If you’re like most, you grew up wanting to be a part of the solution—or at least not part of the problem. Yet with everything from complicated relationships to work stress to distressing world news, our inner domain is often anything but calm or loving. How do we live well, deeply and helpfully with all the changes and challenges we encounter?
The amygdala is the ancient, reptilian part of the human brain triggered by any perceived threat. Fight, flight or freeze is an instantaneous and common reaction that we all experience when the stress hormone cortisol floods the body. We have a restorative tool that’s always available, anywhere, no matter who we are. It’s the breath. Mindful breathing quiets the amygdala. It reactivates the neural pathway to the prefrontal cortex where higher knowledge and compassion reside.
Consider simple meditation as a practical necessity for living and loving. Post 9/11, simple meditation was one of the core practices of the Sacred Circles women’s spirituality gathering convened biennially at Washington National Cathedral. Women of diverse backgrounds, ages, religions and cultures found meditation a trustworthy inner meeting ground. Meditation teacher, Sharon Salzberg would guide all 1,200 participants to sit in silence, noting their in-breath and out-breath, at once present to their inner selves and sensing a palpable togetherness. Meditation opened a safe space to share personal stories of spiritual lives and find profound points of commonality across big religious and social differences. Nourishing inner wisdom and awareness allows a power of love and compassion to arise and fuel our actions, in our intimate lives, our work and our activism.
Breath can make a significant difference in any case. A May 14 story in the New York Times, “An Atrocity in Syria, With No Victim Too Small” (Barnard, Anne and Mourtada, Hania), tells of horrific, escalating, door-to-door killings in Syria. In a specific case reported via Skype, 100 women and children were herded into a bedroom. A gunman then ordered the guard on watch to kill everyone. “The guard said, ‘Don’t be rash! Take a breath.’ The [gun]man relented.” Neuroscience provides enough information now for us to accept that bringing mindful awareness to our inner state increases well-being and even equips us to be better people. Here are a few simple tips for beginning to meditate (or beginning to meditate again).
If you feel the same way as Anne Lamott famously wrote in Salon, “My mind is a bad neighborhood I try not to go into alone,” try using one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s simple verses designed to grow the seeds of peace and calm inside. Think of the first word on the in-breath, the second on the out-breath, letting the image fill you: Flower/Fresh. Mountain/Solid. Water/Reflecting. Space/Free. Repeat the round several times. Feel the words.
If you’re an old hand, remember anew how meeting pain with the breath actually lessens and softens it—even just three or four breaths in a row. Meditation is gaining ever-widening popularity because it is simple, invisible and private as the next aware breath. When hit with something unexpected or provoking, go to your breath first.
Anyone can take three mindful breaths, even in a press conference. When asked a confrontational question that negated his entire record, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley started to answer and then said, “Let me take a moment.” He breathed in and out a few times, then gave a sweeping and informative answer that surely made the audience believe in the government again. That’s the power of the breath.
Let us all, together, greet the world with more spaciousness and openheartedness. And be filled by warmth we unexpectedly encounter in others and less hooked by their provocations. Living Sacred is conversation, programs and community honoring the wisdom within each of us. Connect and share how mindfulness of the breath has helped you, on Twitter, @graceogden or on Facebook.com/GraceProductions.llc.
Grace Ogden is the founder of Grace Productions, a transformational consulting and events business based in Washington, DC. For more information, call 301-445-6771 or visit GraceProductions.co.