Tightness in the Breath
“Hi Roger … I’ve been having problems with meditation, in particular, watching the breath, for many many years and am at a loss to figure out what is wrong, and it’s only recently that I’ve figured out what is going wrong:
Basically, whenever I observe the breath, either at the nostrils, in the chest or the rise of the stomach, I get very tense. I notice the tenseness in my face and particularly around my eyes.
In my early days of meditating, I’d just push on with this and didn’t pay it much attention. I’d often get very frustrated, but carried on anyway.
More recently, I’ve noticed that I my observation of the breath causes it to change in some way. I’m thinking that subconsciously I make it harsher or stronger so that it’s easier to observe. I can’t seem to just let the breath arise and allow much mind to ‘rest’ on it. It just seems to want to grab the breath and control it in some way.
This problem has caused me to give up meditation for many years at a time because it was just too stressful and difficult.Do you have any advice that could help me or any ideas as to what is going on with me?
Your problem is quite common among Westerners. In fact, this happened to me in the early days.I put it down to our Western habits of control, which tend to be rather more rigid than in Asia. We seek to control whatever we pay attention to.
So when we’re notpaying attention to the breath it’s fine – but when we sit down to meditate and pull our attention around to it, suddenly it’s like we’re ordering it to march in step and in time to some false idea of ‘how the breath should be’ – so the end result is a tightening and very uncomfortable reactive loop, in which we tie our self in knots around the simple act of breathing.The other thing is, it indicates you are trying to control the meditation – that you are trying to make meditation match some kind of expectation in your head, of ‘how it should be’. I could be wrong, but when I look into what I was ACTUALLY trying to do when my breath was tight, that was indeed it.
So … the purpose of meditation is to learn to let go. To teach the mind to be aware, know, and let go as one comprehensive action. Very hard for a Western mind to do – but doable. Just takes practice.I cured myself of this insidious habit by spending a couple of months simply re-conditioning my relationship with the breath, and with the act of meditating.
The way I did this was, every time I found the breath tightening, I would let it go and expand my attention out to the whole body – just feel the body sitting.
I would note ‘sitting, sitting’ as I observed the sensations of the sitting body … until the breath loosened and relaxed on its own.
Then I would gently pull my attention back to it … lightly, as if my attention was a feather falling onto a leaf, and I would begin to follow it again … until it began to tighten again, when I would let it go and contemplate the entire body.Gradually, my attention learnt not to be so controlling. It learnt to observe the breath without meddling with it – detached and free from expctations. At that point, meditation becomes a ‘now’ experience, instead of a ‘looking for’ experience.
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