Breathworks Blog

Stories, tips, and articles about mindfulness, daily meditation, compassion, living well with illness and chronic pain, and more.

Mindfulness and Control

mindfulness and control


You are facing North. You want to face South. What do you do?

Obviously, rather than trying to turn the entire world around you, you simply turn yourself around.

Now another puzzle: You want your partner to start acting differently, or you want the weather to be nicer, or your body to look a different way, or you want not to be ill. What do you do? You want things to be a certain way, but they aren't.

Just as it is easier to turn yourself around than to turn the Earth around you, so it is easier to direct your own mind than it is to direct the course of the whole world around you. This is the gift of mindfulness; it is the ability to embrace things just as they are; it is an act of radical acceptance.

This certainly does not mean being passive, doing nothing to work towards a better world, or to stand up to injustice.

However, external events will always be unpredictable, and our control over them can never be relied upon. The only thing we can control is how we direct our attention and intention in the present moment.

Mindfulness is the gift that allows us to see things just as they are, even if they are not how we want them to be, and yet not make our well-being dependent on changing anything. It is understanding without analysis, and acceptance without resignation.

Look for the opportunity, within those occasions when things are not as you want them, to practice making that inward turning. If you develop this skill, you will stop seeing the world only in terms of how well it meets your wants, and that world, just as it is, is a beautiful world to see.

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You Can't Stop The Brain Waves, But You Can Learn to Surf

Ricard and Davidson

Image: Scientist and Buddhist Monk Matthieu Ricard, with psychologist and neuroscientist Richie Davidson

Check out the Buddhist Monk Matthieu Ricard rocking a whole head of EEG electrodes as part of a study investigating brain changes during meditation of experienced participants. EEG stands for electroencephalogram (eh-LEK-tro-en-SEF-a-low-gram), a device which uses electrodes to read brain activity.

When a group of neurons matthieu Ricard EEgin the brain are active, they ‘fire’ electrochemical impulses along nerve fibres, resulting in tiny changes in voltage, which be detected by electrodes on the scalp near that area. This change in the electrical activity of brain areas is what produces the ‘brain waves’ visible on an EEG screen (below).

EEG has been in use for a long time; the first human EEG was recorded in 1924. Although it’s hard to know precisely where in the brain the signal is coming from, and electrodes placed on the scalp are only able to detect voltage changes from the outer layer of the brain, EEG has been a useful research tool in psychology, and has specifically resulted in some very interesting observations in the field of meditation research.

Eyes Open, Eyes Closed
Different frequencies of brain waves are generally associated with different states of mind. For instance, beta waves (see below) are typically seen when one is awake and acting normally, whereas very slow delta waves are only seen during deep sleep. Slower alpha waves are associated with closed eyes, and in fact were initially believed to only occur with closed eyes due to the reduction in visual processing, until researchers read the EEG signal of meditators and were surprised to find a strong alpha signal even when their eyes were open.


Meditation on the Brain
Experience with meditation seems to be associated with both increased alpha and theta wave strength, and an overall reduction in the frequencies of brain waves. This is especially the case during meditation, although highly experienced meditators also show high levels of alpha wave activity even during normal waking activity. Alpha waves in general have been linked with relaxation and feelings of calm, and theta waves with concentration. Theta waves in experienced meditators have also been correlated with self-reports of bliss and stillness of mind.

Cyborg Meditators
It is impossible to make detailed inferences about what effects meditation is having in the brain simply from EEG signals, however a certain pattern of signals does seem to correlate reliably with meditation, and so can be put to use. As EEG technology has become cheaper, a number of commercial EEG devices have been made available, and some which are specifically intended to help meditation. For example, the Muse headset comes with an app which gives you real-time feedback about the quality of your meditation based on your brainwaves, and claims to be able to give immediate feedback if your concentration slips.

Muse, Emotiv, and other meditation headsets are secretive about what their algorithms are actually using to indicate quality of meditation. It may be alpha waves, theta waves, or some relationship between the strengths of these and other frequencies, compared to the baseline measurement that they take. It’s a shame not to know the details of their research, since, aside from being fascinating, would open the way for other start-ups and independent researchers to test and continue developing these technologies.

