Do This. Get That.

Have you noticed how many “Do this. Get that.” prescriptions vie for our attention every day? In ads, articles, and books; on blogs and in social media. How often do we say to ourselves, “If only I would do such-and-such, I would be happier, feel better, be more successful, have more friends and followers, or fill in the blank with your own “would be  ______.”

Do This Get That

It feels like a cultural epidemic.  Even in publications that embrace mindfulness, we constantly hear about how meditation makes us more kind, less stressed, smarter, healthier, more tolerant, better at our jobs, in school, at home, and with our children. Meditate. Get healthy. Meditate. Be more successful at work. Meditate do better at school. Meditate. Get _____. (You fill in the blank.)

It isn’t that mindfulness doesn’t help us open to our happiness, look with fresh eyes, be present and live acceptingly in the moment. Being mindful and cultivating mindfulness with meditation is about process. It is about the doing, not the getting. Even when we mediate every day, everyday life goes on, good and bad things happen, and new and tough situations arise. Mindfulness is about the very process of being with ourselves, with others, and with our environment.

How about just sitting and breathing with no more intention than to sit, breathe, pay attention, and when the mind wanders to return to paying attention? How about giving up all the objectives and throwing the promises out the door. How about just sitting with pinpoint focus on the breath and nothing more? You just might be amazed.

Breath – The Best of All

I love stories; this one is from the Prashna-Upanishad. I invite you to enjoy it with me:

Once upon a time, Bhargava Vaidarbhi went to the sage Pippalada (whose name means “eater of the fruit of the scared fig tree”), fire-wood in hand as a symbolic offering and asked, “Good sir, how many powers are there that establish and maintain the universe and its creatures, and which one is the bst of all?” Pippalada thought a bit, then told this tale:

The powers—Space, Air, Fire, Water, Earth, Speech, Mind, the Eye, and the Ear—were talking among themselves, bragging really. They said: “We establish and maintain this universe and the body (hana, literally “reed” or “arrow”)?

Breath (prana) who was really the best of them all, happened to hear and rejoined: “Friends, don’t fool yourselves. I establish and maintain the universe and the body.” The other powers pooh-poohed and didn’t believe her.

So, Breath, rather miffed at not being believed, decided to teach them a lesson. She moved upward, and guess what? All the others moved upward too. Then Breath settled down and, yes, all the others settled down with her. It was just like a swarm of bees following their queen wherever she went. Now the powers realized their dependence on Breath and delighted, sang her praises… (excerpted from Pranayama: beyond the Fundamentals, by Richard Rosen, Shambhala Publications, 2006)

The Swinging Door

When I was a university student I was introduced to Zen Buddhism by way of Alan Watts and Shunryu Suzuki. Of all my reading, my most favorite on the subject then and now, is Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Lately I have taken to picking it up and opening the pages to see where I land. The other day I landed at the swinging door. I held the swinging door in focus during my morning meditation and found it most agreeable. The breeze of breath swung the door this way and that. It rippled and shone and seemed to be like a river gently flowing here and there over pebbles and branches.

…When we inhale, the air comes into the inner world. When we exhale, the air goes out into the outer world. The inner world is limitless. We say “inner world” or “outer world,” but actually there is just one whole world. In this limitless world, our throat is like a swinging door. In this limitless world, our throat is like a swinging door. The air comes in and goes out like someone passing through a swinging door. If you think, “I breathe,” the “I” is extra. There is no you to say “I.” What we call “I” is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale. It just moves; that is all. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no “I,” no world, no mind or body; just a swinging door.

(Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shambhala Publications, 2011)

A swinging door, a flowing river, a breath of fresh air.

Focusing on the Breath

Our  breath is always with us. It’s automatic. Although we breathe more than twenty thousand times a day, we pay no attention. But when we notice our breath it can tell us much about the current state of our health and well-being. When we are anxious, stressed, or in pain, we breathe more rapidly and shallowly from the shoulders. When we are relaxed we breathe more easily, gently, and slowly from the diaphragm or belly.

Take a moment right now as you read this to notice your breath. How does it feel? Is it tight? Or relaxed? Shallow? Or deep? Rapid? Or slow? Hard? Or gentle?

If it feels tight, hard, shallow, or rapid I invite you to try this practice.

Sit on a chair with your feet on the floor or on a pillow on the floor with your legs crossed so that your shins are parallel to your body, your back upright (not sloughing over or leaning back). Place your hands on your thighs or fold your hands in your lap.  Set a timer for five minutes.

Close your eyes.

Take a few deep breaths to relax.

Now pay attention to the physical sensation of your breath. That’s all, nothing more. As you breathe in, say to yourself, “Breathing in.” As you breathe out, say to yourself, “Breathing out.”

When thoughts rise up, don’t worry. They will. Notice how they draw your attention away from your breath. Don’t make any judgements; thoughts rising up and falling away are a natural thing. When distracted by thoughts, simply acknowledge them by saying, “Thoughts,” and return your attention to the breath by saying to yourself,  “Breathing in,” as you inhale and, “Breathing out,” as you exhale.

When an ache or pain arises in some part of your body distracting you from your breath, acknowledge it gently by saying to yourself, “Sensation,” and return your focus to the breath by saying to yourself,  “Breathing in,” as you inhale and, “Breathing out,” as you exhale.

If this is not enough to rest your focus on the breath instead of the ache or pain, try this.  Breathe into the place of pain as you focus on the breath. Doing this diminishes the pain and then you’ll realize that it is not there any more. Continue to focus on your breath by saying to yourself,  “Breathing in,” as you inhale and, “Breathing out,” as you exhale.

Keep your focus on the breath in this way until the timer sounds. Now open your eyes. Notice how you feel. Do you feel different? How? This is a calming practice that will greatly enhance your sense of well-being. Now breathe.

Do this every day.

Once you feel comfortable watching your breath in this way for five minutes, increase the time. Don’t worry about how much you increase it. Maybe you’ll watch your breath for just a minute more, for six minutes, or maybe you’ll watch it for ten minutes. When you can comfortably sit for the new period of time increase the length of time again until you reach twenty-four or more  minutes.

Remember, it is the doing, not the duration that is the gift of this practice.