Perhaps one of the greatest counter-measures against the negative emotions introduced by your mind is proper breathing technique. As an athlete and competitive bodybuilder, I have always traced my personal health and power to my breathing pattern. Later on as a physician, I began to take note of the way my patients were breathing. My sicker hospitalized patients tended to take shallow, quick breaths through their noses with their lips pursed. I also began noticing this pattern had less to do with the type of illness the patient suffered from and more to do with the degree of seriousness of their condition. The worst patterns were demonstrated in the intensive care unit where patients tend to be the sickest. Interestingly, I noticed that as the patients’ conditions improved, their breathing would become slower, deeper, and more regular. Also, their faces were more relaxed.
Back then, I had convinced myself that poor breathing patterns were a result of illness. However, later on in my practice, with more experience in a non-disease-based, clinical wellness setting I began realizing that there was a definite cause and effect. In recent years, I’ve come to the firm conclusion that deep, slow breathing is synonymous with good health. Of great reassurance was a lecture I attended by Andrew Weil, M.D. He spoke at length about the healthy power of breathing. Perhaps the ancient grand practitioners of yoga were right and Dr. Weil and I have done nothing more than further popularize a long forgotten precious gem of knowledge.
With all this in mind, I should emphasize that the best place to learn about proper healthy breathing is to exercise or perform yoga. When you begin either, you suddenly become very conscious of your breathing. The depth of your breath, the rapidity, the quality, and the mechanism all begin to speak to you. Don’t panic and don’t ignore your breathing. Bathe in the quality of air moving throughout your body and appreciate the newfound chorus that is speaking to you, for it is a key to health and wellness and in keeping with my approach.
Do you recall ever being told to “take a few deep breaths before reacting” to something? Well perhaps this age-old advice speaks to the power of the ability of deep breathing to actually calm your mind. In the same way, breathing exercises are the focal point in yoga and are a front-line defense against negativity and distractions before they lead to temptation and self-destructive behavior.
As I’ve already pointed out, the key to success is to have the full cooperation of your mind. Don’t look back. Don’t look ahead. Stay in “the now.” The past is in your mind and memories. It does not exist since it already happened. Only the present moment and what you do now is real and matters. The future is also equally insignificant when compared with the present moment, for it also exists strictly in your thoughts. The future hasn’t happened yet and is strictly dependent on the choices and actions of the present.
Take a moment and think about how your mind spends each day. The fact is that the mind of most everyone is preoccupied with either worrying about the future or reliving the past. Why didn’t I speak up when I thought of that? How could I have been so stupid? Why did I miss that left turn on the highway? When is my dentist appointment? When will I take lunch? Who will pick the kids up? How many sick days do I have left? What’s for dinner? How will I pay for college? All these past and future thoughts are important examples of the kind of things that occupy your brain throughout the day and without rest. Although this type of past and future thinking is essential so that you correct the mistakes of the past and plan properly for the future, they should cease at some point during the day. Unfortunately this is seldom the case. We end up coming home to more thoughts, confusion, obligations and worry. Yet, as important as these thoughts are to work productivity and planning, the shocking fact is that they are fundamentally irrelevant in terms of personal happiness and fulfillment! Remember that your mind needs a rest to help it re-focus. It needs a rest from the torments of the past and future. It needs to dwell in the present, for that is where to find true reality and happiness.
So the importance of the focusing on the present moment cannot be underestimated. Interestingly, Buddhist teaching tells us that this type of moment focus is the “road to enlightenment.” In other words, the only thing that matters and is real is exactly what you are doing at that very moment and nothing else. The rest is all in your mind. In fact, if you really break down this teaching, you realize that the lesson is quite correct. Past thinking, often reintroduces failures and fabricated distractions that are unrelated to your present goals. The thoughts of future often corrupt your original goals and confuse the focus of the mind.
A serious commitment to using my method should dominate your psyche. But fighting thoughts of past and future pulls you away from success. Tibetan monks have used meditation for many hundreds of years to get control of their minds and improve the quality of their lives. Ancient East Indians used yoga exercises for this purpose. Through the practice of yoga they were able to master their minds to support incredible feats of physical power.
One of the fundamental exercises is the attempt to arrest thoughts in the present and block out all thoughts of past and future. Taken to an extreme and sustained for hours, maintenance of this state can be so challenging in its purest form that some can practice meditation and/or yoga for a lifetime and never reach this extreme stage. Of course most of us are not trying to attempt such a lofty goal. However, honorable and rewarding the lifestyle of a monk might be for some, as regular people we just want a little help to make our lives better and more satisfying!
We want to be able to harness the skill of “present focus” long enough to control our thoughts. In this way we can be sure that our sub-conscious is cooperating with what we want to do and not undermining us at every turn. We achieve this by using simplified meditation and yoga exercises.