Due to the variety of meditation techniques used, different levels of meditation experience in participants, inconsistent placement of electrodes between studies, and varying research methods, many questions remain unanswered about the relationship between EEG output and meditation. Furthermore, the question of whether EEG-based meditation feedback will be useful for learning meditation at all remains open. Will it act like a cyborg brain extension and artificially improve concentration, or will it simply make users’ concentration dependent on the feedback?

The algorithms used by these headsets may also be measuring only a proxy of actual meditative progress, such as relaxation or, if the research process has used inexperienced meditators or misinterpreted the relationship between EEG output and mind state, even drowsiness. Theta brainwaves are also present during light sleep, yet this is, of course, a completely different state from the precise, alert engagement of deep meditation.

As meditation continues to grow in popularity, and as EEG tech becomes cheaper and more accessible (see this video of somebody controlling a robot with their brainwaves), doubtless these tools will become better and more reliable, and a fascinating and fruitful union of ancient techniques and modern technology may await along this path.

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New course on Insight Timer app – Methods for Living With Pain and Illness


Vidyamala Burch Insight Timer Methods for living with Pain and illness


From Breathworks Founder Vidyamala Burch

I am excited to be letting you know about a new course I’ve written that has just been released through the app Insight Timer. It runs over 10 days and includes a short talk and meditation on different themes each day.

It summarises all the main approaches I’ve developed to help you free your mind, even if your body is hurting.

The methods are all similar to those developed in my well-researched and effective ‘Mindfulness for Health’ book and course. But the content is now very easily accessible via an intuitive and user-friendly app.

My hope is that many people will do this new course as an introduction and taster to mindfulness and compassion for pain and illness, and then go on to deepen their practice using the Breathworks in-depth mindfulness courses offered via bookonlineface-to-face classes and retreats. That way people who live with pain and illness can go on a journey of ever-increasing depth and breadth finding many jewels along the way.

My motivation for creating these various ways into mindfulness and compassion is very simple. I spent many years in a lonely wilderness after I injured my spine in 1976 and I didn’t know where to turn to for help and support. Back then meditation was still very much a fringe activity and it certainly wasn’t taken seriously in healthcare. Slowly and painstakingly I have forged my own path through the wilderness based on a deep intuition that my own mind could be a great aid in learning to manage my situation. I sought meditation instruction and gradually figured out how to meditate with a painful body so that I have now have a very good quality of life, despite my disability and pain.

I feel I have something to offer from these lessons in the wilderness and I am deeply motivated to make it easier for others. I don’t want it to be so lonely for anyone else. It’s remarkable the way meditation and mindfulness have become increasingly mainstream over the past decade or so and I am very happy that others learning to come to terms with chronic health problems can now be-friend their minds early on in their journey and hopefully have a much easier time of it than I did.

So, you see, my motivation to reach out to you is simple. I just want to help. And I hope that somewhere in amongst this pathway of resources you will find many things that help you get your life back on track so you can indeed live well, even if your body is damaged or hurting. 

Details about the new Insight Timer course Methods for Living With Pain and Illness

10 day course available through the Insight Timer app.

£4.99 offers unlimited access to complete the course. Access expires 48 hours after you start day 10.

£19.99 means you own the course forever and can complete it as often as you like.

Learn all the key skills I’ve developed to cultivate mindfulness and compassion so you can live well, even if you live with pain and illness.

Day 1 – Vidyamala’s story – using mindfulness to manage severe spinal pain.

In this session you will hear my story and how I’ve used mindfulness to learn to live well with life-changing spinal injuries that I sustained in my teens. I share the major insights gained over more than three decades of mindfulness practice and the central role of breath awareness as a way to ease pain and release tension. I include the helpful slogan “when in doubt, breathe out!” as a rule for living. This session also includes a guided Breathing Anchor meditation.

Day 2 – Letting go of the struggle – resistance is futile.

