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December 26, 2020

The Crucial Element of Mindfulness that we often Overlook.

 

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After almost five years of daily yoga and four and a half years of daily meditation, I’ve finally realized that mindfulness is almost mind-numbingly simple. 

Simple, but not easy. It is about the breath.

Yeah, yeah, we know, we get it, we all breathe, get over it.

I can hear you saying, “This is Mindfulness 101.”

Hear me out. You might think I’m one of those people who have “breathe” tattooed on my wrist. Sadly, no (but I do have it as a reminder on my activity tracker if I scroll through all the stats).

Mindfulness is about being present (and now I hear a collective exasperated sigh and can picture a rolling of the eyes). But! But, what’s more present than remembering your breath? The Buddhist Pali word Sati is translated not just as mindfulness or awareness but also “to remember.” Remembering. 

And what are we rarely conscious of? What do we rarely remember we do, all the time, without thinking? Breathing. That process, which is probably more complex than we think, keeps us alive (along with that big pump in our chest, of course). When we remember that we’re breathing, we remember that we’re alive, that we have a body—that we are embodied. 

I’ve realized the breath is intricately linked to the body. We can use the breath to bring our attention to different parts of the body, like when a yoga teacher says, “Breathe into your (insert body part here).”

It’s the thing that, when we’re stressed, anxious, or panicky, a few conscious ones can go a long way. It helps to help calm our amped-up sympathetic nervous system. It flips the switch to the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing us the space and time for our body and mind to calm down.

If you think about it, it really is like magic. When your world has gone crazy (Knock, knock. Who’s there? Oh, 2020.), it’s something that is always there. It’s the world’s best friend and will never abandon you when you need it most. 

It’s something we do from the first minute we’re born to our very last moment. It’s the thing that 99.9 percent of the time we don’t even realize we’re doing. Crazy, right? Considering how much it does for us. 

Mindfulness doesn’t have to be complicated (though it can be if you want it to. You can do formal meditation and all these different kinds from different traditions, which is cool). But it can simply be about remembering. Remembering that simple action, the inhale and the exhale. But what about appreciating a beautiful sunset or savoring a delicious meal? I can hear you saying, “Isn’t that mindfulness too?”

Yes, of course. But what are you doing when you savor that meal? You most likely take a deep breath in (without realizing it) to take in the aroma. Or when observing those miraculous colors painted across the sky, you probably exhale, relaxing into the moment so you can really take it in. Sometimes I just exhale long and loud, and my husband always asks: why the sigh? I answer: because—because I need that reminder.

I used to think that mindfulness was something you do. You sit in formal seated meditation posture, or you take walks mindfully, à la what Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh advises. You practice focusing on each part of the foot and body as you move slowly and deliberately, or you really pay attention while you’re doing the dishes or brushing your teeth. Yes, these are all mindful activities and ways we can bring mindfulness into our everyday lives, which is fantastic.

But lately, I’ve come to realize that since a large part of mindfulness is about the breath—without breath, there would be no (physical) you—mindfulness is what you are. This is why when you first start any mindfulness practice, you’re usually asked to take a deep breath to settle the mind and body before moving on to any other techniques.

Mindfulness is your innate state of being; you just have to remember it. As meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg says, “Mindfulness isn’t difficult; we just need to remember to do it.” That’s the magic of the breath, the magic of mindfulness. It’s simple.

We just have to remember that it’s there when we experience it because there’s so much benefit to it.

Maybe I should get that wrist tattoo after all…

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