If your emotions are all over the place at the minute – stress, anxiety, anger and the like – Zen Breathing is a powerful technique to help you regain control.
In this article I’ll tell you how I stumbled upon it – from an ancient Buddhist teaching – and how it works.
It is simple to do and has changed the lives of hundreds of people I’ve personally worked with over the years.
But just before I tell you how to do Zen Breathing let me take you back twenty five years…
The failure of the medical model
In the days when I worked for Suffolk Social Services, I sometimes had to administer Diazepam to people. The drug would have an effect, for sure, but there was often a thirty-minute delay before any noticeable calm was seen in the patient.
Thirty minutes is a long time if you suffer from anxiety or panic attacks, fearing that you can’t breathe, that you’re going crazy or even that you’re about to die from a heart attack.
This is really a failure of the medical model, of course; that all we have to do to fix conditions like anxiety and depression is to hand out a drug.
Sure, sometimes the drugs work 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 more reliably than this?’ I thus began a search that would lead me down an unexpected route.
The Zen Master and wisdom of the Buddha
Like Mindfulness, the technique I’m about to share with you might not address underlying causes of anxiety, anger, or panic which may be rooted in your past. But it will help you to lower emotional intensity as it occurs in the present.
And when mastered, it can help you to quickly calm down – within minutes – and regain control of your emotional brain. And the good news is that it’s simple to learn.
Let me introduce you to Zen Breathing and how I stumbled upon this ancient technique…
“When you breathe out…”
Back in my twenties, having already 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 – whose name I can no longer remember – sat down beside me early 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, the sound of his voice has stayed with me, like an eternal echo. I sat motionless, focusing on my breathing and the feather, making sure my outbreath was as gentle as I could make it.
It took a bit of practise to get it right but after a few minutes the Zen Master moved onto the next disciple, satisfied with my efforts.
What I didn’t realise at the time was that we were being taught a method known as Vipassana meditation. This became the bedrock of those seven days; sitting in silence, focusing on the breath, and especially making the outbreath long and gentle.
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 breathing.
I felt an inner calm like no other, my mind was still, and I felt really present, really alive to the each moment as it unfolded.
Understanding how this really works
Can it really be that simple to achieve inner calm?
It wasn’t until much later in my training with the Human Givens Institute that I understood how and why this technique works so well.
Joe Griffin, one of the founders 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.
This serves two purposes…
Firstly, when the outbreath is longer you actually turn on the body’s relaxation response (what is known as the parasympathetic nervous system). The body simply has to relax when the outbreath is longer.
And secondly, when you are focusing on numbers 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.
I often refer to this as Monkey Mind or the Survival Brain, creating unnecessarily high emotional arousal.
Faulty car alarms
The truth, of course, is that for the most part you’ll never need such high levels of anxiety.
Most of the anxiety you’ll ever feel throughout your life – if not all of it – is unnecessary. There is no tiger running after you.
For the most part, the Monkey Mind or the Survival Brain is simply over-reacting or over-protecting you from perceived danger. It is doing its job too well!
It is rather like a faulty car alarm, going off when someone or something just brushes past.
The fear response – the adrenaline rush – is created by the ‘Monkey’ in order to get 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.
Anxiety and panic are instant hypnotisers, focusing your attention so intensely that the rest of the world seems to disappear into the background.
Trance states and false identities
Of course, in time this over-reaction can become a habitual response to the point that you over-identify with it. You end up referring to yourself as, “an anxious person,” or, “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 where Zen Breathing can help you calm down, dis-identify yourself from the trance and start to regain control of your life.
Zen Breathing as a form of de-hypnosis
What Zen Breathing does is de-hypnotize you! It gets you out of panic mode and ensures you stay in your human brain, not ape-brain.
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.
And once free, you actually create spare brain capacity so that you can perform much more competently and confidently in all walks of life.
First steps to self-mastery
Freeing yourself from the tyranny of the Monkey Mind is the first step on the path to self-mastery. Learning to control your own psychology opens up a world of new opportunities and adventures.
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 if the trance is not serving us.
So, I’d recommend practicing Zen Breathing or 7-11 at least once a day for a few minutes. Simply make the outbreath longer as you focus on the numbers.
You might like to check out this hypnosis download to help you master the technique so that you can relax and feel more in control – whatever the situation.
Use ‘zen’ whenever needed!
And, once mastered, you can use Zen Breathing in all types of situations, not just when sitting down. I’ve used it just before going on stage to help calm nerves. I’ve even used it whilst driving.
Many clients have reported enormous benefits when it comes to going to sleep or getting back to sleep if awoken during the night.
It can help calm exam or test nerves, alleviate performance anxiety such as back-stage nerves, and help you perform better in things like public speaking or giving presentations.
Indeed, at any time when you feel the emotional brain is unnecessarily trying to hypnotize you, Zen Breathing can serve as a master resource.
Here are three books related to this subject that will all help you understand your own trance states…