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…


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