Using the Breath to Balance the Mind

Luang Por Pasanno • April 2013

It has been nine days since we ended our three-month retreat, which seems like a good time to remind everyone: Don’t forget to connect with mindfulness of the body and mindfulness of the breath. With the body, use the simple rhythms of moving from one place to another. Attend to that. Make it an anchor for developing mindfulness and awareness.

As for the breath, Ajahn Chah would often say, “People complain that they don’t have time to meditate, but do they have time to breathe?” Well, of course we have time to breathe. But if we don’t direct our attention to our breathing, then our attention slides by, and we end up absorbed in proliferation, expectation, irritation, or whatever. So we must remember to consciously bring attention to the breath. Then we can learn how to use the breath.

To begin, notice that breathing in has a different effect on the mind and body than breathing out. When we breathe in, there’s an expansion of the body—we are bringing in the life force, expanding and energizing what one might call the system of our existence. That’s different from breathing out, which is a release, a settling, a stopping. These distinct qualities have different effects on the mind. By knowing that and by paying close attention to what’s happening, we can use the different effects of our in-breaths and out-breaths to work with the mind when it’s out of balance.

For instance, if the mind is leaning toward dullness and wanting not to deal with things, we can consciously attend to the in-breath and the energy it brings—enlivening, expanding, and brightening the mind. At other times, the mind may be leaning toward distraction, doing, and becoming. Then we need to pay more attention to the out-breath, allowing the mind to settle down. By working with the breath in such ways, we can balance the mind, attuning ourselves with each in-breath and out-breath.

When we engage in any activity, whether sitting in front of a computer or out on the trail with a rake, we are still breathing, still occupying a physical body within the world around us. Each activity is an opportunity to inquire of ourselves, Where is my attention going? Am I aware of the body, of my in-breaths and out-breaths? What is needed to find a place of balance and clarity? Does the mind need lifting up, or settling down? By doing this, we are caring for our practice throughout the day, not just during morning and evening meditation. We are developing the continuity of practice that is needed for the most beneficial results.