Breathing Meditations to Calm Down

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The traditional Buddhist method for calming down is by focusing on the breath. In the Buddhist training there are many different ways of breathing and many different breathing exercises. Almost all of them, that I am familiar with, involve breathing through the nose, not through the mouth, and breathing naturally in a gentle way, rather than forcefully.

In some of these methods we hold the breath and in some of them we don’t. Sometimes we hold the breath on the in-breath and sometimes we make a pause on the out-breath. It all depends on the actual purpose of the breathing exercise, the way that we breathe.

To calm down, the traditional way of doing this is to use the cycle of breathing out and then breathing in. And we can make a pause on the out-breath, because then naturally we breathe in more deeply without forcing it. In this simplest manner of calming down we don’t hold the breath on the in-breath, although there are other methods that involve that. And the reason for using this cycle – I mean there are many reasons for using this cycle of out and then in – but here the main purpose of it is, that if we want to quiet our thoughts, since this way of counting is different from the way that most people usually imagine this cycle of breath, it requires more concentration. And because it requires more concentration and attention, it doesn’t leave very much room for thinking about other things, so it helps to quiet the mind.

This is the traditional method. But what I found from my experience is that Western people, particularly when coming to a teaching, are coming from a very stressed day. They have been working very hard on usually highly pressured jobs, and then had to deal with traffic and so on in order to arrive at a teaching which were in the evenings, which would not be the case when we’re talking about the traditional Buddhists in India or Tibet, or when we’re just getting up in the morning and sitting down and doing some meditation. And so if the very first thing that you ask a stressed out Westerner to do when they arrive at a Buddhist center is to focus on a way of breathing, which is quite different from the normal way of doing, if they are already stressed, what it tends to do is to aggravate their stress, because it’s confusing.

Since the purpose of the very first exercise of breathing is to calm down, therefore I suggest to Western practitioners in coming from a stressed background that if they find the traditional way of counting the breath cycle of out and then a slight pause and then in confusing, and it makes them more stressed, that defeats the purpose. Therefore there is no reason to insist on that method in this particular context. In that situation, what I suggest is if they are stressed by the traditional way of looking at the cycle, that they can use the more Western way of looking at the cycle, which is just simply to breathe in and then without a pause breathe out and count that as the cycle.

To calm down then, we can focus on the cycles of the breath and counting it, if our minds are very distracted. But if our minds are not distracted or relatively calm or ready, then there is no need to count.

In other words, following the traditional Dharma approach, we have three possible methods we can use. Depending on one's situation, that one has to evaluate oneself, then one uses different methods. So,

  • if we are very very stressed, we just count the breath in a normal Western fashion, in and out as one.
  • If we are not so stressed, but our mind is not focused, then we can do the traditional way of counting, which is out and pausing and in.
  • If our mind is relatively calm, then there's no need to count, just focus on the breath.

In applying these types of methods, what we notice here is that we need to be sensitive to ourselves and apply a method which is appropriate. What is wonderful about the Buddhist teachings is that it is very rich in methods, so there are usually always a very large number usually of methods to accomplish any particular aim. That is going to be very helpful in sensitivity training as well. We need to develop sensitivity to ourselves in terms of what is our actual emotional state at any particular time, and then if we learn several methods for accomplishing anything, to apply one which is appropriate. And if it doesn’t work, try another one. So let’s focus on the breath with any of these three methods to calm down.


Also in this calming down preliminary phase in terms of our eyes, we can have our eyes either open, looking down at the floor, or closed. Both of these methods were taught by Buddha. There's two major divisions of the Buddhist teachings. In the Theravada tradition, which is what’s left of the Hinayana tradition, usually we meditate with the eyes closed; in the Mahayana tradition, which is the other major division, it's usually with the eyes open, looking down towards the tip of the nose or toward the floor. But if we are looking down toward the floor, in the direction of the tip of the nose, the eyes are loosely focused, not sharply focused.

So, again we need to be sensitive to ourselves, but if we are really very stressed and agitated, it’s easier to meditate with the eyes closed. But if we’re already a bit calm then it’s better to keep the eyes open looking down towards the floor, because we don’t just want to be able to be calm in terms of shutting out the world by closing our eyes, we want to be able to be calm and relax in dealing with the world and dealing with others. So doing it with the eyes open is conducive toward that form.

Next step is to reaffirm our motivation. Often we think of this as referring to examining the emotional reasons or psychological reasons why we are coming to a training or doing meditation. Why am I doing this? Out of guilt? Am I doing this out of group pressure? Doing it as a social occasion, attachment to a group, or as I say as a "Dharma-junky" to get your fix of energy from a charismatic leader? Or you're in love with the teacher and so you come out of attachment. This is not what is emphasized in the Buddhist approach. This is much more a Western approach and of course it’s useful.

But when in a traditional Buddhist approach we say we reaffirm the motivation, it means to reaffirm what is our intention. Buddhist motivation is a category of intention. In other words, what is that we’re doing in coming here, what are we intending, what is our goal? We can think of this in terms of three possible goals that we would want to achieve in coming here, which would be appropriate. And again, we need to be sensitive to ourselves and honest with ourselves, what actually is our goal, or what is our aim. Because it's quite easy as someone who considers himself a Buddhist to say, "I am doing this to achieve enlightenment to benefit all sentient beings." These are just words.

Because without really understanding what it really means to become a Buddha and without having the sincere wish to liberate from uncontrollably reoccurring rebirth every insect in the universe, just saying, "Well, I am aiming for enlightenment to help all beings" is meaningless. And so it’s much more effective to be realistic and sincere what is actually our aim. So, there are three appropriate aims. One might be that we're really concerned only with trying to improve our relationships in this lifetime, so we come here to do this training as a type of therapy suggested by Buddhist methods.

Or we can approach this from the point of view of Dharma-lite, which would be again, "I’m doing this to improve my relationships in this lifetime, but I see this as a stepping stone in the direction toward gaining liberation and enlightenment." Or we can do this in terms of an actual real-thing Dharma, which would be that "I'm doing this training as a step to actually gaining liberation and enlightenment itself." So, whatever is our actual aim or goal, we reaffirm that. If we're sincere about our goal, it is much easier to put our hearts into it. Otherwise, if our goal is just that we are not sincere about it, then what we're doing becomes a game.

Then we make the conscious decision to listen with concentration. If our attention wanders, we try to bring it back, if we become sleepy, we try to wake ourselves up. If it helps us to be more concentrated, we correct our posture – sit straight, but not stiff. And then to lift the energy if it’s a little bit low, we focus on the point between the eyebrows, with our eyes looking upwards with the head staying level. And if we are feeling a bit nervous or tense then in order to ground the energies, we focus on the navel, the eyes looking downward, the head staying level. As we breathe in normally we hold the breath until we need to breathe out.

Making a conscious decision or intention to concentrate comes directly from Maitreya’s instructions on how to gain concentration. The adjustment to the energies focusing on the mid-brow and the navel come from the Kalachakra teachings. And so although there's not a traditional Buddhist set of preliminaries that puts together exactly these elements that are put together here, nevertheless they all come from Buddhist teachings. But I put them together in this form primarily because what I encounter is that most Westerners come to teachings very stressed, and this type of set of preliminaries addresses that. We need a set of preliminaries that’s going to suit our highly pressured lives.