A Buddhist Monk’s Experience with Buteyko
As a Buddhist monk I have always had a keen interest in the relationship between the mind, body, and breath. I’ve been a monk for six and a half years, which includes two years as a novice, and have been meditating for twelve years, often for several hours a day. During this time I’ve developed an appreciation for calm, relaxed breathing and its effects of soothing and centering the mind, which is a basis for spiritual insight, and bringing vitality and wellbeing to the body. For this reason, in September of 2006, I decided to take a five day course in the Buteyko method which was conducted at the monastery where I reside. This endeavor required sustained focus and effort, but the results and benefits were far beyond my expectations and have led to nothing short of a major transformation in my physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. It is my wish that in conveying my own experience with Buteyko, anyone interested in improving their physical and mental health, and in bringing a deeper sense of peace and spiritual depth to their life, will give the method an honest try and realize for themselves the many blessings that come with healthy breathing.
At the beginning of the course I had a control pause (CP) of 24 seconds. This was evident by the several symptoms of hyperventilation that I suffered from, such as disturbed and prolonged sleep, a sense of heaviness and dragging throughout the day, a compromised immune system that lead to seasonal allergies and at least two colds a year, and a fair dose of irritability, agitation, and anxiety. Although none of these were severe medical conditions, they did take a toll on the quality of my daily life, especially in regards to my energy level.
The course took place over the span of five days and included four sets of pauses, reduction in food intake (especially protein), nasal breathing, reduced sleep, and air hunger whenever possible. I had the advantage of having already developed the habit of only breathing through the nose and I did not find the breath holding exercises too arduous or distressing. I experienced the first effects of breath reduction the morning after the first day of the course, which was accompanied by a sense of buoyancy and relaxation. On the second day we were introduced to the breath holding exercises and encouraged to continue with the cultivation of air hunger. That night I slept only four hours without the use of an alarm (rather than my usual six to seven hours) and experienced continuity in my energy level throughout the day. This established a pattern that was to continue throughout the course, of sleeping four to four and a half hours per night, reduced appetite, a general increase in energy and vitality that remained constant throughout the day, and a steady sense of well being and lightness of heart. While I enjoyed these positive developments, I also experienced several cleansing reactions. This started out as an increase in the frequency of bowel movements, followed by greasy skin and the formation a yellow coat on the tongue, and then on to a scratchy throat, runny nose, slight aches and pains, and finally a low fever. Most of these cleared up within a week and quite amazingly I felt fine the entire time. Mentally I felt refreshed, with a decrease in irritability, anxiety, irrational fear, and self-consciousness. Within a few weeks I had established a CP of 50 and continued adjusting to what was to become a new way of experiencing life.
Over the course of the past fifteen months I’ve come to experience many benefits that accompany a high control pause. Some of these benefits became obvious within days of applying the method, whereas others would not be revealed until I was presented with acute symptoms. One of the first manifestations of a rise in CO2, and perhaps the most transformative, was the drastic change in my sleep pattern and overall energy level. Before applying the method I would normally sleep between six and a half and seven hours per night. My sleep was usually unbroken, but was often marked by the presence of unpleasant dreams and not feeling totally rested. Now I average around five hours of sleep per night and rarely remember any dream material. I fall asleep within two or three minutes, sleep solidly, and wake up refreshed, usually before the alarm. Throughout the day my energy level is stable with little in the way of highs and lows, and I generally feel relaxed with little tension in the body. When I am at rest, my body naturally feels calm and comfortable (this is also due to meditation, another worthy pursuit), though poised and ready for work. At thirty-two years old I have more energy and stamina than I did ten years ago. Other physical benefits include not needing to eat as much, which is very helpful in regulating body weight, excretory regularity, and improved circulation (evidenced by a noticeable increase in sensation in my lower extremities).
Other benefits did not become apparent until I was actually confronted with acute symptoms, such as the common cold. Every year without fail I develop a cold in the autumn and again at the end of the winter. About six weeks after my introduction to Buteyko I caught my usual seasonal cold. The first symptom that I observed was an increase in my breathing as detected in a drop in CP. This was quickly followed by all of the usual cold symptoms, except that they were much milder than usual and passed quickly. Whereas normally I would be incapacitated for a few days by a cold, with the method I was still able to engage in my normal activities. The second major challenge occurred in the spring of this year with the onslaught of hay fever. I’ve suffered from seasonal allergies for my entire life, which could be debilitating and often required the use of medication. Again I noticed a drop in CP along with sneezing and a runny nose. However, the symptoms were much more tolerable, required no medication, and in no way detracted me from my normal activities. Also I experienced no watering or itching of the eyes, and none of the fatigue that often accompanies allergies. Currently it is late December and I have not had my usual autumn cold.
