Summary: Eveline talks about her writer’s block and the attempt to give her mind some air, by focusing on the most essential flow we know. Part 4 in a series about Mindfulness.
Breathe in, breathe out – Can we give our minds some air?
Author: Eveline Stolk
Reading Time: 5 mins
This blog is a follow up on my earlier post “Doing versus Being – the journey towards becoming a Mindful Metropolitan”.
You can hold it, save it, sometimes you have to catch it, you take a deep one in times of trouble and someone else can take it away. What is it? That’s right: our breath.
Over the past few weeks, I have not been writing a lot. Lack of inspiration. I know this is something I cannot look for, so I leave it this way. It usually strikes when I least expect it. Meanwhile, I start to think about inspiration. Where does it come from anyway? From an etymological perspective (i.e. the study of the origin of words), I already know. Years of Latin classes paying off: inspiration originates from the verb “inspirare”, which means “to blow into”. As a fresh flow of air that comes from nothing. Nowadays, inspiration is defined as “someone or something that gives you ideas for doing something”. In ancient times this source was considered to be divine or supernatural. An elusive influence that instills something in our hearts or minds. Whatever that influence is, it seems to come from outside ourselves. However, literally, “inspiration” has a link to something much closer to home. The root of the word is “spirare” – to breathe.
Breathing. Our most vital activity and an interesting phenomenon. No wonder there are so many sayings and words related to it. When I do a little research, I read something I did not realize before. Breathing is both a voluntary and involuntary mechanism. Other major body functions – such as our blood flow or digestion – occur without our conscious influence. Even if we try, it is very hard to control them. Our breath has a dual quality. While the process of breathing is managed unconsciously, we can take charge and change it – every moment we want to. Just as we can simply observe it, at any time.
After two weeks of endless body scans, the next meditation exercise has a different focus point: the breath. That should be all right, I reason at the start. I have some experience in breathing with full awareness. Since a year or so, I practice hot power yoga. During a yoga sequence it is crucial to connect to your breath. The crux of vinyasa yoga is the synchronization of inhalation and exhalation with a flow of postures. While mindfully moving into and through the positions, your breathing leads the way. Especially because power yoga is pretty intense (not least for the studio is heated to close to 40 degrees), it is helpful to have an anchor that guides you. And this anchor is always there. That raises my spirits for the mindfulness homework.
I decide to do my daily meditation when I wake up, after a shower. An early bird practice sets the right tone for the day, experts say. And, maybe even more important: if you do your meditation first thing in the morning, at least it gets done (and yes, that is just a nice way of saying: let’s get it over with). Additional upside: expect less trouble staying awake. But regardless of what time, do stick to a fixed time. That helps building the routine. In the first weeks, however, I never do my homework the way I initially planned.
The instruction for the meditation is simple: focus on your breath. Don’t change anything, only watch it. It is pretty hard. I observe the movement of my belly, the rising of my chest, the little pause before the air leaves my body again. Within thirty seconds my mind is elsewhere. The voice on the tape reminds me every now and then to come back. But sometimes I do not even hear it. My thoughts are all over the place. In a yoga flow, you become very aware of your body and conscious of what you’re doing. During a seated mediation, however, there is no physical activity that helps you to focus. The tendency to get distracted is therefore a lot higher.
I am restless. After ten minutes, I peek through my eyelashes and look at the green time digits of the oven clock. Only halfway? I close my eyes again. Why is it so hard to take this time for doing nothing? Only twenty minutes, put to very good use. In the plenary meetings of the mindfulness training I never feel this impatient. Somehow it is easier to surrender to the experience in a room with other people doing the same thing, in a time frame that was already labeled as “well spent”. At home, with a dozen plans in my head and my breakfast waiting, I am in my doing mode. And breathing is not at all about doing. It doesn’t try to get us anywhere, it is not about efficiency nor about having “the best breath we ever had”. To the contrary: although we are able to control our breath, forcing our inhalations out of the natural flow can feel quite uncomfortable.
I try to inhale and exhale with full awareness again. Noticing whether my breaths are deep or shallow, fast or slow. Still, I drift away. – Shall I go for a swim tonight? – I wonder what Jan meant when he mentioned that issue at our client yesterday. – I should really call Marie. – Am I out of yoghurt? And it doesn’t stop there. One thought leads to another – due to obvious connections, unconscious associations, or complete randomness.
The voice on the tape suggests to label my thoughts, before I let them go. Labeling helps not to get lost in the content of your thinking. As soon as you observe a thought, you classify it according to its type and focus on the breath again. It brings you back in the present moment. And so I start. “Plan.” “Worry.” “Analysis.” Every now and then, in between the thoughts, my mind is still. Just for a moment or so. “Memory.” “Analysis.” “Judgment.” And there it is, out of nothing and unexpected. “Inspiration.” I take a deep breath and let it go. Sometimes I love my wandering mind.
Mindful breathing is a very nice meditation exercise, especially for beginners. Your breath is always there; it provides you with a focus point that serves as an anchor during the practice. And remember: you don’t need any special techniques. Your breath does what it does. Leave it, just watch it. You can find guided practices (starting from 3 minutes only) everywhere; I recommend the Headspace app I mentioned in my first blog.