A few thoughts about mindfulness and breathing techniques | Mindfulness Monday

Recently I was involved in an online discussion about breath work and mindfulness. What follows is adapted and expanded from some of my comments to that discussion.

I like what Thich Nhat Hanh says about mindfulness:

“Mindfulness shows us what is happening in our bodies, our emotions, our minds, and in the world. Through mindfulness, we avoid harming ourselves and others.”

A lot of what is taught about mindfulness (especially in the workplace) is overly simplified. Too much of what’s going on today is jumping on a fad bandwagon, with people trying to teach something they don’t really understand. They seem to think it’s all about practicing set breathing patterns and sitting still.

Breath work is just one tool — a tool that doesn’t work for me in the way in which it is typically taught. When I tried it, I ended up either even more anxious or terribly distracted and annoyed. (What does work for me is learning how to breathe effectively when doing some physical activity.)

Even if you can sit and meditate and breathe “perfectly” for half an hour or more each day, you won’t necessarily know how to be mindful the rest of the day.

For awhile, I felt like I gave up on the whole mindfulness thing. I don’t think that was actually the case — I think I was aware and present enough to realize that the typical practices I was being taught simply did not work for me. It’s not just because I “wasn’t healed enough”, but because I’m wired differently. So, it turns out, are a lot of people.

Interestingly, I’ve learned more about mindfulness — indirectly — by becoming part of a liturgical church that engages all of me in a way I’ve never experienced in all my many years of church involvement. I’ve also been hanging out at a couple monasteries and learning about things like simplicity, solitude, contemplation, etc. and adapting those things to my life as much as practical and possible.

And I’ve learned the wisdom of taking baby steps, and of setting aside or modifying practices that don’t work for me.

One of my latest thing has been dealing with some particularly troubling unwanted thoughts. Someone advised me to adopt a certain breathing pattern, and focus on each breath. NO WAY. For me, that was worst advice ever. Instead, whenever the unwanted thought comes to mind, I try to focus on my surroundings and what I’m currently doing, and I think to myself something like, “I am walking down the street. It’s sunny and birds are singing. None of this has anything to do with Unwanted Thought.” This is just one of the aspects of mindfulness for me, but I’d never be able to practice it if I had to focus on breathing a certain rather artificial way!

I think it’s important to ask some basic questions in regards to mindfulness “training”:

1. How is mindfulness being defined?

2. What is the purpose of mindfulness?

The reason it’s important to define mindfulness is, in part, because too many people I’ve encountered are really wanting it to be some state of blissful peace wherein one remains detached and untroubled by the world. As tempting as that sounds, it’s not my goal. It sounds too much like the opposite of mindfulness to me. In fact, it sounds too much like dissociation.

Once I have a good definition, then I can ask myself, “Is this how I want to live my life?” If so, then I can analyze each potential practice to see if it’s suitable.

Back to the definition I quoted earlier:

“Mindfulness shows us what is happening in our bodies, our emotions, our minds, and in the world. Through mindfulness, we avoid harming ourselves and others.”

Sitting in a room and focusing on my breathing while breathing in a way I find both unnatural and uncomfortable distracts me from knowing what is happening in me and around me. In fact, I find it downright harmful because it stirs up anxiety, etc. So I reject it as a personal practice. It may work wonderfully for others but, at least at this point in my life, it doesn’t work for me.

When dreams die…

Dreams

By Langston Hughes

Hold fast to dreams 
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.


“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, But desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”

‭‭PROVERBS‬ ‭13:12‬ ‭NASB‬‬


Sometimes the circumstances of life robs us of our dreams. Sometimes we feel as if we have no choice but to set aside, over and over again, even our most cherished lifelong hopes and dreams, the ones we always clung to no matter what, the ones that sustained us through our darkest hours (“Someday, things will be much, much different and I will…”) Sometimes we make choices that render the fulfilling of those dreams impossible. And sometimes we keep coming up with replacement dreams (“Well, obviously those lifelong dreams ain’t never gonna happen, but I’ll try for this other thing instead!”) only to have to give those up as well.

If we keep our grief over dying dreams to ourselves, we walk that “barren field, frozen with snow” all alone. But to share something so intensely personal as a heart sick from deferred hope — that is taking a huge risk of having our dreams mocked or dismissed, of being misunderstood, of being accused of selfishness, of being told we never should have had such dreams in the first place, of being told we are being overly dramatic… If we are Christian women, we will probably have to endure “helpful” sermonettes about dying to self, about laying our lives down, and about how our role in life is to help others fulfill their hopes and dreams. If we are married Christian women, no doubt we will be told that our husband’s hopes and dreams should erase and replace ours.

There is good reason to be cautious about allowing oneself to grieve, in the presence of others, the death of our dreams.

Sometimes when we’re thrust into that “broken-winged bird that cannot fly” existence, we don’t always react with the grace we would hope for. “Consider it all joy” may not come easily. We may struggle, nurse our wounds, and even cry out in pain. We may struggle with resentment over losing the ability to fly, and we may envy those soaring all around us. Our grief may become messy.

