“Let the breath lead the way.” ―Sharon Salzberg, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation
Quick! Think about the last time you were angry or upset. What did you feel in your body? Contraction? Agitation? What emotions came up? Hurt, fear, maybe confusion? What was the breath like? Shallow, choppy, or tight? Did you recognize you were breathing or even that you had a body? How were you able to help yourself?
What if I were to tell you meditation can help you tame your reactive brain and connect with compassion?
Before getting there, though, let’s explore what happens when we live mindlessly. I’ll share a personal story.
Let me set the stage for you. Bring in violins, play some scary organ music (think Phantom of the Opera), and picture me, sitting in a darkened corner of a damp cave, with a sole candle for comfort and a box of tissue to dry the tears. Slowly, the scene transitions to sunlight filtering in and surrounding me, followed by the sound of uplifting, angelic voices and a disembodied voice shouting out, “Hallelujah! She is saved!”
Sorry! My experience wasn’t that inspiring or scary. In truth, I started reading a book on meditation that sparked my interest. When I first began practicing, I was curious. But soon, curiosity turned to doubt, doubt morphed into frustration, and frustration turned into dread.
Sound good so far? No? Please read on. I promise there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and it’s not a train.
Taming the Reactive Brain with Meditation
“The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not looking at ourselves honestly and gently.” —Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
This was me. I was at war with myself. Scared and filled with sadness, anger, self-doubt, negativity, and shame, I was lost. Eventually, I experienced episodes of depression. The first one came on when my father died. I had many unresolved issues that made grief feel insurmountable. I felt as if my life was falling apart. I questioned childhood memories. Was it as traumatic as I remembered? Did I have a right to be angry about the unhappiness, fear, and shame I felt about childhood? I questioned life. What was the purpose if, in the end, we all die and life is messy? With the help of therapy and medication, the depression subsided, but when things became overwhelming, my view of life became cloudy and the depression came back strong.
When afflictive emotions arise, we meet them with kindness, gentle acceptance, and the love of a patient mother. This helps us respond in ways that are healing and grounding. In doing so, we grant ourselves the freedom to live from a place of love and wisdom, and that is a priceless gift.
Intuitively, I knew there was life beyond getting stuck in reactive and hurtful patterns of negativity and angst, but I didn’t know how to get there. I was and am so grateful that medication and therapy helped me through this challenging time. Still, I knew there was more to life than just surviving.
It was when I began reading Tara Brach’s book Radical Acceptance that I was introduced to the healing and compassionate practice of meditation. It was a slow journey. I loved reading the stories about how the practice transformed people’s lives. But when it came to the actual seated meditation practice, resistance arose. I dreaded sitting on the cushion so much you’d think it was embedded with barbed wire! But it wasn’t the cushion I was afraid of; it was what arose (i.e., “skeletons in the closet,” trauma from the past, judgment, shame, resistance) during meditation. It was overwhelming at times, and as a novice meditator I didn’t know how to help myself.
Still, I decided to stick with it. Am I a glutton for punishment? No! But continuing to run from thoughts and stuffing down feelings was exhausting and didn’t work. Fear was running the show, and I felt like a hamster on a wheel—running, exhausted, not living. The practice of meditating helped me see that the thoughts, stories, judgments, shame, and defensiveness were just activity of the mind, not who I am.
It wasn’t until I stopped running and learned how to sit through these challenging times (taking an online six-week course on introduction to mindfulness meditation helped!) that I began experiencing the clarity of mind and the healing power of a compassionate heart.
Even during the most challenging times, when I sat for meditation, the breath is what helped me stay anchored and present with what was arising. You might say, “What’s the big deal! I breathe in and out all day.” You’re right! But what I’m talking about goes beyond automatic breathing. It’s about connecting with and feeling the energy that the breath brings into the body, how the breath can help us get through feelings such as fear, grief, and despair. It’s also about how energizing the experience of breathing is when we’re joyful and feeling fully alive.
Let’s try a little experiment. For this exercise, read and memorize the four steps below and then do the practice for a period of three minutes. It might be a good idea to set a timer. Bring a sense of curiosity and kindness to what you experience.
- Take a moment to settle into a comfortable seated, awake posture, with a tall, alert spine.
- Take a slow breath in through the nostrils. Feel the sensation of the breath traveling into the body, and on the exhale slowly close your eyes.
- Continue breathing in slowly, and on the out-breath feel the sensation of the breath emptying out.
- Become aware of where you feel the breath (i.e., tip of the nostrils, chest, or belly). Notice the difference between breathing in and breathing out. What parts of the body move? See if you can sense the energy and aliveness here.
Using the following prompts, reflect on your experience:
- Was it challenging to stay with the breath? Did you notice the mind wander?
- What was it like to notice the sensation of breathing? Was it shallow or deep? Short or long?
- What did it feel like to breathe in versus out?
Greet Your Experience with an Open Heart and Mind
“Life is a dance. Mindfulness is witnessing that dance.” ―Amit Ray, Mindfulness: Living in the Moment – Living in the Breath
When we come into stillness, we can let go of external distractions and come into contact with the aliveness that is happening right here, right now. We begin to notice what is happening in the present moment in a nonjudgmental manner. As we do this, we connect with a quality of presence that goes way beyond the thinking mind. We come into contact with awareness—of the breath, of sensations in the body, of emotions. We notice:
- The body is filled with different sensations, such as tingling, vibrating, swirling, pulsing, feelings of pain, tension, relaxation, etc.
- The mind/mood is constantly in flux; at times it’s relaxed, bored, distracted, seeking, or racing.
- Emotions are felt sensations in the body. Sadness shows up as heaviness in the heart area or tears; fear as tension in the face, neck, and shoulders; and frustration/anger as agitation, restlessness, or heart palpitations.
When we let go of judging our experience as right/wrong or should/shouldn’t, we begin to notice what is happening and see the unfolding of our lived experience. How are we relating to what’s happening as it happens?
- Are we reacting with aversion or clinging to the different thoughts, emotions, and sensations?
- Is the experience pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral?
- What’s happening in the body? Is there contraction? Openness? Tension?
- What about the mind? Are the thoughts racing, sluggish, excited?
- What is the attitude toward the felt experience? Resistance, anger, kindness, compassion, or acceptance?
Bringing compassion to the challenging emotions that arise helps us stay present and allows experience to flow through us. When afflictive emotions arise, we meet them with kindness, gentle acceptance, and the love of a patient mother. This helps us respond in ways that are healing and grounding. In doing so, we grant ourselves the freedom to live from a place of love and wisdom, and that is a priceless gift.
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