Breathing thru the pain

My dharma friend Maia Duerr has a beautiful perspective on the recent horrors of hatred and violence rife in our world: it’s all the pain of birthing a new life.

In her July Full Moon newsletter, Maia shared her thoughts and a wonderful new video from India.Arie, “Breathe”, which led me to a good cry that I knew I had been needing! Maia says she believes “we are in the throes of some tremendous birthing process.”

With every bone in my body I believe we are on our way to living into a more awakened way of being with each other and being on the Earth. But we are not there yet. Like any birthing process, the going can get very rough and it would be delusional for me to not recognize that things will likely get ‘worse’ before they get better. Those who are entrapped by fear and ignorance are acting out in ever-more terrifying ways. But always remember this is not the truth of who we are as human beings. 

As some in the #blacklivesmatter movement have pointed out, things are not necessarily worse now, they’re just getting uncovered. What we’re seeing is the karmic fruit of centuries of injustice and a mindless, grasping social and economic order. Maia says, “This brutally honest recognition of “what is,” painful as it may be, is a necessary step toward transformation.”

We can only continue to live our lives if we maintain some kind of confidence that this transformation, this world-wide awakening, is possible and is happening despite our difficulty seeing it.

Maia’s words, and India.Arie’s video, are helping me get through this week.


The power of meditation

A friend, Shabnam Gideon, whom I met at the Vipassana Center when she sat a course a few years back, recently provided this explanation of what meditation is:

Meditation forces you to remember the state of YOU that is at rest, that is real, that is healthy, and reminds you of what that feels like physically and mentally. It’s a forced inward glance, honoring what is within you and ignoring what is without, if just for a little while. The plan is that you learn to remember that state in you, and eventually carry it with you, even while you’re answering emails or prepping for a meeting or trying to communicate with tact when you’re actually pretty peeved. That state affords an equanimity that tempers our reactions to events by allowing them to happen instead of stuffing them down, preventing “bad” happenings from stressing us out by giving them their due and then letting them go.

This is very true to my experience, and a very accurate, on-point description of the lived experience of meditation as it relates to everyday life.

Writing in a workplace blog, (Focus Lab) Shabnam provides some background on her experience that took me to new levels of understanding. Her experience is pretty amazing in itself, and her words give me new insight on how meditation can be very dramatically helpful:

Let me be clear: I’m a relatively new meditator, my practice is as regular as my Crohn’s-prone bowels, and the closest thing I have to a guru is the one-eyed cat next door with a steadfast gaze. But, I have learned a few things about meditating over the past few years that have seriously helped me shape and maintain my mental and physical health.

Back in the day … working for the company that gave me my software- and web- development legs, I was struggling to juggle a demanding and unrewarding job, a town that was too new and too big for me and my country britches, and a serious case of anorexia. After months of breathtaking abdominal pain, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Fast forward three years, and I was … taking 20 pills a day, had cataracts from the oral steroids, and was weak, sick and just generally pissed off at the world.

What’s a gal to do? Admit defeat, honestly. Try something else. I’d been following a detox plan that included breathing exercises and improved communication with, yeesh, loved ones. After dragging myself through the first week, I realized I was actually in less pain and had more energy and even optimism. For real. So I forced myself to do the breathing exercises for five minutes a day.

That’s like 300 seconds. I thought my brain and body would explode from the inactivity.

But no, after just a few weeks of losing a whole 300 seconds a day, I realized not only how much better I felt physically, but also how much I learned about myself and my stress levels while sitting and breathing. I was hanging onto so many thoughts and feelings that I didn’t need to be carrying around. I kept that up for months, and haven’t taken Crohn’s medication nor starved myself skeletal in the ten years since.

Shabnam’s wonderful candor and willingness to share her experience opens the door for many who may have been dubious about meditation. And it has helped me to realize that people may enter into meditation in little ways and for limited reasons and then find that it is a very powerful, life-changing thing.

Though I usually advocate for the ‘total spiritual commitment’ approach to meditation, I’m beginning to see that other approaches are a valid part of the meditation spectrum, and have real consequences for human lives.

