Buddhists, I am told, value the practice of paying attention to breathing. I think I'm going to give it a try while I go about my day ... it can't hurt. What are the benefits? Are there beginner guidelines to follow?
I intend no insult, so forgive my ignorance please.
In my opinion (and there are definitely different schools of thought here), the significance of this practice derives from the fact that breathing is the most direct connection between our normal rational mind and our emotional/subconscious/somatic mind. Breath is also on the intersection between our willful acting and our spontaneous being, since we can both control it OR leave it running on autopilot. This puts it in a key position as far as integration between our different sides or levels of mind. Also, there is a peculiar connection between our free-floating association process, our inner dialogue, and our breathing. I can't quite put it in words, but they seem to be functionally connected.
Just casually watching the breathing expands one's awareness to include that which is usually left out. This allows for an information exchange between the levels and serves to the benefit of all sides. It definitely allows one to get significantly less carried away by the affects, and over time leads to a more "grounded"/"balanced" overall disposition.
Practiced as a form of meditation, deep focus on breathing, when done right, provides direct access to non-conceptual mind. This enables discovery and processing of old unconscious traumatizing experience that might have stiffened and became a source of stereotypical pathological automatic reactions and stress.
Most South Asian Buddhist teachers recommend focusing attention on or around nose (the breathing sensations on nostrils or the upper lip). Instead, following my (Korean) teacher's recommendation to focus on the movement of abdomen, I came to appreciate the diaphragm as my perfect focal point. That's what I watch when I do formal sitting meditation - and when I just move around I'm in the habit of watching my overall breathing system, the entire state of all muscles participating in breathing - from abdomen, to diaphragm, to ribs, chest, and shoulders. As my practice progressed, I learned to expand attention to also include limbs, posture, and the muscles of face. Developing this overall awareness of the body (I believe) is what Buddha called "kayagata-sati" and is highly recommended.
I can't think of any specific guidelines other than this:
- Do not blame yourself if you keep forgetting. This is not just a casual remark! Blaming yourself in connection with any meditation practice, formal or casual, including mindfulness of breathing, leads to aversion towards the practice, so it ends up being very counterproductive. Don't do that. Be kind to yourself, like you would be to a very young child.
- Try to find a sense of how mindfulness of breathing is not something external you impose upon yourself, but rather how it allows you to stay in contact with your "private self" and therefore to remain more yourself. It should feel more comfortable to remain in touch with your breathing (and therefore with your emotional side) - than to lose that connection. It should be a very healthy feeling.
- There is no need to artificially control your breathing, or to relax it - but you may naturally start making more sighs and the frequency and amplitude of breathing may start reducing by itself. You may find yourself suddenly becoming aware of and relaxing your shoulders and other muscles that you used to keep tense. That's a good sign - but you don't have to contrive it on purpose.
That's all I could think of, based on my own practice and the instructions I received from my teacher. Hope it helps.
Breathing is valuable in the way that is always available to be mindful of. Therefore, it is a great reminder to recollect Buddhist wisdom, apply it to a situation and ultimately let go of the the defiled, unwanted thought/drive/emotion.
When you remind yourself to be mindful of the breath, it becomes a habit. After forming such habit you will keep coming back to the breath constantly, and emotions, thoughts and drives become detached, since they won't become sole object of mind attention. And when these are detached, you can look at them impersonally; from the outside - introspectively. And that is what you train during meditation with breath also.
Another factor and advantage of the breath is that focusing on breathing calms the mind which gives clarity and therefore more reliable insight necessary to make the right decision.
In the end breath helps, but when you walk, you might as well be aware of sensations of the legs since this is available. There are many establishments of mindfulness in Satipattana Sutta.