Zen Breathing – An Ancient Technique to Help Calm Your Emotions

If your emotional brain is causing havoc in your life right now, please take a moment to read this article. I’ll introduce you to an ancient method – which I call Zen Breathing – that has changed the lives of hundreds of people I’ve personally worked with over the years.

What I’m about to share with you can help calm your emotions quickly and feel in control once more.

But just before you learn how to do this and calm your emotional brain, 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 give you a drug.

Yes, sometimes the drugs work but for many people I’ve seen over the years the opposite is true. My own experience of using Prozac, for instance, turned me into a zombie!

Surely there must be something that works better than this, I often thought to myself or discussed with my colleagues. I thus began a search that would lead me down an unexpected route.

The Zen Master and the Buddha’s wisdom

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 arousal 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 even remember – sat down beside me early on the first morning, held 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 always 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.

This became the bedrock of those seven days of meditation; 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.

Understanding how this really works

It was only years 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’ and 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 emphasised.

This serves two purposes…

  1. 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.
  2. And when you are focusing on numbers you have to employ the logical/rational part of the brain (the part that is separate from the part that’s doing the emotional arousal, what I often refer to as the Monkey Mind or Survival Brain, creating unnecessarily high emotional arousal).

Let’s get clear about something…

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.

And even if it feels like it, you are not going crazy.

For the most part, the Monkey Mind or the Emotional 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.

False identities and trance states

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.

In effect, it will help you get out of the grip of the emotional state (out of the Monkey Mind) and back to being human again.

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 swirling snow.

7 steps to Zen Breathing and emotional freedom

Practice the steps below for about 10 to 15 minutes a day until you get the gist of it. In time, you’ll be able to calm the Monkey Mind with just a few deep, longer, outbreaths and gain emotional freedom.

Once free of the tyranny of the Monkey Mind, you actually create spare brain capacity so that you can perform much more competently and confidently in all walks of life.

Here are the 7 steps…

Read through these steps a few times before doing them or record your voice on your phone, then listen back and follow your recording, guiding yourself through the process. Speak slowly and give yourself time with each step.

  1. Settle yourself comfortably where you won’t be disturbed and close your eyes. Concentrate on the way your body is resting, noticing the weight of your arms and legs and the way your head is resting and be aware of any sensations you might feel.
  2. Start breathing in to the mental count of 7 and out to the mental count of 11 (or in to 3 and out to 5 – as long as the outbreath is longer). However, do not strain your lungs! Be gentle with yourself.
  3. If you’re able to do so, breathe in and out through the nose and take the oxygen right down into the lower part of the lungs. Your tummy (not your chest) should rise when you breathe in through the diaphragm.
  4. Count the numbers silently to yourself as you breathe and visualise them in your mind’s eye. If your mind wanders off (and it will!) just become aware of that and bring it back to your breathing and focus on the numbers again. (Remember, counting the numbers engages the left, logical part of the brain, enabling you to step out of the ‘trance’ of anxiety or any other high emotional arousal).
  5. After a few moments, become aware of how much more relaxed you feel, just by regulating your breathing and calming your emotional brain. Register where you feel most relaxed now in the body so you can recognise the feeling more easily in the future. There might be a sensation of heaviness or lightness, coolness or warmth somewhere in the body.
  6. Use this time to drift off in your imagination to a safe, special place, either somewhere you know or some place you can invent in your mind. Concentrate on making the scene as real as you can. Really see the colours, hear the sounds, feel the textures and smell the smells.
  7. In this relaxed state, give yourself the suggestion that whenever you want to feel calm and relaxed, all you’ll need to do is take a few deep ‘Zen’ breaths and you will feel all these relaxing sensations once again. And then, after you’ve enjoyed a few minutes feeling more relaxed, slowly begin to re-orientate your awareness back to your immediate surroundings.

First steps to self-mastery

Freeing yourself form 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.

So, give Zen Breathing a real go: follow the steps above and let me know how you’re getting on with it. I’d love to hear from you.

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