Zen Breathing – How to Calm Your Emotions and Think Like the Buddha

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If you suffer from anxiety, panic attacks, or your stress levels are through the roof, Zen Breathing could be the key to help you regain control. And it can make a huge difference in minutes…

It is a technique that is simple to learn and has changed the lives of hundreds of people I’ve personally worked with over the years, from better sleep and a sense of calm throughout the day, to clear thinking, focused concentration, and improved performance..

On this page I’d like to tell you how I stumbled upon this ancient technique more than 30 years ago and how to practise it yourself.

It’s time to calm down and think like the Buddha!

Zen Breathing to calm your emotional brain
Original Image: Jan Kopriva

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The failure of the medical model

Just before I tell you about Zen Breathing, I’d like to share the back story…

In the days when I worked for Social Services, I sometimes had to administer Diazepam to people. The drug would have an effect but usually took about half an hour to work. Thirty minutes is a long time if you suffer from anxiety or panic attacks!

This is really a failure of the medical model, of course; the idea that the best thing to do to fix conditions like anxiety and depression is to hand out a drug.

Sure, the drugs do work for some, but for many people I’ve seen over the years the opposite is true. Either nothing changes or the symptoms get worse. I often wondered to myself, ‘surely there must be something that works better than this?’

I thus began a search that would lead me down an unexpected path…

Breathing techniques for anxiety

I started studying and practising yoga, meditation, and deep breathing techniques which helped me combat my own anxieties and insecurities.

I thought to myself, ‘if it can help me, surely it can help others.’

Although the breathing technique I’m about to share with you might not address underlying causes of strong emotions (which may be rooted in your past) it will help you to lower the intensity of the emotion as it occurs in the present.

The breathing will return to normal, your heart rate will slow down, and your thoughts will stop racing when the mind-body system returns to a state of equilibrium.

When mastered, this ancient breathing technique will help you to quickly calm down wherever you are – within a few minutes.

Let me introduce you to Zen Breathing and how I stumbled upon this ancient technique…

Buddha figure with candles
Original Image: Moody Walk

The Zen Master and the wisdom of the Buddha

So, by my mid 20s I’d become immersed in psychology, mysticism, and altered states. I attended a week-long meditation retreat where I was taught methods that had been passed down – purportedly – since the days of the Buddha.

A visiting Chinese Zen Master sat down beside me on the first morning. He proceeded to hold a tiny feather under my nose before whispering in my ear, “When you breathe out, feather must not move!”

Although his name has long since gone from my memory, his words have stayed like an eternal echo.

I sat motionless, focusing on my breathing, making sure my outbreath was as gentle as I could make it.

It took a bit of practise to get right but after a few minutes the Zen Master was satisfied with my efforts and moved onto the next disciple. The most noticeable thing for me was a sense of calmness – achieved within just two minutes.

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Zen Breathing and Vipassana meditation

What I didn’t realise at the time was that we were being taught a method known as Vipassana meditation (1). This became the bedrock of those seven days; sitting in silence, focusing on the breathing.

My mind would wander for much of the time but, like most meditation techniques, with practise I learned to gently return my attention to what I was supposed to be focusing on – the longer outbreath.

It struck me at the time as being different to many of the breathing techniques I’d already learned (from books). These other methods mostly instructed ‘square breathing’ i.e. breathe in for 4, hold for 4, breathe out for 4.

The emphasis with Zen Breathing – at least in the way I was shown – was on the longer outbreath.

I felt an inner calm like no other, my mind was still, and I felt really present, really alive to each moment as it unfolded.

Understanding how Zen Breathing really works

Can it really be that simple to achieve inner calm, I wondered?

It wasn’t until much later in my training with the Human Givens Institute (2) that I understood how and why Zen Breathing works so well.

Joe Griffin, co-founder of the institute, taught me what he called the ‘7/11 breathing technique’. I immediately recognised its similarities to what I’d been taught by my Zen Master.

With ‘7/11’ you breathe in to a mental count of 7 and out to a count of 11. The numbers are arbitrary, of course; you might prefer to breathe in to a count of 3 and out to 5. It doesn’t matter, as long as the outbreath is longer, much as my Zen Master had taught me.

