In many of our guided meditations, we guide people first to breathe deeply, to help settle the mind, and then to let the breath return to its natural rhythm, letting go of any control of the breath. We’ve had several people saying that if they are paying attention to the breath, they can’t let go of this sense of controlling it.
Firstly, it is not something to worry about. Mindfulness is paying attention to whatever is going on in our current experience, with acceptance and non-judgement. So we can just pay attention to any feeling that we are controlling the breath, with openness and curiosity.
We do know that our breath can continue without our conscious control of it. When we sleep, or when we are consumed in conversation or some other activity, we don’t control our breath, it just happens.
That is the interesting thing about the breath, it is something that our body does automatically, but we can also take control of. Some bodily functions are not like this. For example, we can’t take control of the beating of our heart, or the growing of our hair. The breath is similar to our thoughts. We seem to be able to consciously direct our thoughts, but we can also sit and watch thoughts arise, apparently spontaneously.
That is what makes the breath an interesting object for meditation.
But, it seems that some of us cannot watch our breath without having the sensation that we are controlling it. I’ve just been reading The Ego Tunnel by Thomas Metzinger, and he gives a possible explanation for this. He says:
“When certain processing stages are elevated to the level of conscious experience and bound into the self-model active in your brain, they become available for all your mental capacities. Now you experience them as your own thoughts, decisions, or urges to act - as properties that belong to you, the person as a whole.”
In other words, when we become aware of certain thoughts or experiences, they become part of our sense of self, making them feel like they belong to us as a whole person. So maybe that’s exactly what happens to some of us when we pay attention to our breath.
Whether we feel we are controlling our breath or not, let’s just watch it with curiosity and kindness as part of the present moment.