"If the breathing is at all unsettled, life is not your own."
"Heaven and Earth," c. Ming dynasty work Anthology on the Cultivation of Realization by unknown author, translated by Thomas Cleary in Taoist Meditation
On any given day, how do you truly feel? Do you feel calm and centered, or do you feel as if you've taken a seat on the carousel of life, whirling 'round and 'round, at its mercy?
I'm recalling a time when I climbed aboard the Tilt-A-Whirl at our local fair with my youngest daughter—against my better judgment. You see, I do not like carnival rides. The motion actually makes me very ill. But she begged me to ride with her and I reluctantly agreed. We climbed aboard, and as the whirling began, I thought to myself, "This isn't so bad. I think I can handle it." Within seconds though, the operator shifted gears and dramatically increased the speed and rotation factor. Sheer terror came over me, that out-of-control feeling knowing I was at the mercy of this man (who had a profoundly menacing look on his face), and there was no way I could get off the ride to regain my equilibrium. The whirling seemed to go on forever. I nearly cried with relief when it stopped, wobbled my way to a nearby restroom, where I collapsed on the floor and emptied the contents of my stomach into the commode. I lay there for what seemed like forever trying to regain my footing. I felt dizzy and nauseous for the rest of the day and upset with myself because of the poor choice I'd made.
Of course, my over-the-top carnival ride isn't a perfect metaphor for what can happen to us in daily life, but it is similar. Many of us are familiar with that spinning, out-of-control feeling as we move through our days; a loss of equanimity from the pace or "too-muchness" of life.
The only "remedy" I know for this is to come back to "center" as quickly as we can with the healing power of our own breath. I think of breath as our sacred touchpoint, the fulcrum of the human teeter-totter of life. It calms and stabilizes us like no other force or practice. It is simply miraculous! We carry our breath with us and can access it any time: "Portable Peace." And, as you know so well, the challenge is remembering to use it when you need it.
But did you also know that breath can bring you back to center in a variety of ways? Conscious breathing is not just for stabilizing, but for deep calm, and also for raising our energy level when we are feeling sluggish or worn out. Yogis of the past and present document the differences for us. Breathing one way, we get super relaxed, in another way we attain equanimity. And in yet another way, we can raise our energy to very high levels of strength and endurance.
I love this thought, offered by an unknown yogi. "When you own your breath, nobody can steal your peace." If we are to live more gently with ourselves, it is vital that we own our breath, claim its power to do whatever our body/mind needs in the moment—whether it be rest, balance, or energy—so we can continue to serve ourselves and others well. The beautiful breath that moves through your being is a gift of the greatest measure. I invite you to learn to harness it for your own good.
Our journey with making friends with ourselves is not a selfish thing. We’re not trying to get all the goodies for ourselves.
It’s a process of developing loving-kindness and a true understanding for other people as well.
~ Pema Chodron
(from The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-kindness)
As I read this quote this morning I thought to myself, “Yes, yes!” This is exactly what I try to tell others about the importance of befriending ourselves. The idea of treating ourselves as kindly and gently as we would others is so often perceived as mushy gushy, self-centered, the harbinger of laziness, and, yes, selfish—a word I have come to abhor. There are not many things or words I abhor but this notion is one of them. I’ve actually banned this “S” word from my vocabulary.
We are living in a culture (U.S. culture, I can only speak from my own experience here) that feels as if it is becoming so absorbed in ideas and actions of “me and mine,” we are losing all sense of what it really means to be kind and generous human beings. And, yet, when someone like me or Pema Chodron or any other person who is passionate about self-awareness speaks of “befriending”, we are often perceived as self-absorbed navel gazers. Oy vay. What a tangled web we weave for ourselves!
What I discovered over the years was this: the more I WAS able to treat myself compassionately—like a dear friend would—I naturally felt more loving toward others. By seeing all of the ways I would push myself, judge myself, and feel as if I were never enough, I could look around me and see that so many others were doing the same. I could see more clearly how we are ALL trapped in ways of behaving that are not beneficial to our ultimate well-being. This can range from stressing over things that have not happened (or may never happen), to not ever feeling good enough because we consistently compare ourselves to others.
When we are ready and able to look into the mirror of our own heart, we can see the many ways we are still be caught up in “if only.” If only I were more attractive. If only I were smarter. If only I were further along on my spiritual path. Meaning, all the ways we could be better, or our lives could be better, if we just put our shoulder to the self-help grindstone one more time.
The truth of the matter is, if we talked like this to someone we cared about we’d stop ourselves mid-sentence, realizing this would not be a kind thing to say: “If only you were …” “If only you had …” reeks of disappointment. And disappointment—many disappointments stacked one upon the other—are absolutely soul crushing.
I heard a psychologist speak to this truth on Oprah’s daily show many years ago. She said that the great destroyer of intimate relationships is disappointment—disappointed in the partner about what they did or did not do. Stack up all those disappointments year after year and intimacy fades. The relationship will most likely fall apart. I have never forgotten her words.
Applying this to ourselves, if we are continually disappointed in our self, how will our relationship with our self eventually end up? Bruised. Defeated. Broken.
If we are genuinely interested in self-awareness (not so much self-improvement, there is a difference, you know) and embodying the truth of who we are and can be, we need to break this cycle of self-defeating behavior. I believe we can do this by taking baby steps toward befriending. Something as simple as catching yourself in the act is a good (and compassionate!) place to start.
When you hear yourself saying something unkind to yourself, imagine that your best friend (or your grandmother who loved you dearly) is gently placing her hand on your shoulder saying, “Shhh, don’t say that about yourself, sweetheart, because it’s not true.” And believe her because it’s not.
Who you are is so much more than a big stack of disappointments. Or a self-improvement project. Or something broken that needs to be fixed. Who you are is goodness. This is your true nature. This is everyone’s true nature.
And, so, we come full circle back to Ani Pema’s thought: “Our journey with making friends with ourselves is not a selfish thing. We’re not trying to get all the goodies for ourselves. It’s a process of developing loving-kindness and a true understanding for other people as well.”
When the door of loving-kindness opens for us, we invariably see that on the other side stands an entire group of people who are having the same kind of experiences we are. And because they are, each person is deserving of loving-kindness—as are we.
is a touchpoint. a resting place, a "remembering" of who we really are and how we can best live—kindly and compassionately with ourselves and others.
Janice Lynne Lundy, DMin
is an educator, interspiritual director/guide and retreat leader who has been pointing people back toward the Sacred for more than twenty years. She is the author of several spiritual growth books, including Your Truest Self, My Deepest Me and Portable Peace., and is the co-founder and co-director of the Spiritual Guidance Training Institute.