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How does a longer outbreath calm the body?

If we consider the physiological effects, it’s easy to understand how and why Zen Breathing works…

The longer outbreath stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (known better as the relaxation response). The body simply has to start relaxing when the outbreath is longer (3).

But it’s not just the body that starts to relax with Zen Breathing…

When your mind is focused on counting numbers (breathing in to 7 and out to 11) you have to use the logical/rational part of the brain, the part that is separate from the part that’s doing the emotional arousal.

This prevents you from slipping into an emotional trance state because you’re retaining a connection to the logical brain – the higher cortex.

The Monkey Mind and faulty car alarms

I often refer to the emotional brain as the Monkey Mind or the Survival Brain, which creates unnecessarily high emotional arousal.

The truth is that for most of your life you’ll never need such high levels of anxiety. There is no tiger running after you.

The Monkey Mind ramps up your adrenaline as a way to protect you from perceived danger. It is rather like a faulty car alarm going off when something brushes past.

The fear response – the adrenaline rush – is created by the ‘Monkey’ in order to help you to escape the situation; to run away or fight your way to safety. (The Monkey Mind’s main task, of course, is to ensure your survival).

But anxiety and panic are instant hypnotisers. They focus your attention so intensely that they hijack your intelligence.

RELATED CONTENT: The fatal flaw in CBT: Why you can’t just think yourself better

Trance states and false identities

Of course, in time this over-reaction to situations becomes habitual to the point that you over-identify with it. You end up referring to yourself as, “an anxious person,” or say things like, “I’ve always been nervous.”

But these labels – these symptoms – are not who you are; they are the emotional trance states that you’ve become overly attached to. They say nothing about who you truly are as a human being.

This is another benefit from practising Zen Breathing. Not only will it calm the mind-body but you’ll also re-establish your true identity – free from the trance.

Zen Breathing de-hypnotises you from emotional trances. It gets you out of panic/anxiety/depression mode and reconnects you to your true essence as a human being.

Once calmer, the rational brain can see things more clearly, like when a snow globe eventually settles down and you can see the whole scene, free from the ‘emotional distortions’ of the Monkey Mind.

Remove your trance identity and rediscover the real you…

First steps to self-mastery

Freeing yourself from the tyranny of the Monkey Mind is the first of my 10 steps to self-mastery.

If you’re suffering with nerves, anxiety, depression, or sleep problems, I’d recommend practising Zen Breathing for 10 – 15 minutes two or three times a day to help lower general stress levels.

Calming your mind and changing your own reactions opens up a world of new possibilities and opportunities.

With the survival brain under control, you’ll be more able to unlock your potential as well as expand your consciousness and awaken your soul.

Indeed, if we’re to continue to evolve as a species I see it as the vital next step on the ladder. We all need to master our trance states – how to go in and, more importantly, how to come out of trance (if it’s no longer serving us).

RELATED CONTENT: The Observing Self: how to step out of negative trances

Zen Breathing in everyday life

Once mastered, you can use Zen Breathing in all types of situations, not just when sitting or lying down…

I’ve used it just before going on stage to play music or speak in public. I’ve even used it whilst driving when the traffic is hectic.

Many clients have reported improved quality of sleep.

Zen Breathing can also help calm exam nerves, alleviate performance anxiety such as back-stage nerves, and stop panic attacks.

Indeed, at any time when you feel the emotional brain is unnecessarily trying to hypnotize you, Zen Breathing can serve as your master resource.

I hope you’ve found this page entertaining and informative. What breathing techniques have you found helpful? Let me know in the comments below. And if you’ve used Zen/7-11 Breathing I’d love to hear how you got on with it.

If you’d like personal help with anxiety conditions book a 20 minute Free Discovery Session with me.

Got questions about hypnosis and hypnotherapy? See my hypnosis FAQ page.

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Notes and further research

(1) Vipassana meditation What Exactly Is Vipassana Meditation? (tricycle.org)

(2) The Human Givens Institute Human Givens Institute: Holistic & Scientific Approach To Your Needs (hgi.org.uk)

(3) The parasympathetic nervous system The Parasympathetic Nervous System Explained (healthline.com)

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