One of the best meditation exercises is to pay attention to your breathing. It's something that most people ignore, which gives you lots of room to improve. It's simple to understand and challenging to master.
And it really opens up the benefits to you.
At first, it's little more than a handy stream of sensations for you to anchor your attention.
Then it becomes something else.
Your breath is never the same at any two points in the cycle. And no two cycles are the same.
When you focus and see that level of detail – where your very breathing becomes interesting – your mind grows stronger.
This is true of any other sensation. If you paid attention to your right thumb, you would notice the same thing.
Your breathing does something, though, that your thumb will never do.
It brings air into your body and expels toxins.
(Cue sounds of shock and outrage.)
Your nose is not some humble valve, though. It's not like a helium tank that, once spun, fills balloons.
Nothing in your body is ever that simple.
Instead, your breathing is a complex mesh of control, sensation and feedback loops. How you breathe influences how you do everything else.
If breathing were a simple intake of oxygen, then breathing faster would be better. As long as you were not stressing your lungs, getting more air is better than getting less.
Think of someone who's breathing quickly and you're not thinking of someone in their moment of power.
Of course, that's a judge, something you might want to avoid. It's good practice to simply observe your breathing without any desire to alter it.
At first, at least.
Once you're comfortable holding your attention in a calm, accepting way, then you can start to change your breathing.
To relax and balance your body and mind, breathe in a relaxed and balanced way. Aim to extend each breath, slowly at first. Keep the inhalation and exhalation the same length and rate.
If you want a number to aim for, try five or six seconds to inhale, then the same to exhale. That sounds easier than it is for most people. Build up to that slowly. If you need a week or two, take the time. The goal is not to stress your system.
Like life, you can take things slow, steady and balanced.
And if you want more energy and focus?
Then slowly inhale through the nose. To exhale, release your breath through the mouth all at once. Repeat.
And hold your attention in the usual way.