6. Moving from breathing to mindfulness
Updated: Oct 13, 2020
Honestly, if you have followed through The Breathe Key blogs up to now, you've been practising the breathing techniques through to the 3:3:6 technique and you've been doing this with conscious, diaphragmatic breathing in your controlled environment, then to an extent you've already started practising mindfulness. How about that!
Up until this point in The Breathe Key Blog Keys, we have been talking about our breathing as needing to be conscious, (Blog Key 1), diaphragmatic or deep, (Blog Key 2), and controlled or measured, (Blog Key 4), while focusing specifically on exhaling, (Blog Key 3). Obviously, to say all of these things every time I mention breathing while being great at increasing my blog word count will become totally laborious for you! So let me introduce you to a new term. This new term rolls all of the above into one. And this is what is known as Mindful Breathing, abbreviated to MB. So from hereon in, I will speak about mindful breathing and when I do, you will understand that it refers to all of the above, or, everything you have learnt in Blog Keys 1 to 4 about breathing.
May I now say, welcome to Mindful Breathing. (Insert smiley emoticon!)
Mindfulness in a Nutshell
Now that we have covered your essentials of breathing, and graduated your understanding and ability to breathe into mindful breathing, let us walk over another bridge into mindfulness. To some, it can sound fancy, to others it can sound fluffy and not serious at all and to others, it can feel unobtainable. So what do we mean when we talk about this abstract concept of mindfulness?
In a nutshell, it is all about compassion. In a nutshell, it is all about connecting with the moment.
What do we really mean by compassion?
I'm going to take a little time here because it is incredibly important we understand the basics of compassion so that we can take it into our MB times.
In the book "The Art of Happiness", (see the Key Books Page), the Dalai Lama is asked to define compassion. He says, "Compassion can be roughly defined in terms of a state of mind that is non-violent, non-harming and non-aggressive. It is a mental attitude based on the wish to be free of suffering and is associated with a sense of commitment, responsibility and respect."
He also mentions the Tibetan word Tsewa, which encompasses but is not solely defined by an understanding of compassion. It leans towards a sense of wishing good things on oneself and others, of being open-hearted and spreading positive emotions such as love.
Free of suffering. Let us ponder on that for a moment. What would it feel like to be free from the feelings of suffering from the things in our lives? Honestly, take a moment to reflect on that before reading on.
Now, before we go further, notice what I did not just say. I did not say, to be free of the things in our lives that bring us feelings of suffering, but rather, that we know freedom from the feeling of suffering associated with those things. Did you pick that up in your reflecting above? Or did you think about what it would be like to get rid of those things?
I make this distinction for two reasons. Firstly, these things may not be the reason of the suffering, just a catalyst, a trigger and therefore they are OK and can remain in our lives because in actual fact they are good and positive - like children, family, the act of buying a house. And secondly, because sometimes these things are the reason of our suffering and they are not good for us and therefore we need to think about removing them by the act of letting go - like a bad job, an unhealthy relationship or that addiction we need to deal with or that constant inner voice of self-sabotage or self-judgment.
To be clear, there are two different things here - the feelings of suffering and the things in our lives that trigger them. Here, when talking about compassion towards ourselves, we are talking about the former. How to deal with the emotions attached to the feelings of suffering, our reactions to them.
Just because a parent needs a time out from their children, (the things), due to stress, (the feelings), does not make the children bad. Not at all. The parent simply needs a time out to deal with those emotions, (feelings).
If your partner, (the thing), is constantly making you feel bad about yourself (the feelings), question yourself or belittles you all the time and damages your self-esteem, then not only are the feelings you have, to be dealt with but maybe the relationship, (the thing), needs to be dealt with too.
Can you see the distinction here?
It is important to understand that even good and positive things in our lives can cause us feelings of suffering. It's also important to say that so can neutral things - situations, or random people we don't have any emotional connections to, or even your own clumsiness, like dropping your morning toast on the floor, butter side down of course. "Why does this always happen to me?" All of these things can cause us feelings of suffering because we let them. How we react, is in our control, but the triggers, often are not.
