Breathing with your Heart

How many times have you felt like someone was really not present to what you were saying? Like they were just waiting for you to take a breath so they could jump in with a story of their own or offer feedback? This kind of conversation can leave you feeling more lonely than you did before—wishing you had kept to your own counsel rather than risking sharing your truth with another. Sadly this is such a common experience. I don’t think we mean to hurt each other but when we listen to life through this habitual filter aka “the know-it-all mind” it keeps us isolated.

We are now in week 6 of our 8 week summer of meditation challenge and the focus shifts from meditation as a tool to inner knowing to the benefits of meditation in real life contexts-starting with communication. Here are three distinct practices: heart-centered breathing, listening with love, and the yum/yuk meditation (yes it really is called that) which help us live in alignment. Read on for details and please share your insights by clicking “reply” in the comments section below.

heart mandala

This week I discovered my favorite meditation practice so far… heart-centered breathing. Try it the next time you sit down to meditate or claim a moment to recenter while savoring a cup of coffee, sitting outside enjoying the summer colors, or watching the baby sleep. Here is how you do it:

As you inhale through your nose notice the rise and fall of your chest. After a few breaths look inward toward your heart. Imagine your breath moving into and out of your heart center as if it were a doorway to your lungs. Balance the length of your inhales and exhales and continue to imagine your breath flowing in and out of the center of your chest. When you notice yourself following a thought or other distraction refocus attention on your breath. Be kind to yourself. Open your eyes slowly when you are done—even three minutes is refreshing on its own or a great way to start a longer meditation. (You can read more on pages 145-6 in Sarah McLean’s book Soul-Centered meditation.)

I loved this practice. As a heart type I carry a lot of tension in this area of my body. When I slow down and tune in I sometimes notice anxiety coming out from my heart center. Other times I realize my heart feels heavy with compassion fatigue. Meditation and heart-centered breath help process emotions through the body and leave your heart feeling lighter and more supple. It is also a gift we give others in our life.

Have you noticed how powerful it is to have someone’s undivided attention? Beyond putting down the iphone and making eye contact… I’m talking about when you can tell that someone has actually disengaged from their inner dialogue and is totally present to you and the moment at hand. This experience is as refreshing as it is rare. I have experienced it in conversation with beautiful spiritual directors, counselors, and friends. In coaching sessions I notice how clients rise up within themselves and are able to express their authentic desires and access their courage simply because together we create a space where their soul feels heard.

This next practice, Listening with Love, relates to the heart-centered breathing and is one of the most powerful practices I have tried this summer. I can only imagine the ripple effects of each of you trying it out in your own spheres of influence!! Here’s how:

The next time you’re listening to another, observe yourself as you listen. Notice any habitual body movements or sensations that arise within you and return to your breath. As you listen, drop your awareness into your heart center, and listen from that perspective. Make peace with silence—try on the idea that there is nothing you need to do or say. Practice merely meeting the person with a full expression of your presence.

As you listen watch your tendency to drift off, to try to read the person’s mind, and monitor your impulse to interrupt or jump in. Notice if you have an initial judgment or label what is being said. Be compassionate with yourself… even as you notice these tendencies.

There is a tight relationship between the compassion we offer ourselves and the compassion which bubbles up in us easily for others.Gently return your attention to the actual words of what your conversation partner is saying. Notice what unfolds.  (Read more about this practice on pps 146-47 of Soul-Centered.)

I tried this practice out a couple of times this week in just regular day to day conversations. Both times I found something surprising happening– almost like the person was flowering in front of me. I watched their body language change as they settled more fully into themselves and seemed more comfortable to take up space in the world and share what is going on for them.

Truly it is almost disturbing to notice the power we have to influence people around us. Yet rather than viewing our impact on others as evidence of our need to “try harder” to become more enlightened or to behave perfectly in every context, what if it is an invitation to consciously nurture ourselves so that we have presence to share?

