Building Awareness Through the Breath

Mallorca Sunset from Costa D'Or. Copy.JPG

Awareness is like the sun, when it shines on things, they are transformed.         ~Thich Nhat Hanh

Last week’s Experimenting with Mindfulness post noted that awareness is one of the central elements and benefits of mindfulness. Awareness has three key focus areas:

  1. Self
  2. Others
  3. Surroundings

Awareness of self involves turning inward, of pausing enough to see what you are experiencing and explore what you would like to be creating in the world. Awareness of others includes realizing the impact of your actions on others and paying attention to the quality of your relationships – essentially moving your attention from yourself to others. Awareness of surroundings is about tuning in to your environment and understanding the context in which life is happening. With these forms of awareness comes an amazing ability to move with grace through change and chaos.

Mindfulness is a way of awakening these kinds of awareness, and there are infinite ways to practice mindfulness. Here, we’ll explore how you can use your breath to create greater awareness. Primarily, we’ll focus on two approaches: observing your breath and focusing your breath.

Observing your Breath

Wherever you are, simply bring your attention to your breath. Experience each breath as it happens. You can gently close your eyes, if you wish. You might focus on the sensation of the air moving into your nostrils or how your belly or chest gently rises and falls. The goal is to notice, simply pay attention to your breathing, without changing it, without judging it. It’s natural for our minds to wander – distracted, for example, by sounds around us or feelings that arise, and that’s OK. Just observe them and then refocus on your breathing.

You can do this for a few seconds or as many minutes as you like. You can do it spontaneously while waiting for something, like your kettle to whistle or your app to run, or you can do it intentionally and set a timer for some period of time. At whatever point you decide to stop and notice your breath, simple observe, continually bringing your attention back to your breath when it wanders. It’s like building a muscle, each time you pause and notice, you are building your capacity to notice.  If inspired to do so, you can gradually increase the time you spend simply observing your breath. If you’d like, you can follow this 5-minute guided meditation practice from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center.

When you feel life is out of focus, always return to the basics of life: Breathing. No breath, no life. ~Unknown

Focusing on Your Breath

You will find a variety of breathing techniques online. One that I find effective for holding my focus is Alternate Nostril Breathing. (Note that you should avoid alternate nostril breathing if you have a cold or if your nasal passages are blocked in any way.) To get started, sit in a relaxed yet attentive position, whatever that means to you. Gently close your eyes, if you wish.

  • Use the fingers on your right hand – your thumb and index fingers may work best
  • Use your index finger to close your left nostril and breath in the right nostril
  • Close the right nostril with your thumb and remove your index finger from the left nostril as you breathe out
  • With the thumb continuing to hold the right nostril closed, breathe in the left nostril
  • Then close the left nostril with your index finger and breathe out the right nostril
  • Repeat this sequence, breathing in and out of each nostril in turn

As with observing your breath, expect that your attention to wander. The mind is always active and naturally gets busy. Remember, that’s normal; it’s what our brains do. When it happens, just bring your attention back to the alternate nostril breathing cycle.

You can experiment with this breathing approach by breathing in and out as gently as possible, or breathing in and out very intentionally such that you pull air deep into your lungs and belly and release it out through your mouth with a sound like you’re fogging up a mirror. When we practice this technique with a moderate breath – not too softly or too forcefully – a circular rhythm sometimes opens, which can be very soothing. If you’d like, you can follow Lisa Hedley’s Just Sit guided Alternate Nostril Breathing meditation that provides instruction and guides you through a 5-minute practice.

May the awareness that is the heart of all transformation awaken in you.


I’m celebrating mindfulness in May with a weekly mindfulness blog. Last week, provided a brief introduction to mindfulness, and upcoming posts will focus on building mindful mini-habits, and mindful appreciation.

A version of this blog was originally posted on IBM’s recruitment web site in February 2016 and was a collaborative endeavor with Megan Moyer.

Other Leading with Intention posts related to mindfulness:

* I took this photo at sunset from Deia, Mallorca, Spain.

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Author: Vicki L Flaherty

I am most alive when I am creating, whether through writing, photography, gardening, cooking, crafting, sewing, yoga. I enjoy traveling because it opens me to greater awareness and new possibilities. I find a special joy when I’ve helped someone see their brilliance and express their full potential. As I've focused on living more mindfully, I've found special joy in expressing myself through poetry and photography, and in truly being in relationship with those I meet along my journey.

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