest expands and my belly doesn’t move.’ She was telling me that, in my sleep, I was breathing from the diaphragm and not from the chest.
From a certain perspective, yes, this is ‘backward,’ but the ‘direction’ depends on what the breathe is supposed to do. Most people, my wife included it seems, think that breathing through the chest is the ‘correct’ way of breathing.
When I first started practicing mindfulness, some five or so years ago, I deliberately began my daily practice with deep relaxing belly breathing.
For the first few years, it brought quite a lot of peace into my life — for at least twenty minutes a day and a little more past that as it took the effects time to wear off. I slept better and, in the absence of a truly stressful event or crisis, my everyday level of anxiety lessened.
Gradually, I brought both mindfulness and regular deep belly breathing into my daily life. Each of these techniques become a tactic I would bring, more and more, to moments of my day — not just the twenty to forty minutes of formal daily practice. As I did so, I learned something that shocked me: as I went through my day, I didn’t always breathe properly.
Mindfully paying attention to what was happening and bringing my breathing back to relaxing breaths forced me to realize that, over the course of a day, I wasn’t breathing consistently or correctly. I learned I had a habit of holding my breath when confronted with a sudden shock or crisis.
A car backfires, I hold my breath. Someone gets in my face, I hold my breath. The checkout register takes a nanosecond too long to approve my debit-card purchase — leading me to catastrophize complete economic ruin — I hold my breath. It’s still hard to tell if the anxiety stops the breath or if stopping the breath triggers the anxiety.
What is likely, is that it’s a combination/cycle and either could start it and invite the other.
What is more, I found that after briefly holding my breath, I would return to a breathing rhythm that was quicker and shallower, from the upper chest. In general, breathing from the chest is ‘energizing’ and, indeed, ‘backward’ from deep relaxing belly breaths.
The only problem is, if I was already in a state of anxiety, with this shallow, quick, breathing-from-the-upper-chest, I was only energizing my anxiety. If I was rushed and hurried I could fall, readily, into this cycle. If I was really stressed about something, forget about it.
I might even have habitually come close to or gone into hyperventilation, where the imbalance between exhalation (too much) and inhalation (too little) causes an imbalance in the bloodstream and the mix of carbon dioxide (too little) and oxygen (too much).
This can cause adrenals to kick in and amp up. Not a good cycle. Hypo-ventilation is the opposite imbalance.
It was only with deliberate and purposeful belly breaths that I could regain a hold of my situation and relax.
It is important to note that this energizing kind of breathing from the chest is not, per se, disordered or wrong in any way and that I might simply have been doing it wrong or too shallowly. If you are exercising, doing physical labor or anything strenuous this kind of breathing is fully appropriate.
If you are in a truly threatening situation you will need quick energizing breathing to infuse your fight-or-flight with even more fight-or-flight as necessary. It’s an important and necessary method of breathing. My wife breathes this way regularly and she’s not the anxious basket case I can sometimes become.
My biology, it seems, has a hair-trigger and I suspect I may go from zero to hyperventilation in record time. Nor do I suspect that I am alone in this.
For much of my life, I believe, I was habituated to high shallow upper chest breathing. I might say thate, I thought it was normal, except that I never thought about it much. After all, nobody ever taught me how to breathe, or even that there were different forms of breathing each appropriate to a different situation.
I have since learned a lot about breathing and different techniques for breathing. I now vary my breathing and sometimes try to practice a ‘complete’ breath where the chest/ribs and stomach expand rather than the chest only or the deep belly only. Sometimes I’ll deliberately breath from the chest, but try not to do so shallowly or too high in the chest.
(The shoulders shouldn’t rise, this constricts the rib cage and forces more air up in the chest.) I still find that the habitual shallower breathing creeps back in when I’m not looking.
And when I’m under real stress it’s easy to find myself in that cycle.
I began to wonder if the first benefit of mindfulness is not the focus it strengthens but the deliberate breathing. I even began to wonder if the anti-anxiety benefits had nothing to do with mindfulness, but with the deliberate breathing.
In my experience of mindfulness, I’ve come across a number of people who don’t seem to take to mindfulness meditation. Some people I’ve met even say that mindfulness, rather than giving them calm and focus, actually increases their anxiety. A few, when trying to meditate, actually felt panic attacks.
The predicate assumption of mindfulness practitioners is that, duh, everybody knows how to breathe. But is that true? It wasn’t true for me. Of course, everybody does breathe — they’d be dead if they didn’t — but does this mean they are always and consistently breathing correctly? I didn’t always breathe correctly. I didn’t, necessarily, know how to breathe. Nobody taught me.
I had to deliberately engage in deep relaxing belly breathing to engage mindfulness and I did it so assiduously, as my wife can attest, that deep relaxing belly breathing is now the default for me.
I do it in my sleep. Prior to this more-or-less deliberate self-training, more shallow, quicker, energizing breathing and possible hyperventilation was the default.
There are situations where energizing kind of breathing is right and appropriate, but I didn’t discriminate the right and the appropriate from any other situation, I just did as I had always done.
So I need to breathe right and my anxiety is greatly reduced. Upon this realization, my first reaction was to believe that maybe mindfulness and meditation aren’t all that: If I could monitor my breathing and apply appropriate breathing techniques to individual situations what need did I have for mindfulness? I wouldn’t have to spend time each day simply attending to the breath or focusing my awareness.
Maybe the fad of mindfulness was just obscuring the benefits of proper breathing technique.
But… then I realized, I wouldn’t think all that but for mindfulness.
It’s also worth noting that I didn’t know I was doing it, at the time. I thought anxiety was a thing that descended upon me from outside and never dreamt that my habits could be exacerbating the anxiety.
Nor is it uncommon. My dad had sleep apnea: He was not breathing for short periods some nights and he would wake the next day not knowing why he felt so groggy and tired.
And I try to observe other people. I see some people catch their breath when they are flustered or shocked. I listen to when people talk and I find that some talk fast and get themselves winded quickly. I see a wide variety of breathing.
I began to wonder if that cohort of people whose anxiety increases when they meditate are actually breathing in some disordered fashion. I really don’t know for certain, but it certainly seems plausible to me.
Whenever I come across someone skeptical of mindfulness I wonder if they know how to breathe correctly. It seems simple: you just breathe. But that’s not always the case. Maybe your lungs don’t get enough air. Maybe you’re hyperventilating. Maybe you’re always just on the edge of hyperventilating.
Why not? I did for many years.
Is mindfulness all that or not? Are the supposed benefits of mindfulness in actuality just the benefits of breathing correctly? Is mindfulness the answer?
Yes and no.
Practicing meditation and mindfulness has led me to understand my body and biology in a different way, confront some habitual responses and make changes. I went into it thinking that mindfulness itself was going to be the thing that changed me. It was not, at least in respect to my breathing.
I believe many people are approaching mindfulness in this way. It was mindfulness that showed me some of the problems and opened space around them so that I could change.
I meditate daily and expect to do so for the rest of my life. It has brought calm into my life and some level of insight. One of the insights is that mindfulness is not a cure: I need to work to get the rhythms of my body and mind and daily activities in harmony; and mindfulness is a big part of that, paradoxically making it integral to the cure.
Thinking about it, I suspect that if we could attain a balanced diet, with appropriate sleep, less stress and the consistent application of the right breathing techniques, we wouldn’t need mindfulness… But that mindfulness or something nearly like it might arise spontaneously.
Practicing mindfulness with deliberation is just coming at all those things from a different direction.
Originally published on medium.
A 50-ish blend of the sacred and the profane uneasily co-existing in an ever more compromised frame. Celebrating no-shave November since September of 1989.