That’s all there is to it at this point, really. Life as we know it has stopped until further notice and all we are required to do is breathe and stay alive as we wash our hands in between. Has life always been this plain and simple?
This past week has highlighted for a lot of us these simple things we have been taking for granted in our individual and collective lives – clean water, working lungs, a room, a roof, a clean and healthy body, intimate relationships, reliable routines we have actually come to love, touch, the warmth of another, freely going to the grocery, stepping out in the streets and earning ourselves a living while in social trade and communication with other human beings.
Generally, we give the same disregard to our breath and what it means for us to be able to breathe. We hardly pay attention to it because it is the most automatic thing we do. And so we go about our routines focusing on “other more important things” such as beating the deadline, watching the news, exercising to lose extra weight, reading lists of what’s hot to eat and what not to eat, complaining about a coworker, buying things, looking for the next distraction and thrill, worrying about our loved ones.
But what if the only important thing in our life really is to simply breathe? Or rather, what if we put all our focus on changing our outlook so that we can make ourselves perceive it so? Because obviously – especially according all our sarcastic friends out there – breath is practically most essential to be able to stay alive. But have we noticed? Have we been paying attention?
When I started paying attention to my breath it took me on a journey that I never would have imagined possible and waiting for me. Instead of the limited perspective I always had focusing on outer conditions and the uncertainty of it all, I suddenly found a road going in that had me falling through a looking glass of sorts. Getting well acquainted with my breath opened up an entirely more vivid life that was operating smoothly inside of me. And it has shown me all these bright new buttons to push and put signs on dangerous panels to avoid.
Knowing and staying with my own breath clears my mind, calms my gut, tells me what my body needs, makes me listen, keeps me present, highlights my intuition, uncovers the little things that make me genuinely happy, shows me the path of communication that I have with the potted plant next to me who is breathing, too. My breath is a revelation of both my personal Universe and how I am connected with everything around me – from this chair to the forests of Brazil, from my annoying neighbor to the Pope, from myself to the deepest depths of the oceans.
I now travel the tricky terrain of life from inside out instead of from outside in; through intended action instead of alarmed reaction. Every time we take a breath, it is a decision “to create.” With ever breath, we create a new cell in our body, we create carbon dioxide for the trees and gratitude in taking oxygen back from them, we create our mood and state of being, we create how we communicate, we create our next step and then take another. When we take the time to notice that, we take the time to notice how we live.
I have been talking to friends about meditation so much in the past couple of years and trying to convince anyone willing to listen to start their own personal practice. And I can’t help but recognize that these days seem to be just the perfect time to insist on it.
You have time, don’t you?
Meditation and Misconceptions
Just as we are run by our modern-day misconceptions about the complications of daily living, a lot of misconceptions surround the practice of meditation. That’s what this little crumpled up nervous ball of a brain at the top of our head likes to do, apparently: complicate things.
Since this is a time of unraveling for many of our misconceptions – such as “we have to work,” “there are so many things that can’t wait,” “we can’t change things anymore,” “I can’t just stay home or I’ll die” (obviously, these concepts are no longer, or never were, true) – I have decided to look at all the misconceptions people also have about being able to set aside time for the practice of meditation.
Our cultures of pursuit and discovery have trained us to think that we must always run after things in order to find them. But oftentimes, what we are looking for is always already there, and all we have to do is clear the path and take pleasure in uncovering it.
Let’s start clearing.
Meditation is not for me because my mind is too busy. I think too much.
Guess what, you’re doing just great. Surprise! You’re at the perfect starting point. Of course you are thinking. You are alive, your brain is working, your heart is pumping, you sense your surroundings; I can’t begin to tell you how we must rejoice the fact that you have become fully aware of these simple things about yourself!
That is the whole point of the practice. Watch yourself think. Watch yourself breathe. Watch yourself feel. Watch just how busy your mind can get. Sit with your thoughts. Sit, in silence and surrender, with those pesky thought friends of yours and let them come and go at the party.