Along with this dramatic improvement in my physical condition has been a powerful mental and spiritual transformation. Mentally I’ve noticed a lack of agitation and the tendency for stress to quickly dissipate with the removal of the stimulus. This seems to be connected to a general relaxation of the nervous system which prevents the accumulation of stress in the body. Behaviorally this has been most clearly demonstrated by a greater tendency towards extroversion and confidence in social situations, especially in regards to spontaneity in self-expression. And emotionally there is a greater sense of equanimity, not in terms of a lack of feeling, but in a greater capacity to experience emotions objectively, without having to embellish or perpetuate them. All of these changes are complementary to Buddhist meditation, which itself aims to develop a sense of calm, alert, collectedness of mind as a basis for investigation into the transitory nature of the thoughts, moods, feelings, and sensations that we normally identify with. This leads to freedom from the stress and suffering that result from identifying with that which is impermanent.
In considering all of the mental and emotional benefits of Buteyko in relation to Buddhist meditation and contemplation, I think that the main advantage has been an overall decrease in the amount of unintentional thinking, especially thoughts and memories associated with negative states of mind such as anger, resentment, fear, and anxiety. These negative qualities seem to weaken quite effortlessly as CP rises, and my initial response was one of awe and disbelief as some life-long thought and emotional patterns dissolved in a space of a couple of weeks. This led to a period of about two months of very powerful feelings of euphoria and well-being in daily life, which was marked by an effortless sense of flow in experience. It is not that I ceased to experience discursive thinking throughout the day, but rather that the tone of thoughts became quieter, softer, and easier to pause. In conveying the connection between meditation and Buteyko, it is important to stress that this rapid change in thought patterns and corresponding emotions had been one of the main goals of my meditation practice for years. It was as though the effects of several years of meditation were achieved within a period of a few weeks of practicing Buteyko. I have no doubt that my skills and experience as a meditator were instrumental in attaining these results, but I think that it is also a testament to the efficacy of the method.
I think that the main insight that came about through this transformation was recognition of the mind’s inherent stillness. Before experimenting with Buteyko much of my practice was aimed at trying to make the mind still by means of concentration. But with the rapid dissolving of certain thought patterns and even personality structures described above was a realization that the mind has a basic quiet stillness that is present prior, during, and after thought. It was as though the disappearance of these thought patterns revealed a clear background stillness of the mind that was too palpable to go unnoticed. This stillness is more fundamental to the mind than the ever changing thoughts and moods, and seemed to become easily accessible with a high CP. This insight turned out to have enormous implications in my own life as it changed the whole orientation of my meditation practice. Gone were the days of trying to force thinking to cease or make the mind quiet. Instead I developed an appreciation for simply noticing the mind’s inherent stillness despite the presence of thought, and recognition of a natural and holistic awareness of the present moment that is always accessible.
More recently, after reading the account of a long time student’s process of achieving an extraordinarily high CP and its profound effect on his life, I felt inspired to increase my own CP. He explained his technique of performing many mini pauses (5 or 10 seconds above CP) throughout the day. I pursued this approach, along with my own practice of daily power walking with maximum air hunger, for about eight days. During this time I performed between five and eight sets of ten mini pauses a day with shallow breathing between pauses. Initially the results were modest involving little more than a reduction in sleep and appetite. However, after a week I suddenly experienced an enormous increase in energy, as though I had been struck by a bolt of lightening. Streams of energy coursed through my body and every cell felt electrified. At times it was very pleasant but quite often I would have preferred that it calm down, especially as it continued unbroken for about a week. My sleep was reduced to about three hours a night and I seemed to maintain a degree of awareness the entire time. The period would go by very quickly and I don’t recall dreaming at all. As strange as it may sound, it actually felt as though I was aware and present the entire time that I was asleep.
I think this heightened awareness of sleep was closely related to the way in which the jump in CP influenced my overall state of mind at the time. This was characterized by a vast spaciousness of mind, sharpened sensory awareness, and a powerful sense of presence. This state of expansiveness lasted for a couple of weeks and varied in degrees of intensity, ranging from a clear groundedness in the present moment to an expanded consciousness that made thoughts and the awareness of time seem peripheral and ephemeral. These states of expansiveness could be blissful and ecstatic, but also unsettling and even disorienting. What is of particular interest to me is not so much states of expansion, which always end in contraction, but in observing the difference between thought and the clear awareness that is present with or without thought (and apparently during sleep). These expanded states of consciousness are useful in contemplation because they naturally deemphasize the power and allure of thought while increasing spacious awareness. I had spent years striving to develop these states with modest results, usually just fleeting glimpses, whereas with a quick jump in CP they became so well established that a degree of effort and skill where required to become versed in moving in and out of them. Eventually CP leveled off at 58 as these states of expanded consciousness became less frequent. Also the powerful energetic experiences gradually faded as my sleep increased and lost its lucidity of awareness. However, this period of intense practice gave me a greater appreciation for the power and possibilities of the method in spiritual development, and increased my recognition of the difference between the never ending procession of thoughts, moods, and emotions of the mind, and the ever-present awareness that they occur within. This results in objectivity towards the content of the mind that can be very freeing.