Meditation is truly a very powerful tool that can be helpful to people in many varied ways and in a wide range of circumstances.

Just start where you are, doing what you can do. Where it takes you depends on your karmic path and the energy and dedication you bring to it.

Buddhist Christians…

Interesting article on the Buddhist Broadcasting Network – I didn’t even know Buddhists broadcasted! – about Christians finding support for living authentic lives, and support for their Christianity, in Buddhist teachings and practice.

I found this sentence especially interesting:

Sandra turns to Buddhism because she believes that its teaching of no-ego or no-self, when understood experientially and not just intellectually, is itself an essential dimension of the journey to God.

Sandra is a Catholic nun who leads retreats. She says:

“Christianity and Buddhism agree that the spiritual pilgrimage involves an absolute letting go, or dropping away, of all that a person knows of self and God. Indeed, this is what happened in Jesus as he lay dying on the cross, and perhaps at many moments leading up to the cross. Only after the dying can new life emerge, in which there is in some sense ‘only God’ and no more ‘me.’ I see the cross as symbolizing this dying of self and resurrecting of new life that must occur within each of us. Buddhism helps me enter into that dying of self.”

I do think that there are some important theoretical and practical differences between Christianity and Buddhism, but it is interesting to read about these parallels and how non-dogmatic Christians are learning to access these helpful things from the old guy’s teachings!

Tara on Why you want to meditate and don’t…

Tara Mackey, in “My Organic Life,” relates an amazing and wonderful story, and has graciously given me her okay to re-publish it here:

The #1 thing people ask me about after reading my blog is Meditation: they ask about it above my job, above my wellness, above the fact that I am on 0 medications to deal with pain, depression, grief and anxiety.  They ask me about Meditation above the beauty, above the fashion & above the nutrition aspect.  This actually makes me really happy, because absolutely none of the other things would be possible (or were possible) for me without Meditation.

Years and years of pain without mindfulness, of stress without gain, of time spent without tact and of sickness without cure brought me to a place of complete breakdown.  My average workday was spent getting up at 7 a.m., biking to work on an empty stomach, taking 10-12 different kinds of RX pills (none of which were vitamins), begging for 10 mins a half an hour into work to go get a bagel, spending 2 hours at work taking small bites in between other tasks to eat it, and then working on an empty stomach in a dark room with no windows for the next 8-15 hours.  Sometimes I slept there.

My average weekend was spent dragging myself out of bed at 3 in the afternoon, I’d eat one, two, three highly processed meals, take between 11-15 different pills (none of which were vitamins or minerals), go about my day, drink some alcohol at night to fall asleep, wake up the next day and do it over.

The breaking point was a few months after I was off all my meds.  I was sick.  Really, hopelessly, helplessly sick and I’d lay in bed for absolutely hours staring at the ceiling asking Why Me?  Why the hell was I, after all the tragedy and heartache and crap I’d gone through, not getting better when I was trying my damn best to do the right thing?  It occurred to me every once in awhile to just take a Lamictal (some of the worst withdrawals I’ve ever had was coming off this mood stabilizer) to feel better.  Just one wouldn’t hurt me, and then I’d be able to get up and move and speak and function without this terrible weakness, this nausea and headaches and everything looking over saturated.  Just one.

I remember going into the bathroom, opening the cabinet under the sink, and taking out the garbage bag full of Rx bottles that I had thrown together when I decided to come off everything.  It was full not only of pills that did work, but pills I had been prescribed that didn’t work – totaling what added up to almost 90 different bottles.  I kept picking up bottles upon bottles looking for the “Lamotrigine” one.  Valium?  Nope.  Xanax?  Nope.  Fentanyl?  Nope.  Celebrex?  Nope.  Zoloft?  Nope.  Flexeril?  Nope.  I discarded them one by one before I found the Lamictal bottle and emptied two, dust covered pills into my palm.  I filled up a glass of dirty NY tap water and opened my mouth.

And then something truly remarkable happened.

I stopped. 

