A few months ago, I wrote a post titled, “Don’t Forget to Breathe.” I was noting how helpful it was (and is) for me in moments of stress to just STOP – to center, to breathe.
When you take the time to stop and notice your breath, even just for a few seconds, you are essentially grounding yourself – grounding yourself in yourself, if you follow me. When you breathe mindfully, you can’t help but become aware of where you are on the Earth at that particular moment: the sounds and smells around you, the feeling of whatever it is your fingertips are resting on, your posture, your heartbeat. It only takes a few seconds (especially after you practice it a few times), but that’s enough to re-set – and this is so helpful.
This is an ongoing challenge for me – this “remembering to breathe.” I note that in the post, and I note also that I see myself improving, but that I still have a long way to go. That’s still true! I continue to improve…but it’s still a struggle.
I think about this a lot; I consciously work on this issue. But it’s been a while since I’ve given it any real pondering. I’m going down that road a bit right now because of two recent reads that seem, in my head, to be twisting and winding and wrapping themselves around this idea (and each other) in different ways. They’re inspiring me to revisit the subject in writing, anyway.
One is from a blogger and yoga teacher named Ally Hamilton – who also happens to be an incredibly inspirational writer. I highly recommend checking out her blog if you’re interested in topics like this one (centering and breath) – and/or in exploring yourself in other ways.
In this particular post, she writes:
The ability to connect with your breathing, slow it down, feel it happening, is both simple and profound. It’s a way of reminding yourself that you are here right now. You have that.
I know this to be true from my own experience. Centering…grounding yourself into your own body and into the present moment…this is such a steadying thing. It’s so empowering. When I manage to do this, I feel my own capability to handle things. I BECOME more capable of handling things – any things. I don’t squander my own power by inwardly panicking and scattering it all.
The second piece of writing doesn’t speak directly to the idea of centering, breathing, etc. It rather discusses a state to aim for if your desire is to live a rewarding life: and that’s (paradoxically, perhaps) the state of being lost.
But this connects to the breath issue in my head – because, honestly, I don’t know how you can embrace being “lost” if you haven’t cultivated the ability to live from your center…to live rooted in your breath.
From BrainPickings‘ Maria Popova (quoting author Rebecca Solnit, from her book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost…which I now really want to read!):
…to be lost is to be fully present. And to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.
It’s in “being lost,” in opening oneself up to the utter freedom of uncertainty, that self-knowledge comes – and with that the sort of transcendent joy and wisdom and experience that truly enriches life. The hurdle however, as Popova notes, comes in the form of the “primal fear of losing control.”
Of course the truth (as Ally Hamilton notes) is that we really don’t (and can’t) control much of what happens to us in life. We like to think that we can – that if we make the “right” choices somehow our lives will be better. Which puts tremendous pressure on us to make those “right” choices…in other words, to NOT MESS UP.
I struggle a lot with that one. I think it (this fear of messing up) might be my biggest block when it comes to “remembering to breathe.” It’s really hard to focus on your breath, to move mindfully through your life, when you’re preoccupied with dodging every single possible stumble and overthinking every turn.
Being aware of this is a step toward changing it, I think. For me, realizing that I have this tendency to abandon my own steady center and put all my focus on outward things that more often than not knock me around, has helped me to catch myself. I went a lot of years blind to this in myself.
That’s how you end up on paths that aren’t right for you.
So I understand this now, and that helps. But it’s still really difficult to turn away from the idea that I can direct my own destiny – so long, that is, as I DO THINGS RIGHT. In other words, I’ve messed up in the past; I’d better not do again or I’m screwed. I put that on myself – even when I’m actively trying not to.
In my thinking brain, I think this is ridiculous – and limiting. But it’s still hard to get around it.
A movie I saw a few months ago (and again recently, because it’s a rather strange movie, and I wanted to analyze it more!) demonstrates pretty effectively how impossible a job this is – this self-imposed, self-defeating burden of choosing rightly for yourself all the time. Who’s to say what “right” even is??
This movie, Mr. Nobody, is a little hard to summarize in a sentence or two – but essentially, it’s the story of a boy named Nemo Nobody and the various lives he lives. He makes choices throughout the movie – each one altering his life path in different ways. In some scenarios, he grows up with his mother, in some with his father. (That’s the first pivotal life choice he has to make: who to live with.) And following on that first choice, a multitude of possible life variations emerge. He loves…he doesn’t love. He loves, but not the right woman…he loves exactly the right woman. He’s rich and miserable, with no life purpose…he’s homeless and sleeping on a city bench, but has great purpose. And so on.
The thing that struck me most about this movie though, in the context of my discussion here, was the one scenario where he ends up with the seemingly perfect life for him: a job he likes and is good at, a wife he adores and who adores him back, etc. Then one day he’s driving home from work, hits a bird and swerves, loses control of his car, crashes into a river and drowns. Just like that…life over.
So basically he did everything right, made all the “right” choices…and he still couldn’t control his own life outcome.
Control over our lives is an illusory thing. That’s a reality no one wants to face – but that doesn’t lessen its truth.
Mr. Nobody posits an interesting way to get around this – in the idea that, as making a choice requires you to let something go (the thing you didn’t choose), then everything remains possible so long as you don’t choose anything.
