When you breathe, breathe
“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
Life is distracting. A 2010 study led by psychologist, Dan Gilbert, found that almost 50% of our time is spent mentally ‘checked-out’; defaulting to habitual behaviours and focusing on internal narratives rather than our external environments.
Let me illustrate this in more detail by telling a little story:
Let’s say you’re a middle-aged Sales Director at a media company. It’s an average day at work: you’ve clocked off at 6:30pm even though you told your partner that you would start to leave work at 5pm. As you text him asking what you should pick up from the grocery store, you tell yourself that he needs to stop worrying about your “stress levels”.
The drive towards the grocery store sucks. You’re stuck in traffic. Again. To distract yourself, you pull your phone out and justify the decision to disobey the law by looking at the speedometer. Too slow to have an accident. You push your way through a day’s worth of social media activity. After skimming over a hilarious parody video of the recent U.S. Presidential Debate and an article on the Syrian conflict, you pause your obedient thumb on a photo album your friend, Susan, posted from her recent trip to Europe. You flirt with the idea of “liking” it, but choose not to on the basis that you deserve a holiday more than her. More than anyone else on this road for that matter. As you put your phone back in your bag, an elderly man in a conspicuous yellow SUV cuts you off. You chuck a bunch of aggressive words and gestures at his annoyingly normal face and tell yourself that old people shouldn’t be allowed to drive.
The aisles of the grocery store aren’t too different from the highway: a bunch of boring looking people steering four wheeled vehicles that seem to have been perfectly designed to store kids, plastic and food. You’re not boring though. You used to do salsa dancing every week. You contemplate signing up for those classes again, but decide not to because of “time”. You tell yourself you don’t have any left and that there’s a high possibility Susan took all of it. You curse Susan again.
For some of you, this story might sound familiar. For others, it might sound foreign. Whatever your position, I’m sure you can agree that there are multiple times in your day when you are distracted from what is going on in the moment. However, even though you might not be aware of it, you have a choice. And that choice is to breathe, when you breathe.
Breathing isn’t new. We’ve been doing it for a long long time. You’re (hopefully) doing it right now. That doesn’t mean you’re conscious of it, however. If you were to ask a friend the last time they noticed their breath, they’d probably sigh and not realise they just exhaled. Your friend isn’t alone. Many of us aren’t privy to the deep well of insight that is sitting right under our noses.
If you’ve ever meditated, you’ll understand that one of the great gifts that our breath provides us is an anchor point. When your mind is chaotic and unpredictable like a rainstorm, your breath is calmly gripping the seabed below. Always there for you to return to. This ebb and flow of attention that comes with any breathing technique (religious or secular) is what allows us to be mindful; it brings us back to this moment instead of an illusion of the past or future. But in an age where our attention has a dollar sign attached to it, the art of focusing on our breath and being present in the moment is one fewer and fewer are able to cultivate.
For those of you curious and brave enough, I invite you to take this moment to stop reading, take a few deep breaths and, for no reason at all, just be.