I repeat: you let them come, and then, you let them go.
Ah, now, there is the tricky part. Let go. Now there is where the work is. It is not about driving away thoughts and forcing your mind into a self-induced coma in two seconds and coming out of the room an expert on world peace and brain dead. It is about, before anything else, coming into your practice with full acceptance of your humanity from the get-go. Let those all-too-familiar thoughts run around in your head, watch them there, watch them play, try to remain completely still and don’t go running off after them. Stay put, breathe.
Again, more thoughts. Again, watch them. Stay. If you somehow followed them around for ten minutes, okay, that’s fine, good you finally noticed, now come back. Breathe. Watch. Stay put.
I know, you followed again.
Come back. Let them follow you back, bd the nice guy, watch them ever so politely, let them run, let them fight, let them scream and giggle and sit a while. But, let me tell you, thoughts don’t like to sit even though that’s how you might usually picture them in your head all day. Nope, no way, they like running and using all that space in and around your head.
Okay, you followed for a good ten seconds this time. Much better than last the last time, don’t you think? That’s good enough, now come back. Come back to center.
They are there.
Look at them.
I cannot just focus on my breath. I have better things I need to focus on.
How does anything become more important than your own breath?
Breath work isn’t about conjuring magic. Listening to your breath is not a talent that you either do or do not have. We all breathe right from the very beginning. If you are alive at this moment, you are doing it. In fact, you do it so well that you never once had to pay attention to how you are doing it.
Now that you’ve managed to sit still somehow, let’s focus on your breathing. The skill to be honed is in the way we have control over our breath, and the gift is the direct relationship that we find we have with it. We have different states of consciousness throughout the day. We typically only take notice of our breath during crucial times – when we’re running out of it during work outs or diving deep underwater or dancing or running from a stranger; or, on the other end of the awareness scale, we get what meditation and stillness is all about if we are placed in an already peaceful environment and we can breathe in fresh air in the quiet landscape of grass-bursting hills with only birds to disturb our moments of steady, penetrative, relaxing, deep breathing. But all of these examples are about being affected by outside conditions. It’s having a situation that is completely outside our realm of control and creativity dictate how we should feel and act, i.e. how we should breathe.
Paying attention turns it all around.
How do we improve the quality of our breathing? We pay attention to it. Most, if not all, of the lessons you will learn in meditation will be about paying attention. Giving attention to something assists its growth, empowers it. If you empower your most basic survival trait, the core of who you are and what keeps you steadily in existence, which is your basic holy act of breathing, you empower your very foundation, the very core of who you are. You are already doing it your entire life anyway, might as well give it the attention it deserves.
The simple practice of focusing and refocusing on your breath creates your home base. This will give you something to return to when you’ve just gone running around following your thoughts, or when you’ve lost your temper again or reacted less than ideally in any situation. Learn to forgive yourself right away, and return to your breath. Then make new choices, take new steps. Your breath teaches you that all of life is recyclable and reusable. If you build a solid relationship with your breath, which ultimately is the physical nature of your existence, then no matter what happens in your mind or senses, no matter how the world may turn, you will know that you always have something to come home to.
I am not feeling any different. If it’s so great I should see changes right away.
Just as it took your entire lifetime for you to become the person you are now – your childhood, your daily environments, your parents, your friends and relationships, your choices and activities, your reactions and thought patterns – it should also take quite a while (a building of a whole new life!) before significant changes can take effect by way of purposeful practice. Or, even if they have already taken effect, it may take a while before you actually recognize the results.
Think of your head as a city map bustling with highways, favored shortcuts, parks and pit stops, exhilarating viewpoints, favorite restaurants and attractions. When you sit down to meditate, you say, “Forget it all, I want to grow flowers.” So you have taken time out to sit down, decided to hush the living map in your head, and now you are just starting to find small pockets of soil, you are tilling the earth and planting seeds. You water them. You bask in the sunlight. You wait. Just breathe, smile, trust, it will grow.
