How (and Why) You Should Take a Few Mindful Breaths Each Day

It's normal for the mind to wander, but it can keep us stuck in autopilot mode.

Eugenio Marongiu/Dollar Photo Club

The untamed mind is sometimes likened to a drunken monkey that’s been bitten by a scorpion. In a chaotic bid to run from its pain, the monkey leaps from tree to tree, frantically seeking relief. It cannot be still, even for a moment.

There are advantages to this. Mind and body mechanisms have evolved to deal with threats to survival, so when we’re faced with approaching fire or an assailant with a weapon, the monkey mind reacts fast.

But there are drawbacks. Working at speed, the autopilot takes mental shortcuts and makes guesses, unconsciously based on what’s happened before, rather than a full appreciation of the here and now. We’re seeing situations with eyes of the past, simultaneously projecting into a possible future as we imagine likely dangers and rewards. We learn from, and are limited by, past experience.

Working at speed, the autopilot takes mental shortcuts and makes guesses, unconsciously based on what’s happened before, rather than a full appreciation of the here and now.

How can we experience things more accurately? We need to learn how to pay attention. It’s a bit like having a camera that doesn’t seem to be working—if the pictures it takes of your living room are fuzzy, do you go and buy new furniture? Or do you examine the settings on the camera, and how you’re holding it? The camera of the mind is powerful, and yet most of us don’t learn how to use it properly.

Many studies have found that long-term meditators perform better in tasks designed to test attention, as do relative novices after they’ve taken a mindfulness course. This suggests attention is a skill we can learn. After a few months of mindfulness training, people are more aware of things in their environment that might not otherwise be seen consciously. One study found that after just eight minutes of mindfulness practice, study participants were better able to pay attention and their minds wandered less.

Because the mind is so used to wandering off, a good way to train attention is to practice placing and re-placing it on a simple object, such as the breath. Below is a mindfulness of breathing practice to follow—there’s more guidance on working with this in Mindfulness: How To Live Well By Paying Attention. And some more reasons for paying attention to breathing in this earlier blog.

Practice: Mindfulness of Breathing

1. Posture: Find a place where you can sit comfortably, perhaps on a chair with a firm seat, one that’s low enough for the feet to be flat on the floor. Place hands on the thighs. If possible, sit with the spine self-supporting, so you aren’t leaning on the backrest of the chair (unless you know you need extra support). You can close the eyes, or have them open, perhaps letting the gaze fall downwards, a few feet in front of the body.

2. Following the breath: Bring attention to breathing. Feel the breath moving in and out of the body—tuning in to its rhythm and flow. Feel the texture of the breath in the belly, and the movements of the abdominal wall with each inhalation and exhalation.

You don’t have to breathe deeply—just let the breath happen as it happens.

3. Working with wandering: You’ll probably notice the attention sometimes wanders to some other object. Or you might find yourself thinking about the breath, or analyzing the benefits of mindful breathing, or telling yourself you’re doing this well or badly, or wondering what’s going to happen next, or wanting to stop. Simply acknowledge that the wandering has happened, and gently bring attention back to breathing. You don’t need to berate yourself or see distraction as a problem or failure—each time you notice the mind has wandered, you’ve already come back to mindfulness. You might like to congratulate yourself when you notice the wandering, and choose to come back to the breath.