January’s Mindfulness Method – Abdominal Breathing

Photo: Amorebieta, Spain (Basque Country)
Photo: Amorebieta, Spain (Basque Country)

“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.”

– Thich Nhat Hanh

Since discovering mindfulness back in 2013, I’ve experienced many of the benefits it has to offer. These include more peace of mind, increased self-awareness, and a greater ability to connect with others.

Despite these benefits, however, consistently practicing mindfulness remains a challenge for me. Even when meditation is a daily habit, I have a hard time remembering to stay mindful throughout the day.

In order to make practicing mindfulness as simple as possible this year, I’m going to focus on one specific “mindfulness method” each month. These methods will simply be different ways of bringing my attention to the present moment.

My method for January is abdominal breathing.

What is Abdominal Breathing?

Breathing deeply into the abdominals, or lower stomach area.

Why Abdominal Breathing?

Concentrating on the breath is a core component in most mindfulness and meditation practices. I first discovered the presence-bringing power of observing my breath after reading “The Power of Now.” Since then, it has been the mindfulness method that I come back to the most.

However, there is a difference between abdominal breathing and just paying attention to your breath; abdominal breathing is more intentional. It’s not just observing, but consciously directing the breath. I chose this more intentional method because of the benefits it offers outside of mindfulness.

I actually stumbled upon it a couple of months ago while searching for ways to reduce stress and anxiety.  A few sources recommended abdominal breathing because of it’s calming effect on the mind and body. I tested it out for a couple of days and was quickly sold on it. It wasn’t a cure-all, but I did notice a greater sense of calm after breathing deeply into my abdomen for even a few seconds.

My Progress So Far…

As of writing this, I’ve been trying to consistently use this method for four days. So far it has still been a struggle to remain mindful, but that might be because my holiday travels have left me feeling a little more frazzled than usual. However, it has been nice having a single focus to come back to when I find myself getting caught up in my thoughts.

I’ll probably post an update in a week or two. It could be interesting to see what my practice looks like once I’m in a more consistent routine.

 

The Paradox of Mindfulness

Photo: Lagos, Portugal
Photo: Lagos, Portugal

“In mindfulness one is not only restful and happy, but alert and awake. Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality.” 

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

It’s been a little over three years since I first heard about mindfulness and being present to the moment. It started with a chance reading of “The Power of Now,” and since finishing that book I’ve not only read several other books on the topic but tried to make mindfulness the basis of my life as well.

I was an emotional mess before I discovered mindfulness. While I had good days every now and then, anger and sadness were my primary emotional states. I was prone to bouts of rage (not so great when mixed with all the drinking I was doing in college), prolonged stretches of unexplainable sadness, and tons of social anxiety.

Those emotions weren’t the main issue, though. The real problem was that I had almost zero awareness of why I was feeling them. I could identify the surface level causes of my anger and sadness, such as a rude comment somebody made or a breakup I was going through, but that knowledge did nothing to stop the emotions from consuming me.

Practicing mindfulness and meditation has helped me learn to observe my thoughts and emotions from a distance, thus giving me the ability to understand why I’m feeling them. I’ve also noticed a change in the intensity of my emotions. Whereas in the past every little thing I felt seemed so visceral that it ended up dictating my actions, there is now a feeling of hollowness that pervades many of my negative emotions. I’m guessing this is a result of watching my thoughts and emotions come and go during meditation. The realization of their impermanence seems to have removed some of their power.

But despite these positive changes, I still find myself struggling to practice mindfulness consistently. Why is that?

I think a big part of it is fear. The idea of living in the present moment, or “not thinking,” is kind of a scary one. For as long as I can remember I’ve prided myself on my intelligence or, in other words, my ability to think.

So when I consider a life lived completely in a present moment, there’s a part of me that starts to freak out. Without the constant narrative in my head, would I still be intelligent? Would I still be able to think clearly and solve problems? Wouldn’t I end up a simple-minded idiot?

Taking a step back, I realize that those fears are just the ego trying to preserve itself. But even on a more concrete level, my own experiences with mindfulness serve to dispel those fears.

Being present to the moment has only ever improved my ability to think critically. For the longest time, I’ve confused the narrative in my head with productive thinking. But when I really look at it, the majority of my thoughts only distract me from whatever task I’m working on.

