Clicking Back to the Breath

I’ve written before about being an imperfect meditator. There are days when the narrative running through my head is never-ending and refuses to be silenced.

However, I found something that helps while I was playing a meditation game called “Playne” (about which I’ll write in the future). One aspect of this game is that it allows you to mark the occurrence of a thought by clicking the mouse button.

As soon as you realize you’re not focused on your breath, you click the button, and the program makes a pleasant little noise.

The concept is similar to that of a meditation bell except you decide when the “bell” sounds.

As simple as this sounds, it has made a huge difference in my meditation practice. Not only does it help me recognize when I’ve drifted away, but that little sound is very effective at bringing me back to the breath. Instead of gradually floating back to breath awareness, I immediately wake up into the present moment.

It’s as if the sound plants a sonic flag at the point where realization hits and that speeds my return.

This is not unlike a meditation bell that sounds at regular intervals and invites you back into focus. However, the benefit from the sound in my meditation game comes from teaching self-awareness and presence, because I ring it when I myself identify the thought. In mindfulness meditation, we are taught to note the thought inside our head, but in my opinion, the sound helps it “stick”.

Over the past weeks, I’ve become quicker in releasing the thoughts and returning to the breath. The more I practice, the stronger the habit of regaining focus quickly becomes.

While it’s not feasible for me to hold all my meditation sessions within the confines of a game, I’ve found that there are other means of marking my thoughts. Clicking a retractable pen works similarly to the sound in “Playne”. The “click” is just enough to bring attention to itself without being disruptive

Something as simple as the clicking sound of a retractable pen can serve the purpose of noting a thought an d bringing you back to the breath.

Other gadgets that can work? Anything that delivers a distinct sonic note. Tapping a hard surface with the edge of a coin would serve the purpose. Or a hand tally counter that one might use to count people coming through an entrance. A quick search of phone apps reveals a number of tally counter apps if you don’t have access to the handheld mechanical device.

But it’s important to remember that the point of this is not to get obsessed about how many thoughts you had during a particular meditation. What you want is a little sound, like a gentle beep or click, to make you more aware of the thought.

Next time you are finding it hard to focus on your breath, grab a pen, a coin, open an app on your phone…even snapping your fingers may serve as your thought marker. It may be that little extra something that helps you back to the present all that more quickly.

Mental Grounding Through the Roof of Your Mouth

Okay, this is going to sound weird, but I’ve found that this really works.

A little background: in the midst of a stressful situation, I struggle with staying present and grounded. While I try to focus on and slow my breathing, that can be ineffective, since my heart is often beating quickly and, you guessed it, focusing on my breath brings me to close to my heart. It’s hard to ignore the pounding.

I’ve written before about turning attention to the extremities, in particular the hands and feet, feeling into the sensations there, since they are as far as you can get from your heart and still be in your body.

But most of us are very aware of our hands and even our feet since we get signals from them all day long as we manipulate objects and walk around. It’s not a new sensation. Even digging your nails into the palm of your hands may end up as a stressor of its own (ow!).

Granted, we’re not hippos. But IF we were, we would have a whole lotta palate to explore!

However, one place in our body that can still elicit novel sensations is the roof of the mouth. Even for someone like me, who often scratches my palate with hard veggie stems and uses my tongue to feel around up there, the ridges and other surfaces still seem new and unexplored.

Imagine that you’re drawing a topographical map of the inside of the mouth: feel where the teeth sit in the gums, and the hard area to the inside of the teeth traveling deeper in, how that hard ridge drops off into the concave part of the hard palate, curving up and then softening into the soft palate.

One of the supposed benefits of stroking the roof of the mouth with the tongue is that doing so can purportedly stimulate the vagus nerve, and thereby the parasympathetic nervous system, because the vagus nerve rests close to the surface of the inside of the mouth. All of this may have a calming effect, which is exactly what you’re looking for.

Just thinking about the sourness of biting into a lemon makes my salivary glands go bonkers!

It’s also worth noting that in the throes of stressful situations, our mouths tend to dry out. Something to try the next time you’re anxious and cotton-mouthed: elicit salivation by simply thinking about something extremely sour–imagine biting into a slice of lemon. Try that now, visualize it as realistically as you can, and chances are your salivary glands will respond. Mine are just writing about this!

When you are able to focus on bodily sensations you bring yourself back to the reality of the here and now. It removes you from the fear of what may be, and gives you the opportunity to come back to Earth, take a deep breath and carry on.

So next time you are feeling overwhelmed, see if you can allow the novelty of the roof of your mouth to buy you some breathing room.

The Magic of the Exhale

If there is one thing that I can point to that has had the most profound effect on my reaction to anxiety-provoking stimuli, and also brought more calm into my entire day, it is deep, diaphragmatic breathing.

Diaphragmatic breathing (sometimes referred to as “belly breathing”) is an effective way to bring air into the lungs than simply inhaling into the chest. As the belly pushes outward, it pulls the diaphragm down, allowing the lungs to fully inflate.

