The Power of Breath – Malcolm Huxter

Malcolm Huxter is a meditator and a psychotherapist that lives in Australia.  His years of living in  Thai monastery inform his practice and the work he does with those he works with. 

 

The power of the breath is used extensively, it seems, with the martial arts.  With Karate there is a quick in breath and an explosive out breath often with loud vocalization in the form of a “KEE-I”, with a powerful punch or kick.     I am not sure if “peace” is the right word too, but when there are long exhalations with some very slow karate katas, the result is power, strength, focus and feeling very centred.  I have found that energizing movements with vocalization is often very helpful with people who have chronically shut down with depression.  The breath and voice when it is strong seems to help to energize and lift the sense of powerlessness that often goes  with depression.

Although breathing practices can be beneficial there are those who describe  having difficulty with pranayana (yoga)  type exercises.

I have been on a few retreats (sessins)  with a Zen master called Hogan San.   He taught us how to do mantra jogging…which was one  short IN breath to three  long  OUT  breaths while running …and with sitting zazen he taught us to have a short IN  breath and very slow and long  OUT  breath with the vocalization of  “MOOO” .  I found both those practices very difficult.

However, when we chanted the heart sutra in a language I didn’t understand with very strong and extended out breaths…it was much easier to become absorbed into the process and the result was often a sense of feeling calm.  Perhaps it was the shift in focus away from trying to control the breath that helped.

Today I just had a skype conversation/ peer supervision  with a dear dharma friend and colleague,  Thupen Lekshe   (Ivan Milton-clinical psychologist) and we talked about  issues related to  focusing on the breath.  TL   spoke about the importance of one’s intention and  being able to relinquish control.   TL also mentioned how chanting is often a group activity, which may stimulate the benefits of human affiliation.   I agreed.

When we are trying to “control” the breath, as some people may with doing with pranayama  it can often back fire not producing calm but it’s opposite. 

Also as far as intention is concerned, when this involves the cultivation of good will, kindness and compassion as a basis there is a natural inclination to relinquish control.   (As an aside,  skilful intention of the eight fold path involves intentions of:  renunciation (letting go),  goodwill and non-harm) .

The instructions for mindfulness of breath according to the classic sutta (the  anapannasati sutta)  are to not  exert any form of control….”if it is long let it be long, if it is short let it be short,  if it is deep let  it be deep if it is shallow let it be shallow”  etc.,

A long time ago when I started to practice meditation it took me about 10 years to get used to mindfulness of breath. 

On reflection I may have had an anxiety disorder when I was young and bringing attention to my breath would result in a kind of over self-consciousness…a  feeling of being smothered, and difficulty in breathing.

Adrian Wells  (meta-cognitive therapy) writes about this as a form of self focused attention (SFA).   

In those days I worked with this distress not by stopping meditation but by bringing attention to my extremities …such as my hands and feet or something that seemed outside my “self”   such as ambient sounds.   I also did lots of walking meditation.

I have discovered since then,  as Wells pointed  out in  a 1990 paper,  (Wells, A. (1990) Panic disorder in association with relaxation induced anxiety: An attentional training approach to treatment. Behavior Therapy, (21, 273-280)  that for people who are inclined to experiencing  panic,  focusing on the breath can become a form of SFA  and lead to a panic  attack.  One solution, he suggested back then, is to bring attention to something that seems external such as sound.

In my opinion SFA is a form of wrong or unskillful mindfulness as opposed to skilfull mindfulness –samma sati .  

Samma Sati is practiced within a context that includes discernment about experience.  In my opinion (which is influenced by my Buddhist perspective)  SFA,   on the other hand,  is driven by a mistaken belief that we are independent (as opposed to interdependent),  lasting (as opposed to changing and impermanent) and that we can control life (as opposed to the possibility of  having choice in how we respond to meeting life’s events).

As a result we misapprehend the experience of “self”  as something that we should be able to control. 

And, when we struggle with trying to control we understandably become distressed, and sometimes a feeling a failure because we feel that we are not doing it right or there is something wrong with us.   Sometimes people thrive when they feel that they can control life.  But often when it does not go the way we want it to go,  like myself when I was younger,  the  unease and discomfort intensifies.  When I am able to relinquish any sense that I need to try to control the breath and life in general,   it is such a relief.

Sometime people can use practices such as pranayama very successfully to reduce hyperarousal and sometimes they can’t.  

It may be that when there is an alternative focus such as chanting,  singing  or even playing a clarinet…the out breath may slow down as a result of doing and focusing on the primary task  (eg chanting,  clarinet playing  etc.,)  without focusing completely on the breath and therefore reducing the possibility of SFA.

Mindfulness of breath and body scan are two practices that I am very cautious about using with clients who suffer with panic disorder primarily because  of the potential to trigger untoward reactions due to SFA and other associations …(I have also found, like many of us, that paying attention to the body with Body Scan is also very risky with people who have suffered  sexual abuse for obvious reasons).   I will generally screen for the existence of these issues before I recommend mindfulness of breath  or  Body Scan to a client.

If I know someone may be prone I will often provide a forewarning, 

without making it a big deal,  that sometimes reactions occur and if they do react not to feel  disheartened because there are other ways that they can focus their attention and meditate.   With these populations I may use mindfulness of breath and body scan as graduated exposure tasks later in the training/therapy and use mindfulness of sounds or mindfulness of seeing as initial mindfulness practices because they seemingly focus more on what seems to be external   and less likely to be related to SFA.

But then one still has to be cautious, because, as you know very well, ambient sounds or other “external”  events can be associated with traumas, and therefore trigger distress.  For example, when I worked in asylum seeker detention centres  many clients were people who had been tortured in prisons.  Often the sounds of the detention centres such metal doors banging shut or the jangle of keys on the officers,  were reminders of the prisons in which they were tortured.   If  I invited this population to be attentive to  ambient sounds as a way to calm down their hyper-arousal it could be likely to trigger a fight flight reactions or a dissociation (shut down-freeze response) .

Two decades ago psychologists used to recommend controlled breathing as a way to manage panic because it could short circuit the over oxygenation process of hyperventilation.   Do you remember?  It involved holding the breath for 3-5 seconds then controlled  and slow in and out breaths  for 10 breaths and repeating the process if the panic had not stopped.   I found that with some people this was helpful but with others it was a disaster resulting in SFA and continuing panic cycles.

One way I started to work with short circuiting the panic cycle  with the breath  is to invite people suffering with panic to do slow walking with me, focusing on the steps and sensations of touch in the soles of the feet.   Then after a few steps just suggest, on the side without giving it too much emphasis, to take an in breath on the lift of the foot and an out breath on the placing of the foot (as they do with Zen walking e.g. Thich Nhat Hanh)  .  As long as the walking  is slow the breathing  will also be slowed and the over-oxygenation process is reduced without too much risk of SFA.

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