After about 3 weeks of not taking anything, I realized what I was doing.  That taking “just one” Lamictal wouldn’t be taking just one.  That whenever I REdecided that being a slave to a pill was not what I wanted with my life, I’d be right here again.  Sick, and debating.  In 3 more weeks, or two more months, or 3 more years, this is where I’d be.  Counting the pills in bottles, nauseous as an animal, and hoping I have “the right one” for whatever ailment I was facing that day.  It felt way more helpless and WAY more hopeless than being sick, which I knew was temporary.  Being a slave to a mood stabilizer was LIFE-LONG helplessness.   And I wasn’t ready to accept that in my life.

From here I looked for other ways to cope.  Josh had helped me, truly, through his own meditations.  He’d lay in bed while I was sick and put his hand on my back and concentrate.  Sometimes his energy worked to soothe me, sometimes it didn’t.  Mostly, it didn’t work when I didn’t believe in it.  On the days where I felt impossibly sick, he had absolutely no power to make me feel better.  I designed it this way because I was scared – not only of what would happen if I stayed sick, but the longer I was sick, I started to get scared about what I’d have to do with my life when and if I got better.  This was an especially frightening thought, because I knew that the sort of jobs that I had had in the past had contributed immensely to my illness.


To be honest, I used to think people who Meditated were foolish.  Today, I cannot picture my life without Meditation.  Even though, for me, the practice is very new.  Meditation was not a daily part of my life until the end of 2011, but it has changed me in all of the best ways since.

So why do I find that the people who come to me – even people who come to me earnestly – about wanting to try it, have completely dismissed it a week later?  I’ve compiled some proper excuses that I get:

” I Don’t Have the Time”

This is the most popular excuse that I get, and it’s a fallacy. Saying you don’t have the time to meditate is like saying you don’t have time to fill up your gas tank because you’re too busy driving.  I had to learn, actually, not to get super insulted by this excuse, because the truth is: We all have the same amount of time.  Saying that you don’t have the time implies that do have the time – as in, I must not be busy enough if I can find 30 mins in my day to take care of myself.  The reason that I get anything accomplished with my life is specifically because I take that 30 mins a day to take care of myself.  I’ve had people sit on their computers on Facebook chat for OVER half an hour giving me excuses about why they’re not meditating.  You have the time, you just don’t value it.

” I Don’t Know How “ 

I cannot tell you how many people have come to me and said ” I tried what you said, and it didn’t work.”  or ” I’m no good at silence”  or ” My mind won’t let me” or ” I fall asleep.”  We put a TON of pressure on ourselves to do things the “right way”, and Americans tend to have very linear thinking.  If it doesn’t look like it did in a magazine, if we don’t get immediate results or if it just plain seems too hokey, we don’t give it a real shot.  The most basic, brilliant meditations involve sitting quietly and focusing on your breathing.  I can’t think of anyone I know who cannot do that. :)

” It’s Boring “ 

Well, sure it is.  It’s not an action-packed movie and it’s not Ryan Gosling making googley-eyes at you.  If your mind won’t let you, if you feel like you’re no good or if it didn’t work, or if you fall asleep, you now have all of your reasons to Meditate more.  I bet when you first laid your fingers on a piano, you couldn’t play Beethoven.  I bet when you first learned to read, you weren’t picking up War & Peace.  Meditation, like everything is, is something that gets easier with earnest practice.  We call Meditation a “Practice” for a very good reason – you are practicing it every time you do it.  And it’s certainly not going to give you the same stimulation that TV or Movies do, so don’t expect that.  This is about learning your body.

” You’re a Crazy Hippie and I Won’t Hear Any of Your Stupid Herbal Remedies to My Real Problems”

The majority of people hold themselves back by thinking that Meditation only works for certain people.  That they are not capable of learning themselves, or that it’s not important, or that it’s not worth their time.  They think that their pain, their problems, their situations, are better, more extreme, or different than what the rest of us are going through, and that spending quiet alone time can’t possibly have any positive effects on their life.  Truly, I think this is the most harmful place to be in, but one that I understand quite well.  It’s very easy to get caught up, especially when we have chronic or persistent pain.  I cannot tell you how many hours of my life were spent wishing that I had a knife to cut the pain from my back out.  I would have done ANYTHING, including surgery, to relieve the immense, throbbing, terrible, cutting pain that I experienced every moment that I wasn’t knocked out on some pain med.  And if someone had taken me aside and said “Just sit down and learn yourself, and you’ll be able to control your pain” I would have told them they were goddamn crazy.  But I am here to tell you that it’s true.


