I was listening to an Eckhart Tolle talk the other day when he said something that made my ears prick up. He said:
“If I had to recommend a daily spiritual practice for you for the next year, something that would bring about a huge boost in consciousness in you, it would be doing this simple thing…”
And what is that one thing Eckhart recommends?
“Be aware of your breathing.”
That’s it. Whenever you can during your day and evening, simply notice your breathing. Doing just that will bring your attention into the moment. And since the present moment is the only place where life has, does or ever will occur, noticing our breathing literally gives us, as Joseph Campbell used to call it, the experience of being alive.
Not ALL the time
We obviously can’t do this every moment of the day. When your boss finishes giving you instructions for your next assignment and asks, “You got that, Brad?” You don’t want to have to say, “Sorry, Deb, could you repeat that? I was busy following my breathing.”
Ditto if you’re on the phone with your best friend who is bawling her eyes out because her fiancé just called off the wedding. Or if you’re rock climbing up El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
When to go to your breathing
But there are plenty of situations where going to your breathing during the day is incredibly helpful and healthful. Someone just cut you off in traffic. Be aware of your breathing. Someone makes a political comment you find insulting, infuriating or just plain insane. Be aware of your breathing.
Eckhart says a particularly opportune time to practice this is when we find ourselves waiting…For anything. Why? Because the concept of waiting is critical in mindfulness. Virtually every time we’re waiting, we’re saying to ourselves, “I can’t wait until this moment is over so I can get to some better moments in the future.” What this leads to for scads of people is a life spent mostly in waiting. Any of these examples sound familiar?
“I can’t wait until I get that promotion so I’ll make more money and be able to afford a better house/car/clothes/wine…”
“I can’t wait to get married so I can have kids and a loving family life.”
“I can’t wait until my kitchen remodel is done. It’s going to look so great!”
Some would say, “Hold on. I love expending energy to ensure I have a better future.” The problem comes when we feel dissatisfied with the vast majority of the moments of our lives.
Focus on making the most of your moments
So I say, fine, go for the promotion, the kids and the kitchen remodel. But place ALL of your attention and energies on making the most out of the moments of your life and NOT on waiting in dissatisfaction until future desires come about.
Fine, so we’ve established that waiting is NOT a good thing. When would Eckhart recommend you employ his breathing practice while waiting in your daily life?
When you’re feeling annoyed because of the long line you’re waiting in at the grocery store…be aware of your breathing.
When a loquacious friend drones on and on about something you both know is thoroughly unimportant and you find yourself looking for the nearest sharp object…Be aware of your breathing.
When it’s 6:45, your dinner reservation is at 7 and you’re waiting for your wife to decide which blouse goes best with which jeans, (this one is personal for me!)…be aware of your breathing.
I actually used this sage advice from Eckhart a few days ago on my bike ride. My mind drifts into thought in a major way on my rides.
So on my 45 minute ride I pledged to count up to ten breaths, five different times that I noticed my mind had wandered. Not perfect, but better than being lost in thought the whole ride.
You can also go to your breathing when there’s simply nothing else going on, like when driving. Or you can do it as a quick break from writing, cooking or just about any activity.
If Thich Nhat Hanh does this so can we
By the way, this isn’t something that only lay practitioners of mindfulness employ. I’ll never forget watching Oprah interview the great Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. She asked him how, as an activist and a famous, highly sought-after spiritual teacher, he dealt with stress in his life TNH’s answer was so simple. He said, “If I ever have stress, I just come back to my breathing.” That’s all he said.
What are the obstacles to doing this? Eckhart says the only real challenge is remembering to do it. And the best way to get yourself to remember to go to your breathing is simply to commit to it.
Start with breathing while waiting
A good place to start would be using your will to notice whenever you are waiting for something. At the car wash, grocery store, red light…Then go to your breathing.
The net result of doing this will be a diminution of your ego and the consequent amplification of consciousness in you. The cost-benefit on this is sky high: The cost is spending some moments throughout your day focused on your breathing in exchange for the benefit of doing the most important thing any human can do; increasing our consciousness.
It’s a great deal. Take it.