The secret is in enjoying the waiting.
If you busy yourself wanting to overtake the wait, even if you have already planted seeds on the roadside and they have begun to sprout, even if your flowers are already growing, you would be on your usual city highway jam going around in your regular circles. You won’t be able to see the flowers grow because you preferred rushing to the commercial flower stand for your plastic-wrapped bouquet.
Take pleasure in the process and you will find that the wildest flowers grow in the strangest of places.
Meditation is a strict and serious activity. It’s religious and it’s woo-woo. It’s boring.
Meditation is the coolest thing to have ever taken over my life. Because of meditation, I could be sitting absolutely anywhere and feel like I’m performing rock and roll.
While meditation in its strictest definitions may be more prevalently used in certain religions, it can be done and used by anybody.
Way before I started my own practice, someone told me that “When we pray, we are talking to God. When we meditate, we are listening for the answer.” I have found this to be real. I feel it to be as real as the very flesh on my bones. Most of the things we enjoy are only on the surface of our basic senses. When we meditate, we let go and dismount from our thoughts, from our physical conditions, from our environment and our patterns. This unlocks so many new dimensions and perspectives we would never have imagined existing otherwise.
Okay, so maybe meditation is quite a bit woo-woo. 🙃
Meditation is something you do sitting down on top of a mountain or a monastery or somewhere peaceful like a spa retreat or during that rare alone-time afternoon in your room with candles and music. I do not have the time, luxury, or environment for it.
Quite a mouthful for an activity that really only requires you.
Sit down. Or stay standing. Breathe. That is it, really.
“Teach me to meditate.”
Meditation is a personal journey.
Before I understood what meditation could do, it took me years of searching, experimenting, and moreover, practicing. Friends and family have recently been asking me to teach them how to meditate or explain to them what exactly they are supposed to feel or process while they do it. Some expect results to be immediate, a lot expect answers before taking the journey of asking the questions.
My practice deepened and expanded under the guidance of Buddhist monks for more than a week in a monastery in Northern Thailand. But I had arrived already searching and ready for a commitment to finding my answers.
It is difficult to pass on what you have learned when you have learned it on a deeply personal platform. I am not sure yet how to effectively persuade or convince people – even the ones I love – that unless they begin the work within themselves, no one will be able to really take them through the whole journey. Especially at this day and age when everything is expected to be a click away on Google or on a messaging app. But, surely, if you could believe in something such as a world wide web, you can manage to stretch your imagination a little bit more and also believe in a much deeper, wider world buried within that only you have the power and skill to find. Doesn’t that sound more exciting? Doable? Well, look at you, currently on quarantine and all. I guess you’ll find out. I believe in you.
Meditation will bring me the peace and happiness I have always desired and that is my ultimate goal.
Having a goal and owning things are exactly what meditation is not about. Mediation teaches you that your breath comes and goes, your thoughts come and go, and therefore, eventually you learn that happiness also comes and goes. But the good news is: so does pain, so does, sadness, so does anger, so does fear and worry and anxiety. Because your practice is about the practice of letting go, if you do it regularly, you may find yourself starting with letting go of the small things, but eventually, the practice takes over and you find yourself letting go of bigger things, as well.
Such as happiness.
It is important to recognize that we hold on so dearly to our happiness as much as we wish so gravely to repel our pains (which is also a way of holding on), and both can be equally damaging. We find joy in learning that our pain is not permanent, and we find more pain in learning that our happiness is, alas, also not permanent. It is essential to learn letting go of both.
Meditation detaches us from the outcome. We do our work, we pursue our practice, we uncover our deepest desires and set out on our plans – that is where our life is. Peace lies in our acceptance of our journeys and the outcomes hold inconsequential value.
We are all learning it the most now. In solitude and absolute uncertainty, we are doing only what we can do to stay alive.
It might do us all good to acknowledge that sometimes, all it really takes is to breathe.
The breath in me recognizes the breath in you. Let us live the best we know how. Namaste.