Breathe, it’ll be okay
Happy Earth Day!! I like to think of today’s blog post as a companion to my last post about walking meditation. 🙌🏻 They pair nicely for anyone with a bit of climate anxiety (or any other kind of anxiety) ❤️
At my first mindfulness and meditation retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh, I picked out the calligraphy, “Breathe, it’ll be okay.” At the time, I thought I would practice with it for a little while, and then I would move on to the next “deeper” practice. In the last dozen years since, I’ve never moved on. It continues to be relevant in my daily life.
I’ve written a decent amount about mindful breathing on this blog, so I figured I’d start with the latter half of the calligraphy, “it’ll be okay.” If you are new to the blog and/or want to brush up on mindful breathing, feel free to skip down and start with the section titled “Breathe” or search (see top right of menu bar) for #Mindful Breathing to find previous posts about it. Choose your own adventure!
It’ll be okay
So, starting with, “it’ll be okay.” For me, these three words can either be soothing or frustrating, depending on my relationship to them. When a friend says that it’ll be okay, my mind can easily/habitually respond with, “but, how do you know???” When I hear that it’ll be okay from Thich Nhat Hanh (who we call Thay for short), I tend to take his word for it 🙃.
Why is that?
I think that when I engage with the phrase “it’ll be okay” outside the context of mindfulness practice, it is possible for me to get caught in trying to “force” myself to be okay. I have a longstanding habit of ignoring or pushing away difficult emotions and thoughts, and so I could possibly grab the wrong end of this phrase and say “it’ll be okay” forcefully. In all my years of habitually trying this, it rarely works for me to force myself to be okay 😜.
When I hear that it’ll be okay from Thay, I all of a sudden perceive those three simple words quite differently. It’s like he knows that there is a way through whatever I could possibly be traversing. He knows that there is a path, and he’s done his best to communicate it to me.
A map to explore
Thay has given me a map. This map guides me to discover new ways for “it” to be okay. The “it” could really be anything. It could range from things as big as my entire life’s purpose, all the way down to things as small as choosing what to eat for lunch, and everything in between.
I also know that if I only define “it” as a “situation” outside myself, it can feel harder to know that it will be okay. Often there are situations that I cannot solve. It is especially in these moments that I find it helpful to make “it” the upset part of myself that cannot solve the situation.
The idea of using a map as a metaphor in the context of mindfulness practice is nothing new. There are old Buddhist sutras and texts that use the metaphor, as well as, of course, Jon Kabat Zinn in his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program.
For me, the map is Applied Mindfulness, and it guides me down a path of handling whatever situation I find myself in that doesn’t quite “feel okay,” with understanding, kindness, patience, compassion, and love.
So, when I hit a challenge in my life, I know that it’ll be okay because I have a map to guide me.
Sometimes, I hit a bump in the road and I know exactly what to do. I know what path to take on my “map.” Maybe I choose a certain formal meditation practice, perhaps I bring my mindful curiosity to what I’m feeling, I could open up to the beauty around me as I walk through nature, or I can call a friend or a mentor for help.
Other times, I might feel like I don’t have a way forwards and that I’m stuck in the mud of a situation. Maybe my habits are stronger than I am, and I follow a harmful habitual path. Perhaps the map of Applied Mindfulness feels a bit more covered in fog than usual - that’s usually what has happened when I look back on moments when I regret doing or saying something. Sometimes the path is not yet cleared. Even though I might have a map, in reality, the path that I would like to follow is actually quite difficult to traverse. Or maybe I just haven’t quite seen the map yet with enough resolution.
When this happens, I try to simply trust myself and know that sometimes I find my way even without being able to fully make out the details of the map. I also know that I am working on clearing the paths I'd like to walk, to make it easier to walk in the future.
Seeing this calligraphy on my wall every day reminds me that I have so many conditions of support all around me. I just have to be open to seeing them.
I hope, dear reader, that I have begun to illustrate some pathways on the “map” through sharing this blog and all the insights I have come across from various teachers, including Thich Nhat Hanh. I know that there is not just one path through challenge and difficulty, and that is why I continue to write – to continue to explore the many facets of Applied Mindfulness practice for myself and with you.
Why do I have such confidence in the map?
One might ask, how can you feel so confident in the map that you are following? Just like I trust a skilled cartographer who has drawn a map for me, I trust Thich Nhat Hanh, the Plum Village community, and all the generations of teachers that have come before them to lay the map of mindfulness for me.
When I look at Thich Nhat Hanh’s life story, I see so much possibility for intense suffering and trauma. As a young Buddhist monk, he was surrounded by war in Vietnam, and he witnessed many friends pass away violently. He helped to organize people to rebuild villages that were subsequently bombed over and over. I can only imagine the possibility of despair.
He was exiled from Vietnam, his home, because he refused to choose a side in the war. He became friends with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the states, who was soon thereafter assassinated. Later in his life, his monastic students were persecuted in Vietnam and had to evacuate the country.
He saw so much suffering in his life, and yet he transmitted so much love and compassion in his teaching and in the way he lived.
I am in utter awe when I remember the challenges Thich Nhat Hanh faced in his life. He experienced all of that and at the same time, taught so many to love and heal.
