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.