In discussing the relationship between meditation and Buteyko, it is important to emphasize a few points regarding both my own personal experience and suggestions for using these two complimentary skills. First, I think it is worth noting that both of my quick jumps in CP were the result of quite focused and sustained effort which living in a monastery afforded. During these times I could devote as much time as necessary to do pauses, practice air hunger, meditate, go for walks, etc. Also I have no doubt that my years of practicing breath meditation were pivotal in developing air hunger and in noticing some of the subtleties of the mind and breathing process. Though I don’t think that it is necessary to live in a monastery to achieve a high CP, I do believe that it requires a fair amount of time and attention in order to become skilled in the method. I imagine that we will all develop at different rates depending on a host of factors that we bring into the practice. I have heard of meditators reaching similar states of expanded awareness (and far beyond) through meditation alone, whereas others have developed these states through achieving a high CP without meditating. I have encountered many accounts of meditators reaching stages in meditation in which breathing nearly ceases altogether, suggesting a very high CP. Perhaps one of the advantages of having a meditation practice when experiencing these expanded and heightened states of awareness is that one is more likely to be equipped with the skills to navigate and work with some of the ensuing confusion and disorientation that may arise.
This last point is worth pursuing because my own road to a high CP was not always easy, especially in regards to my last period of intensive practice. Though I’ve never found the physical aspects of the method, such as maintaining air hunger and doing pauses very difficult, some of the psychological and spiritual factors were challenging. Any time there is a rapid shift in consciousness, in which certain habitual thought and emotional patterns lose their grip on one’s life, there can be periods of relief and ease (as with my initial experience of the method), but also confusion and disorientation as these patterns help shape one’s sense of self and relationship to the world (which occurred with my recent increase in CP). Even though these patterns can be a source of stress and personal limitation, they also provide a sense of security in terms of personal identity (this is who I am) or as a strategy for the satisfaction of desires and avoidance of what we find threatening. The inner spaciousness that I experienced was both freeing but also lead to uncertainty as I found myself not always knowing what I wanted, or how to respond to situations that once seemed threatening, or just plain being less self-absorbed. During these times I found it very helpful to have the support of other Buteyko students and to be in a monastic setting with experienced meditators. Even though our individual experiences may vary greatly in pursuit of a high CP, for most of us the support and guidance of other students and practitioners will be invaluable.
Since taking the initial course last September I‘ve learned a lot about the method, both from my own experimentation and through the help and advice of fellow practitioners. Often maintaining my CP has required little effort, whereas at other times, such as when I had hay fever, I had to work very hard to prevent it from slipping too much. Meeting these challenges has given me confidence in my ability to regulate my CP and to take the necessary steps to raise it when needed. In time I would like to improve my ability to raise my CP more gradually and with a bit more control, so as not to be plunged into some spiritually potent yet possibly disturbing experiences. My more recent increase in CP has given me a new appreciation for the power of the method and its potential for spiritual growth. I still feel very much like an amateur, always picking up new ideas and approaches to the method from friends and practitioners. And in terms of understanding the mind, I’ve still got a lot to learn.
It is my hope that in sharing my experience with Buteyko and meditation, others may recognize not only the method’s profound healing capacity for physical illness, but also its powerful impact on the mind and spiritual growth, especially as CP rises beyond 40 or 50. I am very interested in finding ways to use the method as a tool for spiritual growth and for the treatment of mental and emotional illness, especially depression and anxiety. I am very confident that anyone who pursues and achieves a high CP will find the results well worth the effort. I’d like to express my gratitude to Professor Buteyko for leaving us with this truly marvelous and invaluable gift, to Christopher Drake for freely offering his services in teaching me the method with much humour and expertise, and to my friends who practice the method and have been a source of support and inspiration.
Suddhano Bhikkhu (Ryan Bowie)
Cape May, New Jersey
Buteyko Scotland would like to thank Suddhano Bhikkhu for letting us post his article