This meditation can be learned by most people to reduce stress and literally take the wind out of strong emotional states. Please practice with caution and common sense. With some experience this practice can be applied in many situations. While I don't recommend meditation while driving, I've found that taking a few slow, deep breaths has reduced my stress in traffic as well as other situations where intense feelings have in the past gotten the best of me. The conscious breathing practice below is something that, if practiced at home, can have an effect on our ability to cope in everyday situations. If you have health issues, consult your doctor before trying any new practices.
From a Buddhist perspective, emotions are considered poison and need to be restrained or transcended fully to achieve enlightenment. Ask any monk or nun about their vows and they'll tell you - getting carried away emotionally is a no-no. In 12-Step practice, emotions are based on instincts gone wild and need to be leveled off to maintain sobriety (clean-time). Talk to anyone with several years of sobriety and they'll probably admit that an over abundance of feelings is one of the most challenging aspects of maintaining long-term, happy abstinence. Moreover, modern brain science reveals that developmental trauma can lead to a reduced ability to cope with feelings and stress; additionally, meditation facilitates positive growth in areas of the brain thought to be associated with rational decision making.
Addicts are notorious for making bad, heat-of-the-moment decisions. As a recovering addict with two long stints of recovery (currently 12.5 years), I can state unequivocally that my feelings are generally quite a bit stronger than non-addicts and have a tendency to create difficulties when left unchecked. By controlling the breath, I've learned that it's possible to control my energy and emotions while deepening awareness. Below is a simple method that works for me and people who attend my weekly groups and national workshops. It's based on some practices in Tibetan Buddhism. There's a link at the end of the article if you'd like to know more. Try it and let me know if it works for you or if you've found some similar techniques that might be beneficial to others. I can be reached at the12stepbuddhist.com
Practice - Pause When Agitated With Complete Breathing
One of the most common methods of meditation is to simply watch the breath, without changing anything. The method we're using here though is to use the breath in more of a yoga style. By practicing a little control over my breath, I've learned to get a handle on my emotions much more than almost any other technique. Be careful not to push too hard - don't hyperventilate. If you feel dizzy, stop. It might be best to learn this at home (i.e. laying on a yoga mat with a nice scented candle) before taking it out into worldly situations. As always, listen to your body and do what is best for you.
The in breath is done in three stages. In order to learn this method it's helpful to focus on one area at a time until we feel the breath as a full and complete experience - all the way in, all the way out.
Breath in to the lower belly, below the navel. I sometimes call this the Homer Simpson stage because we're intentionally creating a pot belly effect. Breathing in, let the belly expand like a balloon. We can separate this part of the practice into small sessions of one to three minutes. Proceed at your own pace and take as much time as you need before progressing. In this way, we learn to put our minds and our breath where we want it. In principle the idea is not so different from learning to hold a pose in yoga or any other coordinated physical activity. The difference here is that we're using it intentionally to create a space of de-charging our emotional or stress state.
The next phase of this breath meditation is breathing in to the central area of our diaphragm. Anyone who has studied singing will be familiar with the principle. We breathe in to the center of our bodies. When practiced correctly, we can feel our ribs open up on the in breath. On the out breath, we allow our ribcage to fall naturally. Again, we can practice this stage of the breath in short periods, laying down on our backs with our feet flat on the floor or sitting upright.
Next we breathe in to our upper bodies. We can feel the clavicles raise up, filling our upper lungs. Breathe in, keeping the throat open and relaxed. If you can hear yourself, you're trying too hard. This method is to be done in a relaxed manner. When we feel we're full of air, we can breathe in a little more. We gradually increase the amount of air we take in, which increases the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream and has many beneficial effects.
When we exhale, we allow the process to happen in reverse. That means the air leaves the upper body first, gravity lets the ribs come down to empty the central area and finally the lower part. As we inhaled deeply and completely, we exhale the same way. Sometimes if circumstances allow, we can lean forward a little bit or gently leave our hand out on our lower abdomen to give a very light effort to become totally empty of air. Then we pause a moment and allow ourselves to be empty. When we're ready to begin the next in breath, we start the cycle over by breathing back in to the lower, then the middle and then the upper areas.
As I mentioned above, you can break this up into sessions for each body area and progress to do them as one complete breath in and out. Feel it out. Try focusing on different areas and use the style that helps you relax. In the beginning, I noticed that my breath tended to be shallow and short, focused mainly on the upper body. With my unchecked breathing style I was more panting than breathing fully. By using the complete breath starting at the bottom and learning to fill each area, I'm now able to really feel a nice, relaxing effect after only one or two breaths.
In short, if I just remember to breathe in all the way, deep and slow, and exhale the stale air completely, pausing in that relaxed state for a moment before grasping for that next hit of air, I feel better. Maybe you will too.
Try this before firing off that next email, before calling a bill collector or ex-partner or while in a long line at the DMV. Use it in the waiting room of your therapists office, while sitting in a 12-Step meeting or before engaging in a written inventory session. Take a yoga class and ask for breathing instruction. See http://the12stepbuddhist.com for more articles and a recent podcast with author and yoga teacher Darren Main on using the breath and other topics.
For in depth work in breathing through yoga movement, see Yantra Yoga by Chogyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, Snow Lion, 2009. http://snowlionpub.org