To be honest, I don’t handle heartsickness well, especially when it seems to drag on and on, and when it seems like so very many hopes and dreams, both large and small, are being dashed over and over again. It makes it hard to want to hope for anything in this lifetime. And it makes me feel terribly dramatic and self-absorbed and self-pitying and immature just to write that.

To make matters worse, I’m a verbal processor — an overly verbose verbal processor who is also a near incurable chatterbox. I have been struggling mightily against these natural tendencies of mine, out of compassion for those in my life who have let me know, repeatedly, how unwelcome and exhausting my many words can be. I’ve made some enormous strides, to the point that people have commented on how much less I talk. I’ve tried to focus on the quality of my speech and not just the quantity. I’ve tried to moderate my emotional expression so as not to upset or overwhelm those who find me “too much”. I’ve tried to choose my confidantes carefully — seeking out wise, compassionate and courageous people who will understand me, speak the truth in love, and respect me enough to guard my privacy.

Unfortunately, I still blow it. A lot. All too often, I lack discretion and self-control. Suddenly I’m flailing about with that broken wing, freezing in the snow, and I just start squawking and squawking at the nearest poor soul, and it’s all too often someone ill-equipped to handle my incoherent, emotional dumping. One memorable time, the nearest pour soul I dumped on was so traumatized — I kid you not — that he had to seek counsel not only from his friends but from a professional spiritual advisor.

It’s not just dumping. I tend to be passionately opinionated about many topics, and it’s an immense struggle to keep those opinions to myself, or to tone down the way I express them. It has become increasingly understandable why some people can only handle me in very small, infrequent doses, and preferably in situations where I speak little, if anything.

I’ve been on a personal mission to treat those people with the compassion and understanding they deserve. Controlling my speech (for more reasons than reigning myself in for their sakes, although that’s a huge reason) is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I’m trying to be more careful with my words, trying not to offer unsolicited opinions, and trying to pick only those confidantes who can handle me and are trustworthy. But, even in the midst of all that trying, sometimes it’s as if I forget everything, my best intentions fly out the window, what little self-control I have vanishes, and my internal and verbal boundaries are obliterated. In the past, I used to think, “Well, yeah, I cried some and I expressed some emotions, but it wasn’t that bad… entirely appropriate in fact, and a very subdued version of how I was really feeling.” And then I would find out that my idea of “subdued” was someone else’s idea of a crazed, overwrought, hysterical, damaged, wild-eyed lunatic.

I keep thinking I’ve learned my lesson.

And then I fail, yet again.

Last night — and there is really no excuse for my behavior — I made someone endure having to hear me acting like a desperate, trapped, wounded bird with a broken wing. It was unfair and selfish of me. It was also foolish and unwise, and I knew it the instant I finally stopped babbling on and on. I regretted bringing up the topic at all, let alone going on and on and on and on about intensely private things, complete with tears and emotions and messy outpourings. But by then it was too late. Much too late. Probably at least a half hour of foolish dumping too late.

Dreams dying may hurt like the dickens, but it’s no excuse for sin, or for casting all wisdom and discretion to the wind. Its no excuse for dragging someone else into my messy drama of internal conflict and grief.

I wasn’t ready to “go public” with my grief and struggles but it seems that, through my lack of discretion, I forced my own hand last night. So I guess I might as well blog about it.

Please pray for me, that I might walk through this difficult season with far more love and grace, that I would offer all my disappointments up to Jesus, and that I would find in Him the fulfillment of my deepest longings. And please pray for all those that I have selfishly inflicted myself upon over the years, that they would no longer be crushed beneath the burden of my careless words. May they be healed… and may I be so healed that I will speak only that which will give grace to the listener.


“Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.”

‭‭EPHESIANS‬ ‭4:29‬ ‭NASB‬‬

Sign of a loving heart

The true sign of a loving heart is that it does not give up even if treated as unworthy of any love in return. The sign of a loving heart is that it continues undaunted despite its expressions of love being ignored, rejected, resented, misunderstood, criticized, or maligned. No matter how love is perceived or received, it persists, not in weakness but in strength.

Love does not beg for scraps of affection, for morsels of approval, or for token acts of kindness in return. Love does not grovel, nor is it masochistic. Instead, love lifts up its head, squares its shoulders, and acts with dignity.

Love never fails.

The signs of a loving heart are patience, kindness — in other words, the virtues of Jesus, the embodiment of God’s love. The true sign of a loving heart is that it realizes it is incapable of such holy love, and thus it asks to be a conduit of our Savior’s love. We may fail and fall way short in our bumbling attempts to love well; we may love out of wrong motives; we may offend the very ones we are attempting to love; we may be tempted to give up and retreat to safety; we may find the task of loving our enemies to be a near impossibility; but Christ’s love does not and cannot fail.

