(part 2 of A Soft Place to Call Home)
“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky
Conscious breathing is my anchor”
Thich Nhat Hanh
In my last article, I wrote about the importance of being compassionate with ourselves at all times. But how many of us actually do it? How many of us actually remember to provide ourselves with the warm embrace of acceptance and the gentle voice of wisdom that recognizes our humanity – that of making mistakes and that capable of correcting them too.
Not many of us. In times of need, we are often our harshest critic. It is not because we enjoy inflicting additional pain upon ourselves. In fact, our instinctive desire, millennia in the making, is to run away from the pain in the first place. But in this resistance to the pain, we begin a rehashing of past events, sending out angry emails, doubting our ability to be good or acceptable and criticizing ourselves for the way we are. It is what the Buddha called the 2nd darts we throw ourselves. These 2nd darts are the result of our internal voice that calls the shots and is responsible for over 90% of our decisions and 99% of our suffering.
How do we actually begin to hear this voice? By listening. Attentively. As with all conversation, when we do not listen closely, we follow very little. There are numerous times when I have had a ‘conversation’ with my kids only to realize that I have heard nothing of what they had to say, not because they did not speak but because I did not listen. When we listen to others, our world expands. We hear their point of view. That makes us capable not only of understanding their position, but also of applying our judgment to make an informed decision about whether to stand by our own beliefs or modify them if needed.
When we listen to ourselves, magical things happen. We hear our own internal voice. This is the practice of Mindfulness. I use to believe that Mindfulness was some spiritual practice that required special pants and a move to the Himalayas. Now I know better. Mindfulness is the simple act of being aware of our thoughts in the moment. We could all benefit from more of that.
So here is Mindfulness in all its glorious simplicity:
- Sit comfortably in a spot and take out a set amount of time to listen to yourself. This is what I call making space. We cannot listen by multi-tasking or rushing from one chore to another. This is the time you are giving your inner voice to see what it has to say. 10 minutes the first thing in the morning is always a good way to go.
- Focus on your breath and watch yourself slowly inhale and then exhale. This is the practice of grounding yourself. It makes you realize that whatever goes on around you, there is safety within you. In my early days, I would hyperventilate myself by long deep breaths and get totally dizzy after. Then I experimented with short quick breaths and became breathless and shaky. I realize now that you go with the flow – the more you try and do it the ‘right’ way, the more you disconnect yourself from your inner core. Watch your breath come in, imagine it go through your body, taking care of each wonderful cell and then out again, into the world.
- Begin to expand your awareness to include the sounds around you. What can you hear in the background? The chirping of the birds, the soft sound of the breeze or the loud whizzing by of an accelerating car? As you open up your awareness, your thoughts will wander. Let them in, and listen to what they have to say. Are you adding judgment to experiences? How do you view the world? What spin does your mind give to events? Listen in but when you find yourself getting too attached to the experience, let the thoughts go by gently returning your awareness to your breath.
- As you conclude your practice, bring your awareness back to your breath and feel it grounding you, bringing you back to peace with yourself, in the knowledge that regardless of what your mind says and the experiences that bother you, you are safe, at peace and comforted within yourself. Nothing can take that from you. Emotions and experiences will come and go – such is life – but your own being will find comfort in its very existence.
This basic practice of Mindfulness is our window on our inner world. It does not always flow that freely though. For one, the mind is a tough one to discipline. Like a naughty child, it has the habit of slipping away and going to the very place it should not. And secondly, life is abundant and unpredictable in the pain and challenges it lays in our path. Controlling our minds when emotionally upset is an uphill battle that only gets easier with dogged perseverance.
This does not mean that we have to be tough on ourselves. I have spent many early months into the practice lecturing myself on my inability to detach myself from my emotional spirals. Until I realized that the loud criticism I was hurling at myself was of the very voice that I was trying hard to hear. I learnt, slowly but surely, to be gentle as I pulled myself away from the sticky tangle of my thoughts and back to the safety and openness of my breath.
This is your safe harbor. This is the place of love and acceptance from where you will view the world through a wide lens and find the courage to do the right thing.