By the time you finish reading this article, you’ll have taken about 1,200 breaths, unless you’re reading this while on your tread mill. My aunt, who just turned 97, has inhaled and exhaled about 815,731,200 times. Yes, over 815 million breaths. I’ve had about 504,576,000 opportunities to mind my breath. You’d think with all these opportune moments to think about my breathing my awareness would grow more quickly.
I recently heard this Yogic saying: “It’s easier to calm a wild tiger than quiet our mind. Mind is like a drunk monkey who has been bitten by a scorpion.” Hmm, having been stung by a scorpion once (minus the alcohol), that about sums it up.
I suppose because my aunt is nearing the end of her life — of course I could be too — we think back on life and sum things up. Then we laugh and let go of the sum because we’ve both learned we think we have the sum right and it later turns out we don’t.
Letting go of holding on is what I must do with my monkey mind. There are times when that monkey is ricocheting around, grabbing one vine of thoughts after another and swinging wildly. It’s not until I’ve pursued many non-paying-attention thoughts that I realize I’m not paying attention. Often when the monkey gets loose, I try harder to control it. I’ll get frustrated for not doing what I was telling myself to do, for being “bad” at mindfulness.
I could be hard on myself; I could also not be hard on myself. If I’m frustrated with not focusing, chances are focusing will be difficult to accomplish until I ease up on myself. How do I accomplish this? I must bring my heart into my breathing practice. It is our heart that understands and holds compassion; finding self-compassion enables letting go to happen.
How do we find self-compassion? Having self-compassion is a difficult thing. Many of us struggle with compassion for others, much less ourselves. Learning self-compassion includes a self-agreement that you will allow compassion. I had to learn self-compassion, for it didn’t come naturally. To do this, I had to accept my earlier resistive, turbulent nature.
It’s natural to have some rebellion in us. As we become adults, we sort through what we like about ourselves and discard what we don’t. For some, our rebellion is minor, perhaps not even noticed. For those of us who have events from earlier years that cause us pain, rebellion might be self-protection. Working on conscious breathing is one place old resistance can challenge us. This is where self-compassion comes in.
For those of us who’ve had any experience in life that caused unresolved trauma, it can be difficult to calm our mind. If this is true for you, practicing self-compassion is even more important.
To help me learn self-compassion, I went to a playground where children and adults were present. Eventually one of the kids would start crying. Of course, the adults had various responses to their tears, but I paid attention to the adults who listened attentively and responded positively to the upset child. I listened to the tone of their voice, the compassion in it. As I didn’t get much of this growing up, it was good role modeling.
As I continued practicing conscious breathing but still struggled with my monkey mind, I remembered the compassionate adult and upset child. I focused my attention on the adult, the timbre of their voice, the gentle sound of assurance that everything was okay. After a bit, self-compassion didn’t feel silly anymore. Instead, it felt reassuring and healing. My ability to breathe consciously became easier.
I still have monkey mind. I still get frustrated. However, it is easier to get back on track because I’m much better at giving myself some room for not always being able to do it.
It is good for our emotional, physical and spiritual health to attend to our breathing. It calms us when we are upset. It can limit or take away pain. It is important for stepping into a calmer life. For those of you struggling with conscious breathing, try self-compassion. It’s worth every lungful.