Meditation is the most productive thing you can do, and there is nothing in the World stopping you from doing it except for yourself.   Practicing meditation regularly will bring you to a place of immense peace, physical well being, and emotional stability.  It’s the most powerful tool for creating the life you want.

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Visit her site here – Tara

And if you liked this one, check out the whole story here:

Meditate Your Life

Just breathe!

The call to meditation can be thought of as: “Let’s sit and breathe!”

At least that’s a very good place to begin. But the breathing practices in a yoga class are not what I mean by breathe. Much simpler.

Just breathe.

Don’t think about it, don’t work at it, don’t conceptualize it. Just breathe. It’s the most natural thing we do. The most important thing we do. The one thing we must do to make it through the next few minutes alive.

But sometimes, breathing is very hard. That’s how yoga can help. Again, you don’t really need it, but it may be helpful if you have some of the modern problems with natural breathing.

We civilized, over-wrought, over-thought, under-worked modern humans have often got ourselves into such a state that we have forgotten how to breathe naturally. We have learned some bad habits, or our tensions have created some problematic patterns in us that make us breathe in unnatural ways.

When you meditate, you want to breathe in a completely unforced, relaxed and natural way without trying to control the breath at all. If you have a lot of tensions and anxieties, you may be in the habit of shallow, high breathing that almost seems natural to you, so to overcome that bad habit you may need to work with your breath some before you even try to meditate.

That’s how a yoga class could help. Not the fancy, controlled pranayama exercises, or any of that. Just the relaxing part. The part at the end of class when you lie flat of your back and relax everything for ten minutes.

Corpse pose, they call it.

That’s the kind of breathing you want to be able to do in meditation. Not too tough… so simple a dead man could do it. Well, maybe not, but….

The great thing is, you can do that at home. You don’t need a mat, you don’t need a bolster, you don’t need incense, you don’t need weird music, you don’t need an expensive yoga teacher. You just need to lie down flat of your back and relax everything. Preferably on the floor or some relatively firm surface, not the bed or the couch. Those tend to put us into sleep mode, and sleep is not meditation.

But, for a very good example of natural breathing, just watch a sleeping baby. What moves? The child’s belly. And how does it move? When the child breathes in, her belly rises slightly; as she breathes out, the belly collapses. Notice the shoulders, the chest. They don’t move. Perhaps every now and then, a little shudder and a big breath and the chest lifts a bit on the inhale. Then it’s back to the belly breathing.

That’s how you want to be breathing as you lie on your back relaxing. But don’t force it, just watch it. If you persist, if you stay relaxed and just watch – it helps to lightly place your hand on your belly so you can feel it – your breathing will return to this relaxed natural state. At various times during the day, try to notice what’s happening with your breathing. Again, don’t try to change it or control it, just notice it. Watch it and as you watch it, it will begin to fall into this pattern of its own accord.

After enough attention in this way, your breathing will begin to just stay in this natural mode most of the time. You’ll also begin to notice that one of the first indicators of stress of any kind is that the breathing changes. A single thought can change your breathing. That change can alert you to the power of the thought, and noticing it can defuse that power.

This is one of the ways meditation can help you. When you meditate, it’s very easy to notice your breathing. Noticing it during meditation helps you to notice it in the rest of your daily activities.

Paying attention to the breath is one of the best, simplest, and most practiced ways to begin to meditate. One great thing about observing the breath is that you always have it with you! So you can meditate anywhere, anytime. No special equipment required… no candles, CDs, incense, temples… you get the idea!

Once you’ve gotten comfortable with sitting upright and found your natural, unforced breath, you are ready to begin meditation.

All that is required is to put the two together: sit and breathe!

(Well, technically, sit upright and observe your breath breathing.)