I witnessed him radiate peacefulness with his way of walking. I was present in talks he gave when he both lit up the room with laughter and touched hearts deeply. I have spent countless hours reading his books and learning from the students that he taught. I have seen hearts break open in our local Wake Up Toronto practice group through his practices. Above all else, I have experienced deep joy, peace, and friendship through my experiences with the Plum Village community. I trust that experience.
Thich Nhat Hanh transmitted so much love, kindness, compassion, and inclusivity throughout his life. I know because I have felt it directly.
If he used this map of Applied Mindfulness to traverse his life, I can too.
Increases in resolution
The longer I practice, the more resolution I feel that my map has. Maybe you, dear reader, remember the transition from VHS tapes to DVDs, then DVDs to Blu-rays, and maybe even you’ve had the experience of switching from a standard TV to an HD TV and then to a 4k TV? At each of these transitions, I remember it feeling like a major increase in resolution, I could see more clearly.
My mindfulness practice can sometimes feel like that. When an insight arises, and I suddenly see myself or a situation with more clarity, I can feel awe at that moment. All of a sudden, I see with fresh eyes, and it’s beautiful. It’s like my “map” has become a bit more detailed and offers a clearer illustration of the path towards handling my difficulty with understanding, kindness, and compassion. After a while, sometimes that feeling can begin to feel more normal, and then again I peel back another layer of the never-ending onion of life.
This is the fun of it – I never know what’s coming next. The fog covering parts of the map usually unfurls at some point or another to reveal something beautiful.
Returning to the first part of the calligraphy, “breathe,” I want to start with a quote from Sr. D from my Finding Our True Home post,
“Getting to know our breathing patterns is getting to know our mind”
She points us to the idea that our breath is not separate from the state of our mind. In this post from a few weeks ago, I laid out a practical way of starting to learn mindful breathing and I wrote about how noticing my breath is both an indicator of how I’m feeling and a soothing practice.
One thing to be cautious about with mindful breathing is to not get too laser-focused on the breath as a sensation only. I talk about this quite a bit in the post, Two Dimensions of Mindfulness: Intensity and Breadth. To summarize, I’ll just say that it is ok to allow your mindful attention to include your thoughts, feelings, body, mind, etc. No need to be laser focused on the breath only. It might be helpful to start that way, but if while you are practicing mindful breathing, you notice that you are a bit upset, feel free to include that upset in your awareness along with, or beside, your breath.
In this way, the breath is an anchor to help prevent me from getting lost in a certain feeling or story about a feeling. When I notice I’ve become consumed in thinking about something, I gently invite myself to also include my breathing. It can be a dance back and forth.
Allowing my breath to be what it is = an act of love
There is a beautiful practice from the original sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing that seems too simple to be helpful, and yet it is often just what I need. It goes like this:
1. ‘Breathing in a long breath, I know I am breathing in a long breath.
Breathing out a long breath, I know I am breathing out a long breath.
2. ‘Breathing in a short breath, I know I am breathing in a short breath.
Breathing out a short breath, I know I am breathing out a short breath.
When I first heard that one, I thought, “naaaaaaah, this is odd, not going to help.” Then I tried it.
I have sometimes thought that when I’m mindful of my breathing, I should be changing it. In yoga classes and other non-Plum Village spaces, this is precisely what can sometimes be instructed. At times, it has been helpful. Very often, however, I find that the act of trying to control my breathing makes my breathing less natural, more forced, and it’s not relaxing. This is especially true if I’m trying to control the duration of my breath.
The practice of simply noticing if my breath is long or short is one of allowing. I give permission for my breath to be whatever it is at that moment.
It becomes an act of listening with love and care. I take that time of mindful breathing, to fully listen to myself, as a mother listens to a child. Sometimes the child is crying, and sometimes the child is joyful and at ease. If I see that I am a bit upset, it is soothing to attend to my breath with tenderness. If I notice I am peaceful and at ease, it nourishes my seed of happiness when I am mindful of a long and slow breathing pattern. All the while, I allow my attention to be broad to include both the sensation of breath and the thoughts/feelings that arise as I focus my attention inwards. Whatever is happening, I try to bring some curiosity to myself and listen with openness.
It can be so utterly simple. Just notice what the breath is doing. Don’t change it. Don’t force it to be something it’s not. Simply notice its length, and know that you are deeply listening to yourself.
Listen to yourself via your breath, and allow that act of listening to nourish you.
It will be okay.
Listening to myself in this way is, in and of itself, a way of reminding me that it will be okay. It’s not that I’m intellectually telling myself that it will be okay. Rather, my whole being is sensing it because of the way that I am witnessing myself.
I am present for my entire self as I breathe, and therefore I know that it will be okay.
Rather than it being an act of telling myself, it’s an act of listening.
Links and References
- Thich Nhat Hanh’s life story
- Blog posts on #Mindful Breathing
- Blog post: Finding Our True Home
- Blog post: Applied Sitting Meditation
- Blog post: Two Dimensions of Mindfulness: Intensity and Breadth
- Plum Village / Sutras / Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing
As always, the resources page is here for you. All the links, resources, and references from every post are collected there.
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