Breathing in, I calm my body and mind.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment, I know this the only moment.
– Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk & author
Today you’ll take about 23,000 breaths.
This year you’ll take about 8.4 million breaths.
If you live to 85, you’ll have taken around 714 million breaths in your lifetime.
Because breathing is something we do without a second thought, it’s easy to take it for granted.
And yet, there is a tremendous amount of untapped power and potential in each and every breath.
This power and potential get unleashed when we bring conscious awareness to our inhales and exhales.
Discovering the ancient Buddhist practice of breath awareness saved me from my own emotional and mental prison.
I was seeking natural ways to manage both my ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and GAD (generalized anxiety disorder) when I came across the quote by Thich Nhat Hanh above.
His words reminded me that my breath was a powerful tool I already had in my arsenal. I just needed to begin using it correctly again.
In something as simple as the act of consciously breathing, I found a proven resource for cultivating mental agility and focus while countering the adverse effects of chronic stress and anxiety.
At first, I almost dismissed it because it seemed too simple to be effective.
But then I started using the practice of breath awareness to help me navigate through panic attacks, and I felt a noticeable shift the more I practiced.
Surprisingly, the simple act of becoming aware of my own breath served as a type of mental fitness exercise that strengthened my focus and concentration muscle.
The more I observed my breath, the more I would increase my sense of inner calm, which facilitated my ability to sustain presence and focus.
In our modern western culture, most of us tend to be chronically overstretched, overworked, sleep-deprived, burnt out, and overwhelmed.
We’ve become accustomed to using phrases like: “I’m so busy I can’t even catch my breath.”
We don’t realize that our foggy brains, declining memory, and attention-deficit thinking are the price we pay for constantly living in this frenzied and chaotic state of “go-go-go,” without having the habits and tools to balance it all out.
How Chronic Stress Destroys Our Brains and Impacts Mental Focus
Brain cells create ideas.
Stress kills brain cells.
Stress is not a good idea.
– Frederick Saunders, author
Chronic stress really wreaks havoc on our minds.
Stress can literally kill brain cells.
A single stressful situation has the power to kill neurons in the brain’s hippocampus region (an area related to memory and emotion), as one animal study showed. (1)
Chronic stress shrinks the brain, which leads to emotional and mental impairment.
Specifically, stress shrinks the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with decision making, complex thinking, working memory, moderating social behavior, and attention control. (2)
What’s worse, a chronically stressed-out brain becomes wired and predisposed to being in constant stress mode, thus creating a vicious cycle.
Chronic stress not only shrinks the part of our brain associated with higher thinking, but it has also been shown to increase the size of the amygdala, the part of our brain responsible for experiencing emotion (fear in particular) and processing emotional memories. (3)
Our amygdala is like our brain’s alarm system, sending distress signals whenever threats are perceived.
We’re disconnected from our mental power when we don’t develop and cultivate habits that help us counter stress.
Cultivating Breath Awareness as a Tool to Increase Focus and Counter Stress
Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.
Breathing in, I am aware of my whole body.
Breathing out, I am aware of my whole body.
Breathing in, I calm my whole body.
Breathing out, I calm my whole body
– Anapanasati Sutta, The Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing
Our breath is a powerful tool that can improve our mind’s capacity to think more clearly and sharply.
It can help calm a racing mind, create laser focus, inspire creativity, and even improve memory. (4)
Cultivating daily breath awareness is often a first step to overcoming chronic stress and anxiety.
In Eastern practices like Buddhism and yogic philosophy, conscious breath awareness is highlighted as an important skill to cultivate for mental, emotional, and physical health.
In particular, the Buddhist Anapanasati Sutta, also known as the “Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing,” details Buddha’s instructions on how to use the breath to cultivate focus and mindfulness.
Legend has it that Buddha delivered this discourse on a full moon night to a multitude of about 1,000 monks.
In the Sutra, Buddha teaches that us that the first step in transforming our fear, anxiety, and unsettled mind is to simply pay attention to our breathing, as it is.
We bring full awareness to the breath and notice as it comes into the nostrils, and as it flows out of the nostrils.
We focus on the breath going in and breath coming out.
Try it right now…
You have two options:
1- A 1-Minute version:
2- The full Breath Awareness Guided Meditation:
How Attention and Breathing Changes Our Brains for the Better
Awareness of breathing is, at the same time, awareness of our entire body.
Our mind, our breath, and our whole body are one.
– Thich Nhat Hanh, Breathe! You Are Alive
As Buddha taught the monks, regular practice of the mindful breathing meditation we just did can lead to the attainment of the Four Establishments of Mindfulness:
– Mindfulness of our body (enhanced connection to our body)
– Mindfulness of our feelings (enhanced emotional self-regulation)
– Mindfulness of our mind (mental self-regulation)
– Mindfulness of the objects in our mind (improved focus and self-mastery)
Our breath is the doorway to cultivating present moment awareness, which is an essential skill for increasing mental focus and concentration.
When both body and mind are at ease, the practitioner can easily enter into concentration…
When the practitioner is abiding in concentration with deep calm, he will cease discriminating and comparing.
– Anapanasati Sutta, The Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing
The ability to simply notice something without having the desire or urge to judge it or change it in any way is a power in and of itself.
It can change our brains; it can undo the effects of chronic stress.
There’s a lot of exciting research underway to track the effects of mindfulness on our brains.
A regular mindfulness practice, even if it’s just a few minutes every day, can help increase focus by blocking out other distractions. This helps us carry this enhanced concentration throughout the day. (5)
Other studies have found major brain changes occurring after just as little as eight weeks of regular mindfulness practice.
Remember that these regions are impacted by chronic stress, so it’s quite inspiring that a regular mindfulness practice actually appears to reverse these effects.
Ancient wisdom has always known what science is now proving.
It’s now up to us to apply this knowledge in our lives daily if we want to improve our focus, perform better at work, and feel better about life.
Remember, you’ll take about 23,000 breaths today.
How many of these breaths can you experience with total awareness?
How many of these breaths can you offer up for your own peace of mind?