So what of these triggers? These triggers will produce different emotional outcomes in different people. One trigger can cause someone to explode in a fit of rage and another to not even bat an eyelid. When bringing yourself into your controlled environment for mindful breathing and mindfulness, you are bringing your own reactions to these triggers. And when you do, you are recognising them, accepting them, acknowledging them and then releasing them through the practice of compassion. Compassion towards others or compassion towards yourself, which is often much harder.
Let's say you fail at a task and you are giving yourself a hard time. The act of failing is your trigger. Giving yourself a hard time, are the emotions of suffering. The one driving the car, full of negative emotions is usually that inner critic in your head trying to judge and sabotage your efforts to move on. This is where you need to show compassion towards yourself. Remember, compassion is a state of mind that is non harming, non-agressive. It is about being free from suffering. About self-respect. About wishing good things on oneself and releasing positive emotions of love and understanding.
Let me end this section on compassion by referring you to a very beautiful South Korean film, "Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring", directed by Kim Ki-duk. It is a film about a Buddhist monk living in his monastery, which floats in the middle of a lake, in the middle of the woods. He ends up taking on a young apprentice monk who lives with him and grows up there. As I tell the story, imagine how this is a reflection of you.
In one series of scenes, the young apprentice monk, now about 6 or 7 years old, goes off exploring the hills and creeks and ponds and comes across a fish. He decides to catch the fish and ties some string around its body with a small stone attached to the other end. He places the fish back in the water, which tries to swim away but can't because the stone is too heavy. The young boy thinks this is hilarious.
He continues and comes across a frog. He does to the frog what he did to the fish and finds this equally amusing. Finally, he comes across a small snake and yes, he does the same thing and yes, again, the snake and the frog are both unable to continue their journey as they are weighed down by the stone the boy attached to them.
I won't spoil the film and say what happens but I will say that the older monk was watching the boy the whole time, without the boy knowing. And when the boy went back to check on the animals, he found the fish, dead at the bottom of the pool, the frog still alive but struggling and exhausted, and the snake dead.
So what reflection of yourself did you see? Was it positive, or negative? How did you feel for the fish, the frog or snake?
Maybe you have already joined the dots here but let me do it too just to be sure we are all on one page. There are parallels between this story and our journey into self-compassion. We are the animals in the story. We are also the young monk. Yes, we are both trying to move forward and get on with our life journey and we are also the ones holding ourselves back. We do this by tying stones to ourselves that pin us down. These stones can be many things but often they are thoughts, self-sabotaging ones, self-destructive ones, judgmental ones. Let me spell out a couple and see if you can relate to any of them. "I'm not good enough". "They will never accept me". "I'm not smart enough or good-looking enough or strong-willed enough". "You're a failure". "You'll never achieve that". "What if I make a mistake". "I'll look like a fool in front of everyone". "What if I fail or worse, I am a failure".
These are just some of the stones we tie to ourselves, that rise up from within, after being triggered. Other people will also want to tie stones to us. For whatever reason, we agree that we deserve these stones or we simply accept them even if we don't agree and then tie them to ourselves and start living according to their lies, bound, unable to reach our goals and dreams. Unable to fully express ourselves or fully experience life. Unable to trust, be vulnerable, open up, take appropriate risks, increase our motivation or raise our self-esteem. (Obviously, I am talking to you as an adult. In the case of children, they can't emotionally protect themselves as we can so this would require further discussion). In short, we find ourselves existing rather than living. Sound familiar?
In the film, "Shirley Valentine", the lead character, Shirley has a moment of self-reflection and realisation about how she feels now being 40 years old. Standing in the rain she says to herself, "I have allowed myself to lead this little life when inside me there was so much more. And it's all gone unused. And now it never will be. Why do we get all this life if we don't ever use it? Why do we get all these feelings and dreams and hopes if we don't ever use them? That's where Shirley Valentine disappeared to, she got lost in all this unused life".
