Breathing with your Heart

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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One Big Truth about Pain

One Big Truth about Pain

Have you ever had a stressful experience and found yourself sort of leaving your body? Maybe your hands and feet go cold, your mind switches to negative self-talk or starts to spin wildly with anger or anxiety about the future? You are not alone! Many if not most of us abandon ourselves in challenging moments and it is really not our fault. So often these neural pathways were formed when we were young and our nervous system was immature and ill-equipped to take in and process strong emotions or energy from our environment. But we can reset our internal habits to stay present to the pain we feel (either physical or emotional) and actually move through it and release it. As week four of our summer meditation series we are exploring practices for self-compassion. Do try this at home!

Step 1 Feel to Heal

In her lovely book, Soul-Centered: Transform your Life in 8 weeks with Meditation, Sarah McLean explains how instinctively we know to hold ourselves in our pain. I recently dropped a potted plant on a finger and as pain shot through my hand and up my arm I grabbed my injured hand and cradled it firmly against my body (while walking around the yard and saying a few choice words.)

Touch and loving attention are natural ways to ride through pain.

Yet often we ignore this instinct and instead develop a habit of avoiding, ignoring or struggling against pain (this is especially true if the pain is emotional.)

But here is the big truth:

Healing involves moving toward pain rather than away from it. 

Last week one of my best friends moved to West Texas. The llamas in the photo above are her neighbors now, not me! 

When walking through grief or sadness I am consistently surprised at how slow I need to go in order to give myself a chance to really feel the pain as sensations in my body. I noticed this when my Granny passed away a few years ago. I simply had to make space in my daily routine to literally be still as in stop multi-tasking and sit down. Then I would notice my heart and the constriction I felt there and the tears behind my eyes. If I didn’t make space for the sadness it would weigh me down the whole day and come out sideways in irritation over little things.

So last week I made a point to tend to Lynn’s move and honor the energetic footprint of that loss in my own life and body. On the days when I felt sad, I let myself be sad. Tears were often there close to the surface and sometimes they would fall. A couple of times I made it a point to tell Lynn how I was feeling and to name the gift of her friendship in my life. And other days I put some of that emotional energy to work: pouring love into a simple grilled cheese sandwich I made for her and her man, packing kitchen tools and blessing them and their future home, or cleaning my house to give the family a haven of comfort on their final night in town when all their stuff was already in the moving truck.

And while I can still feel the tender spot in my heart and throat as I write about it– I also have been surprised at how good I feel this week. Like the sad guest who had taken residence in my heart has moved out for the time being. She may come back, likely will, but for now I relish the sense of ease I find in having treated her well during her stay.

But what about those moments when strong emotions feel like they will literally overwhelm you? When you feel as if waves are crashing over your head and your throat closes, chest contracts or jaw clenches and you really just want to push all that intensity down and find some relief?

Step 2 Find the Inner Resource

In moments of intense emotion it can be a wonderfully compassionate thing to do to simply remind yourself that you are not the emotion. You can feel it fully and also notice a part of you inside that isn’t feeling that way. So if there is sadness in your heart or tightness in your chest you could simply draw your awareness down to your feet and notice their solid connection to the earth.

Part of what makes dark or hard emotions so scary is that they feel like they take us over, and as we panic and pay them more attention the sensation grows. So it can help to find a part of your body which feels calm and show it some attention and gratitude.

And what if you can’t find an inner resource? What if your whole body feels wrapped up in a strong emotion? Take that as a clue to engage an outer resource to calm yourself and help your nervous system realign. My personal favorite? Taking five minutes outside drinking in fresh air can absorb the extra energy and help me reset. Try these other quick peacefinder activities.

Step 3 Toggle Your Awareness

After you have spent some time noticing and drinking in the support in your feet slowly take your attention back to that overwhelm sensation and just make room for it in your body. Inhale deeply and visualize surrounding the constricted space with breath. Then move your awareness back and forth between the resource, in this case your feet, and the area where you feel constricted. As you toggle between the two you might discover the sensation shifts. This practice literally helps your parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system balance and gives your body a chance to process the emotion. Try it the next time you feel at risk of overwhelm.

What is on the meditation menu for week 4?

First off congratulations on being half way through the summer of meditation. Whether you have been doing the practices daily, sporadically or are just reading this blog for the first time today– I really commend you for intentionally tending to your inner life in a culture that tends to ignore it!

This week we continue with the Soul-Centered recommendations including sitting meditation and a new one called “Loving Your Body” meditation which is simply being aware of and relaxing your body from head to toe, from front to back, and from the inside out. After relaxing go on an inner tour of your body and bring loving attention to each area you come across. We are so supported by organs which digest, breathe, and beat without our conscious awareness– offer them your gratitude. Toward the end of your practice give yourself a few minutes to feel where your body begins and ends. This can be a really interesting sensation almost like dancing on your own skin!

Week 4 Summary: Suggested Daily Practices

AM Long, Slow, Deep Breathing: 3 Minutes. Sitting Meditation 12 Minutes

PM Loving Your Body Meditation: 5 Minutes. Sitting Meditation 10 Minutes

And as always please share about your experiences over in the comments section. I read each comment and it makes me so happy to meditate as part of a long distance Bird in Hand community of folks all around the country and world. I’d love to hear from you!