Creating Harmony With Breath Awareness

Add to favorites

Can breathwork and mindful awareness help you cultivate well-being and lead to a harmonious state of mind? Dan Siegel, codirector of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA and a leader in the field of contemplative neuroscience, explains how breath awareness works.

By Dan Siegel

Mindfulness involves attuning to our own intention. Of course, mindfulness itself is an intentional state, so we could say that this creates the following tongue twister: An intention to pay attention to intention to be mindful. This appears to be a reentry loop of mental reinforcement that lies at the heart of the experience. Intention to attend to intention.

An example of this kind of intrapersonal attunement would be the practice of breath awareness. You are aware of your in-breath. The mirror neuron (a neuron that fires both when a person performs an action and when the person observes the same action performed by another) and superior temporal areas (which play a significant role in the executive attention network of the brain) as a part of the resonance circuits, automatically—through SIMA (sensory implications of motor action)—anticipate the out-breath.

With a beat of time, the out-breath indeed comes and there is a match between what was anticipated and what is happening. That matching creates coherence. Naturally the awareness of the out-breath entrains an anticipation of the in-breath, which when it comes, integrates SIMA with here-and-now awareness and reflective coherence is created. This may be why the breath is such a powerful, and common, focus of mindful awareness. It is also interesting to note that each relaxed half breath takes about the interval D. N. Stern (The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life. New York: W. W. Norton, 2003) defines as the present moment.

We could predict a similar process for nonmoving objects of attention, like a rock or even a mental image of a person or deity. In this case, the SIMA creates a stationary image of what is anticipated with that intentional state. The point is that the neural representation of self-intentions enables the SIMA process, with mindful awareness, to create reflective coherence. 

We pay attention, focusing awareness on a very specific mental process: our own intentional state. This focus of awareness, when created in a process of clarity, then creates a dual-matching system in which we have a neural map of intentions (a product in part of our mirror neurons and superior temporal cortex) and we have the sensory map of the carried out action in our focus. Whether that sensory map is moving, as in our awareness of breathing, or stationary, as with an image, we create a match between sensory map and intentional map.

Further, we actually have a recursive map of ourselves maintaining a focus of attention, intentionally, on our intentions. Breathing in, breathing out, we have a match of ourselves as the focus of attention, and the map of ourselves with the intention to attend, and the anticipated next step in the sequence: During the out-breath, we are readied for the in-breath, and then it arrives, and the mapping matches. With the in-breath, the same anticipatory priming occurs, the match takes place, and with continued intentional attention, the sequence repeats. That matching set of maps creates integration and a deep feeling of wholeness, of harmony.

This may be why something as "simple" as breath awareness has been found in so many cultures as a basic approach toward well-being.

Breath is a fundamental part of life. Breathing is initiated by deep brainstem structures and is impacted directly by our emotional states. Yet breath can also be intentional. And for all of these reasons, breath awareness brings us to the heart of our lives. We come to the borderline between automatic and effortful, between body and mind. Perhaps for each of these reasons, pathways toward health include the mindful focus on the breath as a starting point on the journey. 

Sensation and intention are dual representations mapped coherently on each other. The SIMA priming of the mirror neuron system and related areas then is a proposed mechanism by which we can imagine that mindful awareness might create internal attunement and coherence in the mind. Such a resonant state may have a deep sensation of fullness and stability that comes with coherence, that resonant and harmonious state of mind.

Excerpted from The Mindful Brain by Daniel J. Siegel. Copyright © 2007 by Mind Your Brain, Inc.