Well, not for much longer, because the good news, (which is why I separated the things from the feelings above), is that we are also the ones who can untie those stones. We can manage these emotions, these thoughts, these lies and totally remove their power, the hold they have over us. And this can be done through the simple act of self-compassion, through the practice of mindfulness.
(Quick left turn)
So let me briefly introduce an important concept for you - that of decentering.
Between the ages of 7 and 11, our brain builds new and important functions, ones that enable us to do something rather key. This is according to Piaget and his theory of cognitive development, where he calls this part of development the third stage, or the concrete operational stage. It is when we develop logical reasoning, the ability to turn our former black and white world not only into many shades of grey but into a fully realised world of colour. (We go into the stratosphere of the mental equivalent of 12k resolution in the 4th stage when we develop the ability to work with abstract concepts! Piaget said this kicks in from age 11)*. It is when we begin to reason, argue with objectivity, deal in hypotheses for the first time. It basically turns our known world on its head, which is one reason why puberty is such a minefield of emotional turmoil for a lot of us and why teenagers can be so argumentative - they are simply flexing these new cognitive muscles. It is the stage when we are trying to find out what we think about the world around us in a way that is separate to our significant carers or adults in our lives and to work out how we feel about it all. Mental and emotional autonomy goes into hyperdrive.
One of the key developments in this stage is the ability to have reflective awareness, or objective awareness - that which is without attached emotion. This is when we can see a situation objectively rather than subjectively. We can also go the other way around and put ourselves in someone else's shoes - to feel empathy or sympathy. It is the key ability to be able to separate oneself from the emotions of a situation, enabling us to consider a myriad of reactions that are driven by logic, fact and truth, rather than emotions, which when something has happened to us, are not the most reliable.
This act of being able to separate and stand aside from ourselves, to get an objective view, is referred to in the world of psychology as "decentering".
Decentering can be a key tool in mindfulness, especially when using visualisation, (see Blog Key 5). Because it is through visualisation and decentering, that we are able to pave the way for new inner beliefs and new emotions and feelings to familiar triggers.
The reason for this left turn was to marry the concept of decentering, with untying those stones and administering compassion to yourself, by recognising the emotion, and the trigger. To do so, we need to be able to step back, become objective, stand outside our emotions, use reflective awareness, (decentering), so that we can identify what is not ours to own and let them go, freeing ourselves to move forward.
Obviously, mindfulness is only part of this process and I am not suggesting you can heal yourself solely through sitting and breathing, but I do know that it can be a very significant part of your journey of self-discovery and healing.
(And back on the road)
What do we mean by connecting to the moment?
This one is much easier and faster to explain.
It is about getting into a state of mind where you are not distracted from the present, second by second moments you are experiencing. And on top of this, it is about being mindful of things that you are existing alongside, in those second by second moments. Your environment - sounds, smells, the floor or chair or bed that you are on, your breathing, your body, your thoughts and your emotions.
This is why in the 10 things to keep in mind while breathing in your controlled environment in Blog Key 4, I mention switching off your mobile devices. Turning off all things that could distract you is easy. What is less so, is dealing with intruding thoughts. When you are practising mindful breathing, you may find random thoughts trying to distract you. Well, let them come. You should not try to fight your thoughts away during mindfulness, but rather, let them be and then let them go. The old saying, "What you resist persists", is very true here. Don't try to resist your thoughts, let them come and then let them go. Acknowledge them and say goodbye. "Did I remember to buy soap?". Who cares right now, I'm breathing, I'll deal with that later, thank you. Goodbye. (Blog Key 8 looks further into the head voice and heart voice).
This will help you stay connected to the moment.
Intention is the final part of this blog and it is the part where you decide which stones you would like to release or at least, take a look at. What is it you want to deal with?