A few thoughts on love

Inspired by 1 Corinthians 13

Love

Love is patient… even when people and circumstances try my patience… even when I am frustrated and exhausted.

and kind… even when treated with unkindness, harshness, resentment, and disrespect, even when maligned, even when made the object of gossip and ridicule. Love is kind in the face of rejection. Love is even kind to those who act as my enemies.

love does not envy or boast… nor does it engage in one-upmanship. It doesn’t attempt to make others recognize my achievements and worth, or brag about myself. Love doesn’t try to convince anyone that I’m unique or special. Love doesn’t launch private PR campaigns on my behalf.

it is not arrogant or rude… no matter how arrogant or rude others might be.

It does not insist on its own way… instead, love lays my hopes, dreams, and desires — no matter how long held, beautiful, and even noble — at the feet of Jesus… no matter how grievously painful this laying down might be.

it is not irritable or resentful… especially when others openly express their irritation and resentment towards me.

it does not rejoice at wrongdoing… but quickly repents, even over the “little things”, and even if I believe my snarky response was more than deserved, extremely clever, and showed great personal strength. Love sets a different standard.

but rejoices with the truth… Love refuses to believe lies, whether they are about me, someone else — or most importantly — about God. Love doesn’t just reject lies about my worth or my identity in Christ, but celebrates the truth of God’s Word and rejoices in the indescribable, immeasurable love of God.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love isn’t gullible or masochistic. Love is the greatest force in the universe, and it is unquenchable, even in the face of suffering and evil.

Love never ends.

I cannot love this way without God’s help.


Updated to add something I was apparently trying to avoid:

love does not envy... love stops comparing, stops focusing on what I don’t have… love is grateful… love recognizes that even when others seem to have everything my heart longs for, this is not about me and does not diminish me in any way. Love rejoices with those who rejoice.

Beholding Beauty | Fashionless Friday

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

For years those words haunted me: am I only beautiful if someone else considers me to be so? And, as someone who has never met our society’s conventional beauty standards, why couldn’t I just accept this fact — why was I so hung up about wanting someone to find me beautiful?

As a young teenager, I used to fantasize that there was a boy somewhere on this earth who would look at me — in all my skinny scrawny shapelessness, with my frizzy unruly hair, buck teeth, acne, freckles, and weird-looking bony knees and feet — and somehow find me beautiful. And, since I was fantasizing, I imagined him as a nice, sweet, wholesome, kind, sane boy rather than as a desperate, lunatic boy with low self-image and poor taste. Finally, that fantasy seemed too ridiculously improbable, even for me, so I began dreaming of a boy who would overlook my outward appearance and even my misfit personality, and would somehow manage to fall in love with a hidden inner beauty that hitherto no one — not even me — had ever managed to discern.

I was thinking about all that recently, as I had the enormous privilege to kneel — and I mean this as literally as possible — at someone’s beautiful feet. As I rubbed these dear, sweet, painful, elderly feet with soothing lotion, I thought of the verse, “How lovely are the feet of those who bring good news!” My mother has truly announced “good news of happiness” to many. Her feet are beyond beautiful.

All that has made me think, yet again, about my notions of beauty and my desire to be found beautiful. I’ve written about it before, about three and a half years ago.

That post was about, among other things, purposing to cling to “my other-worldly notions of beauty, and of what makes someone attractive to me”. I ended by stating:

After all, the thought of hearing the words “my good and faithful servant” means far more to me than even the most flattering words and opinions of mere mortals.

What does that have to do with beauty being in the eye of the beholder? I realized, as I knelt at my mother’s feet recently, that God has been changing my eyes — not my physical eyes, but the ways in which I see and appreciate beauty. There is so much more to loveliness than most of us can recognize, especially if our eyes and hearts have been trained by societal norms.

One of my favorite people to pray with has hands I find absolutely beautiful. She sees hands damaged by hard work and arthritis; I see hands that have served Jesus oh so very well, hands that have soothed the dying, hands that have brought me flowers she lovingly tended in her garden, hands that continue to bless everyone she touches. I see hands so beautiful that they have moved me to tears.

Back when I was that young teenager, facing constant mocking and bullying at school, desperately dreaming up fantasies of sweet boys who would find me beautiful rather than ugly, I began looking at myself through the wrong set of eyes. The people who truly loved me never considered me ugly — not even when my actions and attitudes were. It has taken me decades to be able to look at pictures of young teenage me and not feel embarrassment and humiliation… and self-loathing.

“Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’?” (‭‭Isaiah‬ ‭45:9‬ ‭ESV‬‬)

Ouch. That’s what I was doing. I was telling my Creator that He did a lousy job when He knit me together in my mother’s womb. I was accusing Him of shoddy workmanship… just because some people, including myself, were looking at me through the wrong eyes.

Love sees beauty even when others don’t.

That’s the kind of eyes I want, so that I might be a beholder of beauty, whether it’s mine or someone else’s. I want to have beauty in my eyes, so that I might see beauty wherever it is to be found.