Focus on your breath.
It seems so simple.
So why is it so hard?
I learned to breathe back in the late 90’s in Takoma Park. I was rebuilding my life after a debilitating health crisis and needed tools to help me move forward. After a period of personal and professional dysfunction, my skills were shaky and my confidence was at an all-time low. I was looking for building blocks, bits of accomplishment that could provide a new foundation.
I ended up in Takoma Park on Sunday nights through a friend. He had been attending a meditation class was sponsored by the Insight Meditation Community of Washington (IMCW).
The class met in a yoga studio. We brought cushions to sit on while we were guided through a inspiring talk and then a period of sitting. Maybe it was twenty minutes of sitting. Maybe it was more.
My friend and I both struggled with the task of emptying our minds. My friend had something called monkey mind, where thoughts bounce around in the head like monkeys swinging from tree branch to tree branch. His head was filled with constant chatter and he couldn’t quiet it down.
I had a different problem. My mind would focus on a subject, but any subject was filled with doom and negativity. I was hard wired to think the worst and couldn’t point my mind in a different direction.
We went to those Sunday night classes for some time. And then we added a popular Wednesday night meditation where a few hundred people gathered to hear Tara Brach talk and then guide us through a shared time sitting quietly.
I was relieved, over time, to realize that quieting the mind was a challenge for many people. It gave me hope that many had eventually discovered ways of emptying the mind that had worked for them. Instead of focusing on my own negative, I decided to do the simplest thing the instructor suggested: I focused on my breath.
Focusing on one’s breath is really simple.
You feel yourself breathe in. You feel yourself breathe out.
Then you feel yourself breathe in and breathe out again.
It’s really easy because the breathing pretty much happens without much effort.
The key is to just keep focusing on your breath.
But it’s a bit tricky since the mind tends to wander.
My mind wandered all over the place. My mind left no topic unpondered.
So I ended up getting strict about focusing on my breath. And eventually, I learned what it feels like to think about nothing. While breathing. And sitting.
Eventually, I also learned how to use my breath outside of the formal medication class. I learned how to use my breath when I needed to refocus or calm down or shift my thinking.
The good news about the breath is that it’s alway there, available for you to use as a tool.
Little by little, I added to my breathing experience. I found soothing music that I could listen to whenever I felt my mind going to dark or disconcerting places. Sometimes I added a comforting mantra that helped me to distract my focus from a bad place.
And I listened to so many of Tara Brach’s talks, available for free on her website. Some I listened to over and over, memorizing the words of comfort and reassurance. I ended up being able to hear her voice. And I ended up believing that I could learn to laugh again after going through such a hard time. I heard Tara Brach laughing genuinely, without taking anything away from the depth of her advice.
And years later I started writing cartoons about sitting quietly. Because no matter how good I got at focusing on my breath, my mind was constantly trying to outsmart me and drift to anything and everything else. And eventually it was comical.
Seriously, though. Try focusing on your breath. It’s really helpful.
And if you’re into it, listen to Thich Nhat Hanh whose stories of sitting quietly and breathing purposefully are delightful and addictive.
My favorite story of his is about apple juice.
Hope you read about apple juice and enjoy.
“Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment I know this is the only moment.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace
In the meantime, remember to breathe.