Let’s face it, most of the time we feel we have as much control over our lives as a pinball being flicked around a pinball machine. Bing, bing, bing. Click, click. Off we go again, the vicissitudes of life constantly interrupting any sense of sustained centeredness.
That feeling of general instability ruling the roost in our inner worlds isn’t fun. That’s the bad news.
The good news is it doesn’t have to be that way. Practices like meditation and mindfulness can, if performed regularly, go a long way toward stabilizing our insides.
The maestro of mindfulness
Today, I want to focus on the simplest of simple mindfulness techniques that can help with this. It comes from the maestro of mindfulness himself, the late Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh.
Here is how the great master described his technique for staying centered:
“Conscious breathing is my anchor.”
Yes, that sounds utterly basic, to the point that you might dismiss it as meaningless. Hear me out.
First, what does he mean by ‘anchor?’ Well, the function of an anchor is to hold something in place, usually a boat. If you want to fish in a certain place and not drift away, you throw an anchor in the water and let it drop to the bottom.
A personal anchor is something that keeps our psyche, our being, in place, in the moment. It keeps us centered.
Thoughts unmoor us
If the wind or currents are what cause the boat to drift, thoughts and feelings are what cause our personal center to become unmoored, leaving us feeling unstable and anxious.
How about Thich Nhat Hanh’s use of ‘conscious breathing?’ We breathe all the time. If we don’t, we’re done for.
But it’s not often that we’re aware of our breathing. Conscious breathing is when we place all of our attention/awareness on it.
So why is this important? Why should any of us care about using ‘conscious breathing’ as an ‘anchor?’
Why this is so useful
Because it is life-alteringly useful. How? To answer that I’m going to reference an interview I saw years ago that made an imprint on me. It’s the inspiration for writing this piece.
It was Oprah interviewing Thich Nhat Hanh. It had the feel of two beautiful souls interacting.
And Oprah being Oprah, she had to satisfy her curiosity about how this world-famous Buddhist monk handled basic things in life. She asked him something to the effect of:
“So you must have some stress in your life, maybe with people wanting you to do certain things or feeling overwhelmed with commitments or what have you. So how does someone so spiritually advanced like you handle stress?”
His answer, which won’t surprise you, was:
“I simply come back to my breathing.”
That was it. Not a lot of embellishment. None required.
Oprah’s response was something akin to, “Oh. Okay. That makes sense.”
No big deal, right? Just return to your breathing.
It is a big deal in the sense of how powerful a tool we have right in front of us, at all times!
The stresses of modern life
We 21st century Earthlings constantly battle with the stresses of everyday life. Dealing with our kids, our spouses, significant others, coworkers, bosses, other drivers, Costco madness, and on down the line.
These are what I mean by the vicissitudes of life. It comes with the territory of living in the modern world.
And too often we let these mostly little stresses knock us off center. Well, we don’t have to let that happen!
Use your conscious breathing to anchor you. Your boss says something shitty, go back to your office and take several conscious breaths. Ditto if that’s your husband, teenage kid or the airline that keeps you on hold for two hours.
Here’s another way Thich Nhat Hanh expressed it:
“Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.”
This is so doable. Use it. It’s there all the time. Literally.
If you find yourself upset, a little or a lot, go to your breathing.
It will relieve a boatload of stress.
Finally, to Thich Nhat Hanh, wherever you are in the mystery of the afterlife, thank you for all of the beautiful, useful wisdom you bestowed on all of us during your 95-year stint on our tiny orb, floating around in the middle of black space.