Just Breathe

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visualization of how we breathe; diaphragm in yellow, lungs in blue, abs in red

Our conscious minds are, largely, strangers to our bodies. They have a kind of uneasy alliance, with our subconscious, autonomic systems basically running everything, when we’re asleep, and when we’re not consciously focused on our bodies. Most of our information processing — probably 99% or more — is unconscious, somatic. The sophistication of our digestive system, for example, is vastly greater than that of our brains — far more decisions and regulatory adjustments are made, literally, in our guts than in our heads.

If you think of our bodies, as Cohen and Stewart have described them, as a ‘complicity’ of our organs, as water-, food- and air-flushed containers evolved for their mutual survival and advantage, then you could imagine that our brains were evolved merely as information processing tools to look after these containers’ residents’ needs, as detection systems. Occasionally (perhaps one in a million decisions), our autonomic systems encounter a problem they do not now how to address, and they may then choose to consult with our conscious minds. Even in these rare cases, they will probably make the initial decision (e.g. fight or flight, love or loathe) but they will give our conscious minds, slow-moving as they are, the opportunity to participate in or even override these decisions. If someone swings a bat at your head, it’s fortunate that you do not have to wait for your conscious mind to react, but equally fortunate that you do not have to depend on your unconscious systems to decide what to do after you’ve ducked.

In some cases, however, our subconscious and conscious ‘selves’ need to get their act together. To play a musical instrument, or to dance, or to walk on uneven terrain, you need to be coordinated. I am acutely aware of this because I am probably the most uncoordinated person on the planet.

It’s not surprising, then, that I have tremendous difficulty meditating. Some experts would have us believe that meditation is the ultimate conscious activity, the very height of awareness and self-awareness. They may be right, but to the extent meditation is focused on your breathing, it does require a lot of coordination.

Many meditation practitioners suggest you should in some ways control your breathing — you should take deep breaths, from or filling up the abdomen, and slowly and fully expel all the air in your lungs. They are saying, in fact, that you should override the autonomic process of breathing by conscious effort.

photo of the inner surface of the lung, showing some of the millions of tiny passages where oxygen and CO2 are exchanged with the blood vessels

Let’s take a look at what breathing is all about. I decided that I might be able to focus my attention on my breathing during meditation if I was able to visualize exactly what is happening when I breathe. Contrary to what mystics and vocal coaches might tell you, you cannot draw breath into your abdomen! Some people wonder how we are able to ‘remember’ to breathe when we’re asleep. The answer is that we breathe while we’re asleep the same way we breathe while we’re awake — subconsciously, automatically. Our conscious mind is not involved. Here’s how it works:

  1. Our autonomic nervous system receives messages from all parts of the body telling it composition of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood cells and other parts of the body (and probably conveying a ton of other important information we haven’t begun to fathom).
  2. These levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide are compared to a subconscious ‘memory’ of optimal levels. A subconscious decision is made whether to sustain, accelerate or slow our rate and depth of breathing.
  3. That decision is relayed through the intercostal and phrenic nerves to intercostal muscles inside our rib cage and to our diaphragm, a very versatile and sophisticated muscular structure.
  4. At the time and to the extent this decision prescribes we should inhale, these diaphragm muscles contract downwards, and the intercostal muscles push out the rib cage, to an appropriate degree at an appropriate rate. 
  5. As a result of this, more room is created inside the thorax (the area inside our rib cage). The lungs, due to their natural elasticity, expand to fill this empty space.
  6. At this point, the air pressure inside the lungs has become less than that outside. If you remember Boyle’s law from high school science, you know that ‘nature abhors a vacuum’ and that the air outside will rush to find a way to move to the area with lower pressure. At this point, we can’t help but inhale.
  7. As we inhale, the air we breathe is filtered, and pollutants diverted to our digestive system for elimination.
  8. When we inhale, the lungs fill with filtered air and the oxygen in that air permeates the walls of the lungs and is taken up by adjacent blood cells in capillaries in the circulatory system for distribution throughout the body; returning blood cells excrete carbon dioxide back into the lungs. The air we exhale is not the air we just inhaled!
  9. Once a level of air pressure in the lungs has reached an equilibrium point, we stop inhaling.
  10. At this point, our diaphragm begins to bounce back to its normal (expanded) position. As it does, it forces air back out of the lungs. We can’t help but exhale. When at high levels of exertion we have to exhale more quickly or forcefully, a second set of intercostal muscles works to contract the rib cage and assist in the expulsion of air.

This is a staggeringly complex process, so it’s probably just as well we don’t have to do it consciously.

When we do intervene consciously in the process, lots of things can go wrong. When we hold our breath for a long time (perhaps because we’re underwater), we are taking advantage of the fact that the diaphragm is the only muscle in the body that is both voluntary and involuntary. So we can learn to control it, but only to a certain degree. Eventually, as the body signals the diaphragm that it is short on oxygen, our conscious and unconscious selves will be essentially warring over control of the diaphragm. Our intercostal muscles, which we can’t control voluntarily, will attempt to expel the air. The war will end, if not sooner, when we lose consciousness.