Setting your intention is important because it gives your breathing session a focus. Your intention can be very general and broad, for example, "today, my intention is to relax". Or it can be very specific, like, "today, my intention is to forgive someone".
All intentions come in two pathways - the pathway of releasing, (away from you) and the pathway of embracing, (towards you).
Taking the two examples above, for your intention of relaxing, your pathway is one of embracing, feeling the relaxedness come towards you. For your intention of forgiveness, you use the pathway of releasing, letting go away from you. However, both have an opposite and complimentary pathway, so let me explain.
To allow the relaxed feelings to come towards you, there is also a pathway of releasing something, like tension or stress. Once forgiveness has been released away from you, it opens a returning, embracing pathway for something like inner freedom or peace to come towards you.
These pathways create balance, harmony, an ebb and flow of energy and emotions. One will always open the door for the other. Releasing and embracing. Embracing and releasing. Using your in and out breaths to mirror these pathways, will help you focus on the direction of each pathway. "Breathe in" your embracing and "breathe out" your releasing. You can also use the extension of your hands and arms to follow this in and out, bringing your hands towards and away from your heart. They can help symbolise the embracing and releasing at the same time as you breathe in and out.
Bringing it all together
When you come to your controlled environment and do your breathing and start using it to release your stones, it is vital to start with compassion and to be in the moment. Both of these we will look at in more detail in future blog keys and keycasts, but for now, please understand this as your bedrock. I truly hope that by now, you can see we are slowly building up your foundations right from scratch through these blogs. And this blog is just another layer.
We are all living life, trying to be the best version of ourselves. All we want to do is learn to be who we really are and to live in that freedom. The problem is that most of us don't really know ourselves all too well. We don't really know who we are.
We all have a disconnect between being who we really are and knowing who we really are.
But, like Shirley Valentine, we wake up and realise we've not been living with compassion towards ourselves and that we've been carrying around stones that have robbed us of living life to the full.
Mindfulness can be one of your essential foundations to discovering who you are, to meeting the real you, to learning to let him or her out to play, to forgive yourself, to believe in yourself, to like yourself, to love yourself, to be honest with yourself and to release yourself. Wouldn't even just one of those be awesome to truly know? Well, you don't need to stop at one. Your road of self-discovery and freedom is endless.
All of this is really exciting. But I need to say here, it will require a certain amount of discipline from you. It will need you to carve out just a little time, preferably once a day, even for just 5-10min. You want to try to keep coming back to your controlled environment regularly. Remember, we are changing our brains here, our habits, our reactions to triggers, some of which we have been living out habitually for years and years. Breaking these will take time and dedication. Sure, you will go for one or two weeks without practising your MB, or coming into your controlled environment, I get that. But then bring yourself back on track. Once you have tasted just how life-changing mindful breathing can be, you will see the difference once you stop doing it. And you will want to come back when you see your old habits and reactions to triggers trying to take over again.
This is one reason why I will be providing you with a few tools as we journey together in The Breathe Key. To help keep you connected to this practice and to yourself. However, only you can make your changes. I will provide you with the tools and instructions but you will need to build your own house. And as it is said, Rome wasn't built in a day.
So let us continue on this journey, step by step. For now, go back and continue to practice your 3:3:6 breathing technique with the guidance in Blog Key 4 and your visualisation technique in Blog Key 5.
I will leave you with this blog's key:
You have your power and your permission.
You have the power and permission to change your life for the better. Don't let anyone or anything take either of those gifts away from you.
You have your power and your permission.
Here ends Blog Key 6. I look forward to joining you in Blog Key 7, as we begin our introduction into the transforming world of Key Spaces.
* - Piaget theorised these stages of cognitive development which means that they are not without criticism. For example, how evidential are his findings? Are the stages water-tight with age dependencies and what about other social, cultural and other cognitive developments like childhood trauma or children with an ASD - are they fully taken into account? For example, Vygotsky's theories stress the fundamental role of social interaction in the development of cognition and therefore mostly contradict Piaget's theories.