Dear Elise: How should I breathe when I meditate?

In the Dear Elise series, Dr Elise Bialylew answers your questions about mindful meditation and neurology. Got your own question about meditation? Send your questions to Elise here.

Question: How should I breathe when I meditate?

Dear Elise,

I have tried meditating off and on over the years. Listening to guided meditations are helpful. Trying to do stuff on my own has been challenging. Whenever I focus on my breath, I control my breath. I simply can’t seem to let it do what it wants. Probably says way too much about me, but I have really tried. As soon as I’m conscious of my breath, I control it or I don’t breath. Or that’s how it seems.

My life is so super stressful right now, the only way I’m going to get through this with good health is if I can take a different approach to it. The circumstances aren’t going away, so I need to be able to handle it… with grace preferably.

Thank you for writing The Happiness Plan.

Elise’s answer:

Hi fellow life traveller,

I’m so sorry to hear about the stressful situation you are in right now. We all go through these very challenging times but it can feel so lonely can’t it? I’m glad you found the book. I hope it offers you some tools and support at this very difficult time.

First, the issue you’re having with focusing on your breath is actually a really common challenge. You are not alone and you are not doing it ‘badly’.

Try this: See if you can just be with the breath as it is. If you notice yourself controlling it, simply allow this control to happen. Don’t fight it or resist it. As the great meditation teacher Adyashanti says, surrender to everything, resist nothing.

You can assure yourself that nothing will happen, it’s just an uncomfortable sensation. See if you can stay with it and see if you can even bring curiosity to this sensation of controlling the breath. Imagine you’re really interested in this phenomenon as a more objective observer.

Notice whether this uncomfortable feeling stays the same from moment to moment. See if you can let go of the resistance to wanting things to be other than what they are. Most importantly, activate self-compassion and a friendly, gentle attitude towards yourself.

Can you make room for the discomfort associated with the breath? It doesn’t feel comfortable but just allow it to be as it is. If it becomes too unmanageable, of course, don’t stay in it. This is where you need to find the line between safely challenging yourself to develop greater “discomfort resilience,” as Pema Chodron calls it, and being kind to yourself and recognising that it’s too much. This discerning skill is one that helps not just in meditation but also in your everyday life. If it does feel too challenging, you can choose to just stay with the guided sound meditation I offer in the book. This allows you to focus your attention outward rather than inward – this can be helpful.

Sharon Salzberg, a wonderful American meditation teacher says, “Meditation is a microcosm, a model, a mirror. The skills we practice when we sit are transferable to the rest of our lives.” As we learn how to stay with the discomfort that inevitably arises during meditation in various forms, we also develop the skill of becoming more emotionally resilient and equanimous when challenges and discomfort inevitably arise in our lives.

Your life is super stressful right now. Can you become your own best friend at this difficult time? Offer yourself love and compassion for the difficulty you are facing almost as you are your own parent looking after your inner child. This way you begin to have a loving relationship with yourself in the face of this hardship.




"If we wish to be healthy, happy and clear-minded, we need to upgrade our “inner technology”of attention to meet the demands of our increasingly complex world. That's where mindfulness comes in.."




Elise Bialylew is the author of the bestselling book, The Happiness Plan, and founder of Mindful in May, the world’s largest online global mindfulness fundraising campaign.

A doctor trained in psychiatry, turned social entrepreneur and mindfulness expert, she’s passionate about supporting individuals and organisations to develop inner tools for greater wellbeing and flourishing, and offers workshops and training at The Mind Life Project.

Her work has been featured in the Huffington Post, New York Times and on Australian Television. She was recently recognised by the Australian Financial Review as a 2019 AFR Women of Influence.

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