This deep breath, in conjunction with my favorite breathing pattern — Dr. Andrew Weil’s 4-count inhale, 7-count hold, 8-count exhale — is what I call my magic pill. I have found this type of breathing to be very soothing. Dr. Weil based the 4-7-8 pattern on pranayama, an ancient yogic breathing technique, but the benefits are well-supported by modern science (Gerritsen & Band, 2018, Front Hum Neurosci, for example).

Neuroscientifically Challenged presents a short video introduction to the vagus nerve: “2-Minute Neuroscience: Vagus Nerve (Cranial Nerve X)“. It’s everything you never knew you really needed to know about the vagus nerve.

For me, it is the extended exhalation that is key. When the length of the exhale equals or particularly exceeds that of the inhale, a signal is sent to the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve, and the longest one, running from the brain down to the abdomen, innervating a number of major organs along the way. The vagus nerve is also a major part of the parasympathetic nervous system (think: “rest and digest”) (Breit et al., 2017, Front Psychiatry).

The extended exhale has been shown to increase heart rate variability (HRV), slow down the heart rate itself and relax the body. HRV “represents the healthy fluctuation in beat-to-beat intervals of a human or animal’s heart rate. … Higher HRV is associated with stronger vagus nerve function, lower chronic stress levels, better overall health, and improved cognition” (Bergland, 2019, Psychology Today).

When I notice that I’m rushing through my day or experience wakefulness in the middle of the night, I have learned to turn my attention to my breath. Regardless of whether or not I’m feeling anxious, I often find myself breathing more rapidly and shallowly (chest breathing). As soon as I become aware of this, I take a deep, diaphragmatic breath and deliberately extend the exhale.

That first deep breath makes me realize how much I needed to slow things down.

That first deep breath is like putting the breaks on a runaway locomotive. It make take several more breaths to fall into that full pattern. I don’t force it — I simply allow each breath to be slower and deeper than the previous one. The sense of grounding feels amazing. I keep a lot of tension in my neck and shoulders, so I take care to release those muscles with each exhale. The result is that I feel a gentle sinking and relaxing.

One of the ways that I’ve benefitted most significantly by taking a “breath break” like this is that it has linked my formal, “on-the-cushion” meditation to the rest of my life. Even after I had established a daily meditation practice, I struggled to bring that same sense of calm into the rest of my day. Breathwork was the missing piece of the puzzle.

This deep breathing slows the overwhelming rush of sensations and provides an immediate connection to “now”, inviting stillness and spaciousness. Noticing my breathing in the midst of chaos exercises mindfulness. All this results in a sense of contentment and well-being.

Who wouldn’t want that?

How Do You Want To Feel?

I’ve really been enjoying a guided meditation on Insight Timer by Australian trainer and life coach Emma Polette, entitled “Morning Visualisation Meditation”. In fact, it’s been the first meditation that I’ve done every morning for the past month. What makes me like it so much? It reminds me that I can choose the emotional state with which I enter into my day.

Emma facilitates this by instructing the listener to “allow yourself to feel how to want to feel today.” I love this concept! So many of us want to be calm or happy or courageous, but we look at it as a cognitive endeavor and get nowhere with it. Emma reminds us to actually feel what it feels like. If my goal is to feel peaceful, then I imagine what it would feel like, if I were actually peaceful – I generate those feelings in my body.

By feeling into the sensations of a positive state, we can lessen the severity of negative emotions. It takes consistency and practice, but is worth the effort.

This takes practice and focus, but the payoff is wonderful. Think of it as establishing a new habit – repetition is necessary in order to seal it into your daily routine. The more you bring up those feelings in your body and really feel into all the different sensations associated with them, the easier it is to invoke that feeling the next time. And that next time might be a time of stress, when you’re in particular need of soothing.

Just as you may associate a meditation cushion with a sense of grounding, or a certain time of the day with a mindful mood because that’s when you always meditate, you can also improve your ability to bring up positive sensations that help keep you present and calm. All it takes is consistent practice.

I should mention that this is not to suggest that if you’re feeling strong negative emotions or succumbing to anxiety it’s a flaw of some kind. There will be numerous occasions when we get swept up by distressing thoughts. Sometimes it will be hard to release them. And that’s okay.

But I find it very empowering to start my day in a positive frame of mind, knowing that I am not helpless against stressors. Just as how in mindfulness meditation when we realize that we’ve lost focus and have slipped down a rabbit hole, we simply return to the breath, we can also notice how it feels in our bodies to experience stress or anger or whatever negative emotion settles down on us.

It might be a tightness in the chest that shortens our breath and sends our heart racing. It might be a cold sensation in our stomach and lower abdomen that elicits nausea, or it may be a hot flush that toasts our cheeks. With the awareness of what we are experiencing in the moment, we can gently breathe through those bodily sensations, relax the agitation and then remember how it would feel to feel the more pleasant sensations that we’ve practiced every morning.

How would you rather be feeling right now? Can you feel it?