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When All Else Fails, Exhale
I once had a dance teacher who shared with us his trick for ensuring a successful performance: he would rehearse his dance company enough to know the piece, but also to be just a little tired. If they were not tired enough, they would try too hard and the beauty of the performance would be lost. As exhaustion is not helpful to performing, I had imagined that any fatigue would be an impediment, so I was surprised that his technique for “just right” was to ensure that the dancers were a little tired. Then I saw the wisdom in his method. As this teacher worked with us to create our own choreographies, he was always finding ways to get us out of our heads and into the movement. It turns out that “a little tired” does this automatically. The lesson has stayed with me long past my life as a dance student: ease is more beautiful than striving; it is also more enjoyable and thus applies to all of life.
This leads me another story. When my sister was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, she was only 25 years old and studying for her master's degree. The diagnosis, treatment, and subsequent healing had a huge impact on her and left her exhausted for 18 months, unable to continue with her studies as normal. At one point, one of her healthcare providers gave her a very difficult task—to seek a grade of B or a C on her assignments but no A grades. She did not have the energy for an A but she was likely to strive for it anyway, putting her health at risk. I'm not sure if she succeeded in getting no A grades, but the message was heard. While too little effort carries its own problems, I am more of an overachiever than an underachiever, as are most of my friends. We need to learn how to aim for “good enough” rather than what we think is our very best, because “our best” is usually not possible.
I see the culture of striving in the monastery just as much as in the “outside world.” Some of us strive too hard in working and studying, and become burnt out. While the intention can feel noble, it easily becomes too much and the excess effort gets in the way of the awakening that we seek. The habit of trying too hard is also present in guests who come on retreat. Some people are very concerned about learning the “right” way to meditate, searching for the best technique before practicing any technique. Don't get me wrong, technique is important. It gives us direction when we begin and grounds us when we wander. But practicing is more important than finding the “right” technique. The energy spent wondering if one’s technique is “right” will draw attention away from awareness of the breath, of the body, and of the present moment. Worrying about having the “right” technique is a very different attitude from trying something and then looking for guidance to refine the practice. The former leaves one stuck looking for an idea, while the latter is based in experimentation and experience. And it is the latter attitude that brings liberation from suffering.
We may come to mindfulness practice to lower our stress, to soothe the grief from the death of a loved one or a divorce, or to deal with chronic pain. These are all valid reasons for practicing mindfulness. And if there is some emotional or physical exhaustion, we might be in a better place to practice than someone with who is healthy and superficially happy. Suffering can motivate us to transform ourselves like nothing else. It forces us to be humble and to ask for help. This openness is a fertile ground for healing. With all the thousands of books written on the teachings of the Buddha and mindfulness practice, it is still a simple matter of attending to the breath, being present to reality as it is, here and now. Of course we want to relieve suffering, but if looking for the “right” way to meditate causes another source of suffering, we have missed the point of the practice.
Lately, I have even simplified my practice in times of stress and suffering. I simply pay attention to the out-breath. Inevitably I notice the in-breath as well, but it feels lighter to only focus on the out-breath. When I experience a lot of sadness and anxiety, I don’t have the energy for sustained focus when I start practicing, and this small shift makes a big difference. I feel like my sister, aiming for a “C” on my practice—good enough. And it’s actually great.
When I’m feeling particularly challenged by strong emotions, I let the breath release and quietly ask “is it all gone?” Not forcing the breath out, but naturally giving a little pause at the end of the out-breath that brings in a deep relaxation without trying to control anything. Why do this? In many schools of yoga, students train in 2:1 breathing, where the exhalation is twice as long as the inhalation. This has been scientifically proven that, “Inhalation emphasizes sympathetic activity (the stress/exercise branch), and exhalation stimulates the parasympathetic activity (the relaxation, rest, and digestion branch).”* I've seen this to be true in my own yoga practice. But in mindfulness meditation, we do not try to control the breath. We just pay attention to the breath and when the mind wanders, bring it back gently. I have found that even without intending to do 2:1 breathing, simply focusing on the exhalation has a similar result. In fact, after a time practicing “just exhale,” I'm often more concentrated than in a “normal” sit. I was pleasantly by this!
I used this practice a lot recently when US President Donald Trump was inaugurated. Some people in the US are very happy about President Trump’s election win, some are curious, and others are distressed. While I am curious, I am also very concerned about the suffering that many are already experiencing with the increase in hate crimes reported since the election, not to mention the policies likely to come about that will further threaten the safety of marginalized people. But during the inauguration, I wasn't thinking about policies. I simply experienced many small waves of grief for all the suffering in the world. So I turned to the practice of “just exhale.” I did it as I walked, as I sat, as I worked, and even as I ate. I let the breath be heavy and the release be complete. Very quickly, I was able to regain a feeling of calm and a broader perspective. The waves of emotion came and then they went as they always do, but with more ease and a quicker return to lightness.
While it is nice to experience heightened states of awareness and the bliss of deep concentration, I am more concerned about practices that support us through the ups and downs of daily life. “Just exhale” has proven to be a precious tool in my toolbox of mindfulness practices; the more I simplify, the stronger the practices become. I look forward to seeing what new practices will develop from adaptation and experimentation.
What are your go-to practices? How do you adapt to the ebbs and flows of life? Do you resist change and stick to the same practice or do you change so often that you have yet to build a foundation for your practice? There are plenty of people who lean toward sluggishness more than perfectionism and we will focus on that next month. Remember, no one is always stuck in striving or always stuck in lethargy. We all have moments of both and moments of balance. For now, simply noticing when there is too much effort is already a valuable exploration. See for yourself when you strive and what the effects are on your body and mind. Then see which practices bring balance. And when in doubt—just exhale.