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Personal Development Breath Awareness – A Secure Base


Some Helpful Points

This is the third in a series of short papers, partly based on theoretical ideas,
personal experiences and reflections from the author’s personal and spiritual
journals. This short paper will focus on the importance of breath awareness
and its ability to provide us with a secure base from which to journey into the
mystery of our consciousness.

However, before we begin this journey it seems important to clarify a few

points about the issues raised in Paper 1 on Buber’s Modes of Encounter and
more importantly, Paper 2 on Four Truths and Four Choices.

’NOT Either: Or BUT Both: And

Throughout time and particularly since recorded history, every culture,

civilization and period has contributed much to the storehouse of knowledge
and wisdom available to humanity. Thus, we are all inheritors of a great
treasure of Universal Knowledge and, more importantly, Wisdom. The latter is
of greater importance because, although we may have a great accumulation
of ‘knowledge’, what is more urgently required is the necessary discernment
to apply this knowledge. Discernment is the bridge between knowledge and

This series of papers attempts to offer some ideas, concepts, practices and, at
times, challenging ideas from the wisdom traditions of the East and from the
author’s own Celtic Tradition. It does so in a spirit of humility and not in any
spirit of criticism of Western values and of the great Western contribution to
Universal Wisdom.

West V East?

As a Celt, I am only too aware of the great richness of Western Ideas. In fact
the renowned historian Kenneth Clark, commenting on the importance of
Celtic Christianity and its ‘gift’ to Western Civilisation, said;

‘Looking back on the great civilizations of twelfth- century France or

seventeenth-century Rome, it is hard to believe that for quite a long time (in
what historians call the Dark Ages) Western Christianity survived by clinging
to places like Skellig Michael – a pinnacle of rock eight miles from the Irish
coast, rising seven hundred feet out of the sea’

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Personal Development Breath Awareness – A Secure Base

The Celtic Monks kept alive the spirit of learning and retained and reproduced
numerous copies of the great literature that was then being destroyed by the
waves of invaders who were pillaging and destroying much of the cultural
centres of Europe. Arguably, it was from this base that the ethos of learning
that the recovery of the intellectual and spiritual revival of Europe grew
between the 7th and 10th Centuries. Further details on the importance of our
Celtic Inheritance can be found in a series of five papers written by this
Author under the generic title ‘ Echoes of Creation’

What the West has to offer is its great love for, and respect of, learning. It
also offers its establishment of great centres of academic, scientific and
spiritual learning and its growing championship of the rights of the individual,
the importance of freedom and human rights, its development of democracy
and its remarkable contribution to the scientific and cultural inheritance of
our World. In short, the West has contributed significantly to the ‘human
banquet’ of Universal Wisdom. Other cultures and traditions have made
similar but different contributions.

However, arguably in recent centuries many in the West have either ignored
or downplayed the contributions of other cultures and may also have ‘drifted’
away from some of the West’s own roots and values. The renowned physicist
Albert Einstein, commenting on this ‘drift’ had this to say:

‘The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.
We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift’

Einstein is not alone in this view. Increasingly, many renowned ‘experts’ in

Western Psychology are beginning to question whether we have drifted away
from the values and roots laid down by the early pioneers ( James, Buber,
Freud, Jung , Maslow, Frankl and Rogers to name but a few). This is one of
the drives behind many in Western Psychology adapting and integrating ideas
from the great wisdom cultures of the East. Because if the West can be said
to offer, and to champion, the gift of the ‘head’ ; the East certainly offers and
champions the gifts of the ‘heart’ and the ‘intuition’

So Integral Psychology, along with much of humanistic and existential

psychology, does not see this as a choice between the ‘heady West’ and the
‘heartfelt East’ but as a true integration of the BOTH AND of the richness of
Universal Wisdom. In this way the whole human family can benefit from the
richness and diversity of the many contributions each culture has brought to
the banquet table of human knowledge and wisdom. We can all benefit from
its rich feast and from the different perspective ,and its consequent challenge,
that Eastern Philosophy offers. Challenge, as Rogers, Carkhuff and Frankl
propose, provides man with the opportunity for real growth.

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Personal Development Breath Awareness – A Secure Base

Attachment: - Some further Points

In Paper 2 – Four Truths and Four Choices, the 1st Truth concerned
attachment and ‘real’ happiness. The attachment outlined by Buddhism is not
the same as the attachment referred to in Western Attachment Theory. What
Buddhism is trying to offer is a perspective on the dangers of ‘clinging’ to
things is a possessive manner. This ‘clinging’ can be to people, possessions,
habits, ideas, ideologies etc.