There are various problems with this idea – but I think the biggest is that even no choice IS a choice. Whatever you do (or don’t do) sets into motion a chain of events. Everything reverberates, everything has consequences. For yourself, for the people you touch…even strangers.
So you can’t escape it: you have to steer your own life. Even when you’re confused and overwhelmed and feeling utterly incapable…you still have to find a way to move forward.
I think the key to navigating that reality must lie in cultivating a comfort level with the unknown (embracing, in Rebecca Solnit’s words, “being lost.”) And the key to doing that with any degree of success is to cultivate the ability to live mindfully and from your center – which is something that can be achieved by focusing on the moment, each present moment. Because when you fully inhabit your moments, life becomes not only richer, but much more manageable.
In the exact now, we are all, always, all right.
–Artist’s Way author Julia Cameron, via Twitter, 2/15/14
For me, this realization came when I left my marriage.
For so long my life had been dominated by trying to fix what was wrong or broken in that relationship. And then it became about how to extricate myself from something that I’d finally accepted wasn’t fixable, and that I knew wasn’t sustainable.
But now it was done (more or less.) I mean, I was out. It was over. My life was my own again, wholly my own, to make of it what I would – or could.
And what was I supposed to do with that?? There were no clear answers. Everything was a fog. And it was terrifying!
I got through it ultimately by STOPPING – stopping my racing thoughts and my frantic attempts to blow the fog out of my way. Because everything was swirling chaos, I reached for the only things I had to hold on to: I had the tiny little flickering (metaphorical) lantern light in my hand that was my (very shaky) sense of myself and my own potential. And I had the ability to breathe in and breathe out again. And that was about it.
So I stopped trying to see out into the distance and instead placed my focus on the act of putting one foot in front of the other. Tentatively, yes – but that’s okay. Every tiny step forward is still movement. It’s living life.
And I realized one day that I was embracing my moments in a way that I never had before…ever, really. And they were richer for it…more nuanced, more full of color and texture and sound and scent.
And I realized that when I wasn’t looking way out ahead, mechanically grasping for the things I was “supposed to” grasp for on the way, I had the time to stop and think about whether or not I really wanted to go in that direction, or wanted those “supposed to” things at all.
And that’s when the world began to open up – a world of possibility and potential. (That mindset was what made “conscious uncoupling” possible, for one thing.)
So I learned something hugely important in those very scary days, immediately post-marriage: and that’s that you can’t absorb the potential that “being lost,” brings you, you can’t even grasp your own capabilities, if you’re not living mindfully.
You don’t have to have all the answers. You don’t have to worry about making “right” choices. What you have to do is center. You have to breathe.
I’m not sure there’s anything more important than breath – not anything at all in life. Because it enhances, if not makes possible, absolutely everything worth striving for.
So if I’ve sold you on the importance of remembering to breathe (i.e. living mindfully,) your next question might very well be: Okay, so how do I do that?
It’s easier said than done, I know. I really, really know. I mean, I can think about this topic and write about it and actively work on it…but it’s still really challenging to me. My kneejerk to react, to squander my own power like that, is so incredibly strong! Overcoming that is an ongoing issue for me.
Ally Hamilton makes a case in her post for yoga and meditation as tools to aid in this struggle – and they do help in my experience, both of them. Granted, I’m not so great with sitting meditation; I tend to need to do something physical with my body, like yoga, to manage any real stilling of my thoughts. Julia Cameron (in one of her sequels to The Artist’s Way; I don’t remember which one now!!!) advocates a walking meditation – and that often works well for me. I like to take my iPod, load it with some appropriate music, and just GO. (I wrote a post once, sort of observing myself doing this.)
Wandering in museums is useful sometimes, and listening to music (anytime, not just walking.) Connecting with art in any number of ways helps me, I guess.
But for me, the single most effective tool I’ve ever found for cultivating mindfulness has been photography.
I’m finding photography to be an extremely powerful tool for digging deeper…for cultivating the level of awareness I aspire to cultivate. There’s just something about having a camera in my hand that channels my thoughts. I see more, I feel more. And I see and feel more productively. I find that I’m less reactive when I’m in picture-taking-mode. I’m more aware – of myself and how I’m feeling, as well as of what’s around me.
I guess it really just comes down to finding the tool that works for you – and then actively utilizing it. I don’t engage in photography because I’m trying to be mindful and focus on my breath and all of that; I pick up my camera because it’s fun for me and because it satisfies a need I have to create art. But I’ve found that I can’t engage in photography effectively without also being mindful. It’s like trying to do yoga without mindfulness; it’s possible to do that, but you’ll never have any sort of depth to your practice, you’ll never achieve what you’re truly capable of, unless you engage on the deeper levels (which include the breath and the mind.)
That this has turned out to be a component of photography for me is really interesting. I didn’t anticipate that.
I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what I can learn and experience via cultivating mindfulness. Controlling my own reactivity, remembering to breathe and ground and live mindfully in the present moment, giving myself the gift of fully experiencing every single moment…that’s my ultimate life goal, I think.
One last note: The theme I’m currently using for this blog lets me set a featured image for each post. For this one I picked a shot I took of myself at the beach on my birthday in June.
The beach (any ocean beach) is the one place I never, ever have to remind myself to breathe, to still, to center. It just happens.
I wonder what it is about the ocean that does that.