A friend of mine recently attended a course that was given by a buddhist master.
My friend related that as part of the course she’d been taught the importance of breathing properly: that one should be much more aware of one’s breathing, as this is the route to casting aside distractions, of dispelling the clutter in your brain, and of making you aware of your existence ‘in the moment’.
I’m in full agreement with this teaching. However, I’m not sure that I’d classify it as a spiritual teaching as such. It’s a well-established fact in the secular world that concentrating on one’s breathing is a useful and reliable way of reducing anxiety. For instance, if you’re about to board an aeroplane and you hate flying – try deep and slow breathing. If you’re about to walk into a room for an important job interview – try deep and slow breathing.
Slow breathing is good for inducing calm, it’s true, however the same effect can be achieved by using other, related techniques. Almost any slow and considered physical action where you direct all of your attention onto one process will help you to dispel irritating mental activity and will make distractions in the world around you drop away. The deliberate activity of doing everything in slow motion for a minute or so will give a similar effect for instance: if you’ve got a drink next to you on a table, make your arm take several seconds reaching for it instead of the usual one (or less).
Meditation works in a similar way, forcing you to curtail your normal hectic activities and simply slow down for a while.
These calming activities work. They work because of the way that they prompt the brain to act in particular ways, inducing activity in certain areas of the brain and suppressing it elsewhere. It involves the release of chemical messengers and the passing of electrical currents. It’s a normal neurological process.
It’s interesting that when a buddhist teacher, or any other type of spiritual teacher, recommends such activities, the activities are imbued with a sense of spirituality themselves – as though it’s the spirituality that’s making them work.
The fact that the activity works in this spiritual context has the effect of making the spiritual dimension seem valid. ‘I feel calm because of this buddhist breathing exercise, therefore buddhism must be correct.’
The whole concept of slowing down and ‘being in the moment’ is all very well, but it’s often a bit of a luxury. Ask any young mother with several unruly, demanding children to look after. I suspect that buddhism is perhaps a spiritual path that’s most suited to people who have got plenty of time on their hands.