In this session you will learn how to use awareness to divide pain, or whatever symptom or difficulty we are experiencing, into two components:

  1. Primary Suffering – the unpleasant feelings in the body
  2. Secondary Suffering – the extra suffering that arises from resistance and reactivity.

You’ll learn how to accept the primary suffering; to soften resistance; and reduce secondary suffering, thus reducing the overall burden of suffering. This session also includes a guided Body Scan meditation.

Day 3 – get a handle on your thoughts – from monkey mind to elephant mind

In this session you will learn how to manage your thoughts and emotions about your pain or illness. Many of us feel our minds are out of control, like a monkey leaping about a tree, which adds to our torment and distress. Mindfulness can help us radically change our relationship to our minds and develop perspective and calm. We can develop a mind like an elephant – stable, dignified and steady. We’ll practice a Breathing Anchor meditation to develop this skill.

Day 4 – mindful movement – moving with your breath

In this session you will practice some very gentle mindful movements to help get an experience of moving with a soft breath and with balanced, appropriate effort. This will help you experience a more gentle way of moving so you can then take that attitude into the various movements of everyday life. Instructions are given on how to adapt this session if your physical ability to move is limited in any way, making the session appropriate for all.

Day 5 – from resistance to acceptance – being kind to yourself

In this session you will learn how to come into a more caring relationship with yourself – to respond to your own difficulty the way you would naturally respond to a loved one who was hurting. Many of us oscillate between denying our experience on the one hand, or being overwhelmed by it on the other. With mindfulness we can find a middle way of deeper acceptance and kindness. This session includes a Compassionate Acceptance meditation to help cultivate this.

Day 6 – the treasure of pleasure – noticing pleasure and beauty

In this session you will learn how to appreciate and enjoy pleasant experience that is always present, waiting to be noticed, alongside pain and difficulty. Mindfulness opens us to everything more deeply: accepting difficulty as you did in Day 5, and in this session becoming more sensitive to simple pleasures such as the light shining through the window, warm hands etc.  This session includes a Treasure of Pleasure meditation to help cultivate this skill.

Day 7 – go with the flow – opening to the changing nature of life

In this session you will learn how to cultivate a stable and open awareness as you reflect on the nature of life. You will see how everything is more fluid than we normally realise – including the experience of pain or illness. You will learn how to rest within this sense of flow with calm and depth, rather than pushing away painful experiences and clinging onto pleasant ones which is our more normal, unsatisfactory, mode of living. This session includes an Open Heart meditation.

Day 8 – you are not alone – from isolation to empathy

In this session you will learn how to use the self-awareness cultivated so far on the course as an opportunity to feel empathy with others. By getting to know ourselves more deeply, by inference we get to know humanity. Pain and illness can be isolating and we can feel very alone and separate. But using reflection we can profoundly shift our perspective and imaginatively connect with others on the basis of commonality rather than difference. This session includes the Connection meditation.

Day 9 – Daily life practice – take a break before you break!

In this session you will learn how to take your mindfulness practice into daily life.  If you are to live well with your pain or illness it is essential to maintain mindfulness as often as possible throughout the day, not just when you are meditating. You’ll do this by learning to find the middle way between ‘Booming’ and ‘Busting’, and achieve more harmony and ease in the midst of normal activities. This session includes the Three Step Breathing Space meditation.

Day 10 – Welcome to the rest of your life – become a warrior with a soft heart.

In this session I summarise all the key points from the previous nine days to embed the learning of the course. It has been a systematic and thorough programme providing mindfulness and compassion skills for anyone living with pain and/or illness. This session ends with the tantalizing image of becoming a warrior with a soft heart – embodying boldness and courage as well as tenderness and compassion. This session ends with a Compassionate Body Scan meditation.

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Mindfulness After a Spinal Cord Injury

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Our founder Vidyamala Burch suffered from a spinal cord injury at 16, and Breathworks came into being as a result of her quest to use mindfulness and compassion to manage her subsequent pain and health problems, so we were especially interested in the results of a new study recently published by the International Spinal Cord Society, which examined the effects of a Breathworks online course for people suffering from depression following a spinal cord injury.