I see this most clearly when speaking in front of the classroom. When “thinking” in the traditional sense, I often find it difficult to focus on what I’m saying. My mind focuses on things like how I’m being perceived or made up stories about how bored my students must be while listening to me. But when I’m present to the moment, the words just seem to flow out of me. I’m more engaging, wittier, and more responsive to the needs of my students. In other words, I’m thinking a lot more clearly.

So I guess the paradox of mindfulness is that “not thinking” actually improves your ability to think. This is something I really want to keep in mind during those times when mindfulness seems a little too daunting.

Note: Some might not consider this accurate, but in this post  I equate the terms “mindfulness” and “being present.” 

Quote of the Week #13

-Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are.-

 

As I begin each week, I find it really important to be grounded in a firm sense of direction. This doesn’t just mean knowing what I want to accomplish externally, but what I want my mental state to consist of as well. A big part of that is setting firm intentions for what I want to focus on in my life.

I’m a firm believer that the quality our lives are almost entirely determined by what we choose to focus on. We can either focus on the positive aspects of life or the negative. We can focus on the slow driver in front of us, or the fact that we are lucky to have an air-conditioned car in the first place.

There’s always a choice, and I’m using this quote as a reminder that who I am is not determined by my circumstances, but by the choices I make in each moment.

Where Did the Beauty Go?

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“Mindfulness is about being fully awake in our lives. It is about perceiving the exquisite vividness of each moment.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn

~

Lately my life has felt relatively void of beauty. Considering this is a blog about the quest for beauty in my life, I’m not overjoyed about this fact.

It would be easy for me to blame it on the recent changes in my life situation. When I started this blog I was living in San Sebastian, a beautiful beach city in Spain. I spent my days reading and writing in cafes, traveling around the country, and meeting new people. Then there was the architecture…How can there be so much beautiful architecture in one country?

Now I’m back home, and I spend most of my time in a routine, going to work in a small city and then coming back home. I may occasionally slip in some yoga on the beach or a game of basketball but that’s about it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I have a bad living situation; but it’s a far cry from my life in Spain.

Yet in my heart I know my external situation is not to blame for the perceived lack of beauty in my life. I firmly believe that beauty can be found in any situation, as long as I’m willing to look for it.

So why have I been struggling so much then? Am I just not looking hard enough? Is this an issue of work ethic?

I don’t think so. But it’s possible I’m using the wrong strategy to find beauty in my life.

My normal approach to seeking beauty has been to wait for the inspiration to strike and ride the wave as long as I can. This was easy to do in Spain. The sense of adventure that came from moving across the world made everything seem magical. Not only was I surrounded by new and exciting things, I felt a sense of freedom being on my own out there.

Unfortunately, inspiration is a fickle thing, and since I’ve been back home it has rarely shown itself.

There have been recent glimmers of hope though. Since renewing my focus on mindfulness meditation and being present to the moment, glimpses of beauty have started to reemerge in my life.

It’s nothing like how it was when I was abroad; my rose-colored glasses rarely stay on for more than a few moments. But I’m starting to notice a trend: those glimpses of beauty last about as long as I’m able to stay present to the moment. Once my mind shifts back into thinking mode the beauty is gone.

I think part of my problem is that I’ve been looking at beauty the wrong way. This whole time I’ve thought of it as something that has to be sought out. But what if instead of going out of my way to search for it, I just need to change the lenses through which I’m seeing the world? And by that I simply mean becoming present to the moment.

One of the reasons I’m so enamored with being present to the moment is that I’ve experienced the power it has to instantly transform my life.

I can still recall those first few times I made an effort to observe my thoughts. It felt as if there was a dimmer switch in my head that I never knew about. For years I had been living in a dark haze of thoughts and emotions, believing that reality couldn’t get any brighter. But as soon as I took that mental step back and watched what was going on in my head….it was like I turned the brightness all the way up in my life. Everything around me – people, nature, even inanimate objects – became more vibrant.

In the brief moments I was present I started to notice new details in my surroundings. Music began to sound a little better. I could connect with people on a deeper level. When taking action I could get in a flow state much easier.

That’s the power of being present. And it’s only natural that in a state like that, seeing the beauty in the world becomes automatic.

So from here on out I’m shifting my focus.

Instead of worrying so much about looking for beauty, I’m going to first start cultivating a state of mind that can perceive it. This means focusing on being present in each moment. Because how could I possibly expect to find beauty in the moment if my full attention isn’t even on it?