One ‘picture’ to demonstrate the dangers of this clinging, possessive

attachment is that of a butterfly. A butterfly can rest in the palm of our
hands. There it is safe and there it is available for us to view and to enjoy (
en-JOY) its beauty (more on JOY in a moment). It is also free to fly away.
However, if we attempt to grasp it, to touch it or the cling to it, we destroy
the butterfly and its ability to fly and be free. Buddhism suggests that this is
the danger of ‘attachment’ and our experiences in the West concur with
Buddhism as outlined by Frankl’s prediction and warning of dangers of the
neurotic triad of addiction, aggression and depression that would plague our

What Buddhism offers is its view of the value and importance of detachment,
one of its eight values for right living. It suggests that detachment brings real
joy rather than mere pleasure. This IS NOT an exclusive detachment that
prohibits normal and healthy relationships. It provides a sound basis for
genuine, authentic and empowering mutual relationships.

This is not a uniquely Eastern idea, after all, Freud reflected on the inherent
problems of the ‘pleasure principle’ and most of the masters and mystics of
the great spiritual traditions strongly advise us to develop the ability to
discern between mere pleasure, which is transient, and joy which is real and
of greater permanence. Now it is time to return to the issue of Personal
Growth and the place of breath awareness.

Breathe Awareness

Personal Growth and development is often compared to a journey with

signposts or base camps on the way. Robert Carkhuff, a renowned
psychologist and expert in human growth, refers to these as a ‘secure base’
and suggests that we need to base ourselves at a succession of ‘secure bases’
as we progress on our journey. These ‘secure bases could be likened to a
series of ‘base camps’ as we ascend the mountain of self-awareness, self –
actualization and ultimately self-transcendence.

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Personal Development Breath Awareness – A Secure Base

In Trans-personal and Eastern approaches to psychology, the most frequently

recommended ‘secure base’ is the practice of breath awareness. It is
recommended not only as a valuable practice in itself, but also as a starting
point for focusing, awareness and mindfulness practice, yoga asanas,
relaxation techniques and meditation. These are all offerings from the Eastern
Traditions that could provide our human family with valuable knowledge,
wisdom and well tried and tested practices.

In this module on Trans-Personal approaches to personal development, some

of the areas we will briefly explore are:

• Focusing using some basic Eastern approaches and Gendlin’s


• The power of unconditional presence

• Mindfulness/ Awareness practices for both general therapeutic work and

its specific applications to stress, anxiety and addictions

The Contribution of Eastern Wisdom and Neuro-Science

The whole area of the value and practice of breath awareness is universal.
Many cultures comment upon ii and have developed a series of useful
exercises. However, almost 3000 years ago , Hinduism developed and
recorded in great detail a system of Yoga. One of its 8 branches is the Practice
of Pranayama, breath control. This was also taken up and developed by

The esteemed Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh compares breath to a bridge
that connects life to the consciousness. He suggests that this is a bridge that
also unites the body with our thoughts. Thus awareness and control of
breathing is an essential bridge or gateway into the practice of both
mindfulness and focusing.

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Personal Development Breath Awareness – A Secure Base

Neuro-Science In the past 25 years Neuro-science has advanced more

than in all previous recorded history. Several important points, which bear on
the importance of breath, have come from this growth.

1. Our brain, although only about 2% of body mass, uses up almost 25%
of our oxygen intake

2. Our Autonomic Nervous System ( ANS) has 3 main wings :

• Sympathetic Nervous System ( SNS) – Fear- Anxiety – Flight-Fight

• Para-sympathetic Nervous System ( PNS)

• Enteric Nervous System ( ENS) – gastro-intestinal system

If we just concentrate on the SNS and PNS because these play a crucial role
in either increasing or controlling much of our unaware consciousness and
thus our tendency towards anxiety, fear, depression or calmness , relaxation ,
ease etc. The PNS and SNA are like two sides of a see-saw and our PNS,
properly stimulated can initiate a state of calm, tranquility and contemplative

Because breath, like many other functions of our system, is autonomic, it is

normally outside the conscious control and/or awareness of our waking state.
In addition, because the brain uses so much of our oxygen intake, we now
have two great reasons and incentives to begin to focus on breath awareness
and its many physical, psychological and spiritual advantages. This has been a
very brief and simplified outline of some of the interesting strands that Neuro-
science and Neuro-psychology bring and offer to all branches of science and

Therefore, in developing the awareness, confidence and ability to find a

secure base is important that we begin to explore and master the universally
recommended method of breath awareness. This is both the most natural and
best approach. However, we need to be aware of some aids and stumbling
blocks towards developing a reliable and comfortable practice of breath

It is now time to outline some points that can aid our practices of breath
awareness and some potential barriers.