And that is why this final practice, The Yum/Yuck Meditation, is so critical.  In order to express yourself authentically you need to access your deep inner wisdom, your truth, and let it guide you in your communication.

In his book Still Life with Woodpecker, novelist Tom Robbins explores this idea as one of his characters explains: “There are only two mantras… yum and yuk.”  So the next time you are asked a question or facing a choice, ask yourself, “how does my body feel right now?” Do you feel a tightening of your stomach or chest, a sick sensation, or a lightheartedness, expansion of joy?

Now I know sometimes we need to rise to a challenge and find courage to show up for our own lives. But there is a subtle (or not so subtle) difference in the body between something intense but right, and something that feels depleting. Sadly we live in a culture that teaches us to override this intuitive knowing– but it is a resource to protect us from work, projects and people who suck our energy and distract us from our soul’s truth.

Saying yes only when you feel yes in your body helps you communicate with integrity. As McLean points out: “There’s no need to manipulate yourself to please people at the expense of yourself. When you stay in your integrity, its is good for both your relationships and your life (131).” So the next time you are discerning your way through a choice, ask yourself “Is this is yum or yuck for me?” and wait until you really feel an answer in your body before you offer one out into the world.

I hope you all have a wonderful week trying on these practices. And please also enjoy the simplest practice of all –taking note when your heart feels really happy. Often we step on or over this sensation and consequently shortchange ourselves. I hope that among its many other benefits your meditation practice, whether one minute a day or thirty, helps you notice the things you love.

For me this happiness looks like ripe tomatoes carried home from the community garden in my granny’s tin bucket.

What makes your heart happy? I’d love to hear about it in the comments section. 



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2 thoughts on “Breathing with your Heart”

  1. What makes my heart happy? Realizing that even though these have been a difficult past few weeks of weeding through the terrible emotions and realizing these weeks have really only amounted to discovering layers upon layers that still will go deeper, I am that much closer than I was before to compassion and freedom from my own self torture. I make it sound gruesome but it has been freeing to discover that I’m not as bad as I thought I was and that the things I blamed myself were not necessarily my fault.
    I had a conversation with my stepmother today about how when I was 8 about to be 9 years old within that year I probably gained 20 pounds. I never put it together before I listened to Ashley’s “Ditch the Diet” and I started journaling about my life long story of losing and gaining weight. When I was 8, I came home from school to find an ambulance parked outside my house. I was kind of excited but worried at the same time. Inside my house I found my sister crying and the paramedics trying to wake my mom up from a sleeping pill overdose. Her boyfriend of 7 years left her for another woman. The events after that were equally unfathomable to my mind. First, my grandmother came to live with us then my father picked me up to live with him but my older sister wasn’t allowed to go with us because she was not his daughter. I started another school where my dad lived but a week later while I was playing at a friend’s house my mom surprised us by showing up and took me back home with her, my friend’s mom was trying to protect and hold me while my mom pulled me from her arms. When my mom got an apartment and got us settled into a new school. I started eating Doritos in front of the TV and I didn’t stop until I got so sick of Doritos that I couldn’t eat them for years. I blamed myself for gaining weight and I thought my family was mad at me for getting fat. I learned that when there was a traumatic event I could eat and numb my feelings. I still don’t know what this layer means but at least I now feel this and I can breathe through it and I’m ok.

    1. Tiffany–

      it sounds like meditation is inviting you into a space of deep healing. I think that is what it does for many of us– please be gentle with yourself as you navigate this time. I am so glad that you connected with Ashley’s material. She is a wonderful coach and might be a great resource for you if you would like some one on one support. The spiritual journey is an interesting one — in that the deepest work is really solitary (a conversation between you and your soul) yet one on one and community relationships can be so critical on the journey toward wholeness as well. I know when I was engaged in some deep healing a couple of years ago there was a time I was seeing a counselor, a coach, a naturopath, a chiropractor, and a spiritual director all at the same time 🙂 Please do continue to breathe through it and lean into additional support as needed. You are in deep waters, girl. Courageous stuff. xxo courtney

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