These are methods I use to quiet and focus the mind. They are simple to understand. In order for accessibility to those less experienced in meditation and yoga to perform both these skills, I teach a modified version. This simplified version is not excessively challenging to understand and get started doing, while still amazingly beneficial. In other words, you don’t have to be a master to do it my way and for our purposes.
Trying It Out
Begin by locating a room away from everyone where you can be alone. Write down the exact time, dim the lights down low and find a spot on the floor against the wall. Remove your shoes and sit with your legs crossed on a thin cushion or folded blanket. Lean your back up straight against the wall and leave your hands flaccid in your lap. With your head straight, eyes closed, and your mouth slightly open, let your tongue relax. Breathe in and out in a natural and unforced way through one or both of the mouth and/or nose. When you are comfortably in position without distraction, focus on your breathing and nothing else. Take three slow and deep breathes. With each breath out, increasingly relax the muscles of the body more from head to toe, except the muscles supporting you in the seated position (otherwise you’ll fall asleep!). You are now ready to begin your mental exercise.
As you continue your natural breathing, focus every inch of your conscious being on “the now”. In other words, do not let your mind wander. It’s tougher than you think. Recall the ghosts and thoughts of past and future will attempt to enter your mind. Don’t let them! This is the way we tame and exercise these demons of distraction from our mind. Be warned that the tendency to let the mind wander is incredibly powerful and extremely difficult to resist at first. Your point of literal focus should be on your breathing alone and nothing more. But be honest with yourself and don’t let your mind get away with anything. As soon as some image of the past, present, or future concern interferes with your state of mind, immediately abandon this thought rumination and return to the focus of breathing. At first, most people find this exercise frustrating, while others say it’s excruciatingly difficult. In the beginning, you may only last a matter of seconds before thoughts creep into your focus and distract you. Be strict, but even so, be patient with yourself. Focus only on the gentle, spontaneous and labor-free flow of air in and out of your lungs, and nothing more. As you get used to the empty, peaceful, and timeless comfort of breathing Buddha, you will be able to gradually expand seconds to minutes, and beyond.
Getting your mind and body in tune with one another is central to good health and efficient progress toward your goals. In fact, it’s an enormous process, but it begins with simple physical stillness. In other words, our bodies are in constant motion. We rush here and there. We fidget, twitch, and change position throughout the day. Unfortunately, that process involves a constant re-focusing of the powerful energy of your mind. As a result, constant physical movement is the single most powerful disconnecting factor in separating the power of our mind from the strength of our body.
Find a quiet room and a soft place to sit on the floor. Dim the lights and sit down. You can either sit in a simple cross-legged fashion or in the more advanced “Hatha Yoga” leg-over-leg position. Either way, avoid leaning your back against the wall and, although your eyes should be open slightly, they should be relaxed and looking down. Sit up with your back straight, breathe normally, and think about nothing else except your body. Think about your body in any way you want to. The point is to just take a relative flicker of the day to focus the attention of the mind on the body itself. Take a moment and think about every part of your body from head to toes. Begin with the head and neck. Move on to shoulders, chest, arms, waist, thighs, lower legs, feet, and toes. I am a firm believer that this simple exercise starts to get your subconscious in line with what your conscious mind wants to do with your body. It’s akin to a gentle start to the re-programming process.
Meditation exercises can be effectively used to strengthen the mind to get control of your life. Just be prepared for more of a challenge. In the same way as you prepared for the Breathing Buddha meditation exercise, properly situate yourself in the same way for this exercise.
As with the exercise of breathing Buddha, the exercise of Buddha’s lake also focuses on maintaining conscious in “the now”. Again, the objective is to not let your mind wander, except this discipline is even more challenging. As a result, it will serve to strengthen your mind and help your subconscious to get under your control. The focus of concentration is the image of the surface of a peaceful lake. We all have a similar image of what a lake looks like in our minds, but, not surprisingly, there is a twist. Equally and seemingly unavoidably etched in our mind’s eye as part of the image are the ripples on the water. They are an integral part of this imprinted imagery. In reality, we’ve simply never seen a large body of water without ripples. So creating such a vision in our mind is not an easy task. This exercise thus presents quite a challenge of our ability to concentrate and focus. Herein lies the challenge—to hold a picture of this lake in your mind with an absolutely still surface, without a single ripple. It is true mental work to vanquish the ripples from the water surface. They tend to keep popping up! Again, be warned of the powerful tendency to let the mind wander. A hint is to not try and tackle the entire lake at first. Instead, work on the stillness of a puddle or small portion of your imaginary lake and then expand upon it to encompass the entire lake. Reaching even fleeting moments of absolute glass-like stillness on the lake surface is quite an accomplishment, and a testament to a quiet and controlled mind. Work on gradually expanding the time of this image from seconds to minutes, and beyond. If you can, expand your lake to an ocean and witness the quiet of your soul! Tap in to this stillness and you bring the same calm power and control into your own life!