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Personal Development Breath Awareness – A Secure Base

Aids towards Developing Breath Awareness.

The following are some well tried and tested aids to developing the practice of
breath awareness. Further exercises will be suggested which will assist in the
practice and we will end this presentation with a basic 1st exercise in breath

1. Initially we need to avoid setting out to do anything but merely to

observe our breath. Breathing is an unaware function of life. The
average person breathes up to 30,000 times per day or over 12.5
million times per year! So what could be more natural?

2. As breathing is so natural it is not ‘controlled’ by our normal

consciousness and therefore it ‘bypasses’ much of our cognitive and
affective ‘controls’

3. There is a wealth of research to demonstrate the physical and

psychological benefits of developing a good breathing rhythm and
ultimately the ability to both be aware of and to control breath.

4. Initially, as with any practice, it requires discipline and dedication.

However, it will bring benefits if you ‘relax’ into it with NO ‘goal’ in
mind. Just, relax, enjoy and feel the benefits of good breath

5. To aid our awareness of breathing it can help if we focus on the

breath coming in and then going out. There are two main points of
focus and the choice of these depend upon our own state of mind
and body as we practice breath awareness and control.

a. If sleepy then focus the attention on the upper body and

particularly at the nostrils

b. If tense, then focus the attention on the lower part of the body
and particularly on the stomach and the diaphragm.

6. Finally, if at any time you find yourself getting too tense and 5b
above is not working, then just relax, stop focusing on your breath
for a few moments and then return to focusing on the in breath

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Personal Development Breath Awareness – A Secure Base

Some Possible Barriers.

The following are some general points that are known to cause barriers or
blocks when we initially attempt to develop the practice of breath awareness.

1. A feeling that we must achieve mastery over our breath. Breath

control (pranayama in the East) is more about awareness, attention
and co=operation than force.

2. The unfamiliarity of observing breath which can give rise to feelings

of anxiety, tightness in the chest, awareness of stiffness or tickling in
parts of the body.

3. The fact that the mind can begin to race around with a plethora of
thoughts, feelings, fantasies, etc and physical sensations

4. Over – intellectualising breath awareness instead of merely

accepting it as a natural, instinctive part of life.

5. Some strong feelings, emotions, thoughts and sensations may arise;

in fact this is a common experience for most and for some these can
seem very anxious. However, dedication and discipline to the
practice will eventually pay-off.

NB. Reference to point 5 above; these may be extreme pleasure, sense

of peace, anxiety, sensory feelings, vivid imaginations etc. Normally, if we
return to monitoring the breath IN and OUT these subside. Otherwise, cease
the Practice and return to it at a later time. It is not advisable to attempt
advanced breath control without the guidance of a teacher. Normal breath
awareness and mild control is harmless and safe.

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Personal Development Breath Awareness – A Secure Base


These notes are meant to provide to helpful hints and re-assurances to

anyone who sets out to develop their practice of breath awareness. This
practice will provide you with the ‘secure base’ from where you can journey
into the ‘land’ of focusing, mindfulness, relaxation and meditation. This is a
‘land’ of non-judgmental awareness where we can ‘access’ different layers of
our consciousness.

However, there is the well known saying ‘ an ounce of practice is worth a ton
of theory’ and any focus on the area of breath awareness must and needs to
involve some practice. Therefore this note merely supports a practical session
that introduces some basic breath and relaxation exercises designed to raise
awareness and provide a sound basis for the areas of Universal Presence,
Transcendence and Mindfulness, all issues for future and further papers in this

Finally, these notes are not ‘stand-alone’. They are designed to raise
awareness about the practice of breath awareness, its importance, its roots
and its potential uses in psychological interventions. It also complements a
seminar on this practice with time for experiential exercises, further input and
information and discussion.

Time for a series of basic Relaxation Exercises using our

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