What happens when we try to control our breathing? When we breathe more deeply and slowly than we would ‘naturally’? When we use our pectoral muscles (the predominant chest muscles) these have no effect on our chest cavity or breathing (they control only arm and shoulder movement). There is no such thing as conscious “chest breathing” or “abdominal breathing” — there is only diaphragmatic breathing. When we breathe consciously, we use our partial control over our diaphragm to slow our breathing rate but increase the amount of air we intake. Pushing out your abdomen when you breathe in isn’t making room for more air there, it’s actually making more room for your diaphragm to press down into your abdomen. In addition, when we exhale consciously, we use our abdominal muscles to help expand the diaphragm to expel more air, and/or to expel air faster. Talking and singing are just refinements of the exhaling process.

Could we meditate more effectively if we could be more attuned, scientifically, to exactly what is going on in our bodies when we breathe? This is an interesting question. I tried in vain to find realistic visualizations of what our nasal passages, trachea, autonomic nervous system, intercostals, diaphragm, lungs, capillaries and abs look like when we breathe. If instead of just ‘picturing’ our breath as we meditated, we could picture the whole neuron-firing, muscle-contracting, air-filtering, rib-expanding, lung-inflating, gas-exchanging, muscle-relaxing process, would we be better able to focus specifically on that one extraordinary, autonomic, miraculous process, and achieve a meditative state of attention more effectively? If you think so, do you know anyone capable of producing a video of this kind?

This raises a broader question. I’m convinced that many of us are trapped in our heads, and trapped by the emotions that the ideas and stories in our heads trigger. As a result we are increasingly estranged from our sensuous, intuitive selves. Would being able to see pictures of what’s going on inside our own bodies, in real time, help reacquaint us with the somatic, visceral essence of ourselves, the aspect that Cohen & Stewart argue is our real, true, original self. And then, having been reacquainted, could we reintegrate this real, earthy essence with our abstract, image-inary intellectual and emotional self, and rediscover, for the first time since our brains took control of our senses and moved our selves’ HQ and identity to that tiny unreal upstairs room, what it really means to be nobody-but-ourselves?

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6 Responses to Just Breathe

  1. Nicola says:

    Interesting post, very informative. Love the visualization

  2. Jon Husband says:

    I swim long distances (2k +) almost every day.It does all of these things for me .. impossible to stay stressed after 45 minutes in the pool or ocean, great for creative thinking, ensures I sleep the sleep of the dead every night.Plus, it keeps me fit. All around a good investment of time and energy, and it’s outdoors for half the year.

  3. Ria Baeck says:

    Hello Dave, I have been reading your blog regularly since a long time, and many times it is my TV and newspaper (which I don’t have and don’t read), bringing me news from the world. Thanks for that.Many times I had the impuls to write something to you, out of my profession as a body-based psychotherapist. You wrote in this post that you are not a well-coordinated human. In my words: your awareness isn’t much in your physical body, it tends to be in your head. That’s why we get these beautiful blogposts! I would advice you not to start with meditation, as it might prove to be too difficult, but I would kindly advice you to start some bodywork that can improve your awareness in your body. One example: can you ‘feel’ your lungs move your ribcage – like in the video? I think that would be more helpful than the visualisation you propose… I hope I don’t offend you or something like that, this is genuine advice, although you didn’t ask for it. So if you don’t like it, just delete it…and please, don’t get frustrated about all the things you can’t do in the world… just do what is in your sweet spot… use your gifts in the best way… I think we can only create a better world if we try to be happy, on the soul level…

  4. long time listener first time caller says:

    “Many meditation practitioners suggest you should in some ways control your breathing — you should take deep breaths, from or filling up the abdomen, and slowly and fully expel all the air in your lungs. They are saying, in fact, that you should override the autonomic process of breathing by conscious effort.”Who said this? Vipassana, “one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation” would disagree. You do not try to control your breathing you attempt to “develop some mastery over the mind by learning to fix one’s attention on the natural reality of the ever changing flow of breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils.” -http://www.dhamma.org/en/vipassana.shtml It’s focus. Ultimately it seems to me its about letting go of control. Maybe you should try a meditation retreat?

  5. John Graham says:

    Hi Dave, it sounds like fun thing to play with, using your dominant visual perception to try and get in touch with your underdeveloped proprioception, in a biofeedbacky way. I suspect it could well hinder more than help, for several reasons.1) Part of developing somatic awareness is learning to honestly distinguish between what you are actually feeling, and what you are only picturing or “filling in” with pictures of what you think should be there. Adding imagery could just lead you to lean on visualisation more.2) Part of the Feldenkrais method as I understand it, is resting and seeing what kind of”body picture” arises. I can’t see that happening if you’re looking at a screen.”If you’re looking for the message, close your eyes…” – Neil Finn3)Looking at a screen inhibits natural eye movement, which consequently inhibits the subtle movements necessary for developing coordination and somatic awareness. (I’d better not get started on how the monomedia of people looking at screens and tapping polymer contributes to the dark and gathering sameness of the world!)4) Isn’t it incongruous to need a bionic awareness aid to become nobody-but-yourself? Imaging your breathing like this could even be seen as approaching your body with a colonising gaze…let your unconscious be your unconscious, don’t confront it violently like that, be curious and patient and tender with it.Let us know how your experimenting goes!

  6. Nicola says:

    Hi, your posts this week have been wonderful, what an incredible inspiration ! I don’t really know where to share these but they are related to your meditation bit, so here seemed good enough. There’s a couple of very interesting perspectives on meditation from martial arts blogs recently http://www.ikigaiway.com/2009/an-exploration-of-the-traditional-martial-mind/ and http://urbansamurai.org.uk/mind-training/mind-training-martial-artists-part-2-meditation/

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