Participants were given either a Breathworks online course, or an online course (often recommended to those suffering from chronic pain) containing information about spinal cord injuries and the role of thoughts and emotions, as well as options for pain and psychological management. It was good to have an active control group in this study, since this allows researchers to be more confident that the effects of the Breathworks course were due to the nature of the course itself, and not simply due to some non-specific effects of an online intervention, such as feeling more supported.

After 8-weeks, those who completed the Breathworks course were less depressed, and had less anxiety, pain catastrophising (negative and exaggerated response to pain), and less experience of pain unpleasantness, compared to the group who had received psychoeducation. Mindfulness levels, and non-reactivity to inner experience also showed a greater increase in the Breathworks group. Participants completed a follow-up questionnaire two months after the study, which showed that these benefits were maintained over this time for the Breathworks group.

A possible downside of the Breathworks course was that the dropout rate (i.e. the number of people who didn’t complete the course) was slightly higher compared with the psychoeducation group; this may have been because the Breathworks course recommends two daily meditations, and so probably requires more effort. It was also noted that participants who dropped out were statistically more likely to be older than the group average, which may suggest that less familiarity with the online nature of the course could have been a factor.

Overall, however, the results of this new study were incredibly promising, demonstrating that Breathworks’ mindfulness and compassion skills can be effective for those who have suffered a spinal injury, and even those who are suffering from depression. It is especially promising as this online course format can be delivered easily to individuals with reduced mobility. Although there is much empirical support for mindfulness as a treatment to prevent people who have previously suffered from depression from becoming depressed again, research into whether mindfulness is useful for those who are currently depressed has been more sparse, and thus far, inconclusive. Depression is, perhaps unsurprisingly, very common following a spinal cord injury, and we are glad to think that this study may continue to lend support for mindfulness and compassion skills as components of living well with pain and health issues, and to give hope to those who need it. 

You can access the full study here.

And you can find Breathworks online courses here.

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How to Deal With Obstacles in Meditation

How to deal with obstacles in meditation


There is an attitude often found amongst meditators that a desire to become ‘better’ at meditating is somehow against the spirit of the venture. But of course, if you could simply open a hatch on your brain and turn up the dial, everybody would choose to be more skillful at meditating. The issue is not simply wanting to be better, but becoming frustrated with the obstacles one runs into; a distracted mind, a painful body, falling asleep, difficult emotions. It may seem that these are two sides of the same coin; that the goal of advancing one’s skill as a meditator must carry with it a degree of aversion towards the obstacles to that advancement. This is, I think, a misconception.

In Ancient Greece there was a craftsman who wanted to create a mosaic out of shells. So he set out along the beach, searching for shells to use. But every time he found the perfect specimen, he crossed his arms with a sigh, grumbled about the work he’d have to do with it, and then stomped on it. Hearing this story, we would certainly have cause to wonder about the mental health of the craftsman, if every time he finds something helpful to his goal he destroys it. And yet, many of us find ourselves in this exact mental state, every time that these obstacles to meditation arise.

After all, if you are searching for shells, you should pick one up when you find it, and if you are practicing meditation, you should use a distraction as an opportunity to return to the breath with gratitude and joy. Likewise, if you find a difficult emotion, you can use it as an opportunity to practice non-judgemental awareness, and if you find a pain, you can use it as an opportunity to turn towards discomfort with compassionate acceptance, and open more fully to the pleasant aspects of experience. Of course, if you find that your mind is calm and content, then you can use this as an opportunity to further deepen the skills of meditation, but holding out for this state of mind and disregarding all else is like searching the beach for a fully completed mosaic.

A sculptor needs clay to practice her craft. A swimmer needs water, a hiker needs a slope, and a meditator needs the habits of the human mind. Instead of seeing these things as obstacles, you can see them as the very means to make all the progress you have hoped to make in meditation. When you can find this perspective, a drive to make progress becomes synonymous with a full engagement with the fascinating and joyful process of an unfolding meditation practice. 

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