So I’ve started doing this crazy thing. When life gets overwhelming and I feel like I want to cry, or run away, or turn around while driving and smack whatever comes closest to my hand in the backseat of the car… I just stop and breathe.
Haven’t you read about this crazy phenomenon of “breathing” in every new-age magazine, on the spines of the books in Oprah’s book club and, just like me, you’re thinking – yeah, I breathe every day, tell me something I don’t know?
But, here’s the thing – we all breathe. The key is breathing intentionally. Actually thinking about the breath as it comes in, as it goes out, and that magical moment for a brief split-second in time when you’re neither breathing in, nor out – just suspended. Our breath is our lifeline to existence, and so, increasing awareness of our breathing can help increase our connection to life itself.
Let’s face it – sometimes being a mom can be mundane. Picking up solo socks, damp towels, wet diapers while walking down the hallway, folding never-ending piles of laundry, kicking blocks to the sides of rooms so that nobody falls and breaks a neck, fishing cars out from underneath a couch… wash, rinse, repeat, right?
The danger of setting your brain to autopilot for all of the mundane daily tasks that you do is that you stop living while you’re alive, you become completely reactionary, a slave to your associations until you finally look up, stunned and blinking like a newborn babe washed in bright lights for the first time and you wonder how your baby, who you swear-to-god was just born yesterday, is two years old. Something happened to me while I was laboring with my second child, breathing through the swell of each contraction, bracing myself for the pain – I realized that bracing for the pain was actually causing more pain. I realized that trying to be anywhere else but right there, in that moment, laboring to bring my second child into the world, was also causing more pain. I needed to just be there, to just breathe. As a contraction approached, and my autopilot wanted to kick in and wince and cry and yell, I kindly escorted my mind back to awareness of the process and let the wave roll over me, closing my eyes, breathing intentionally, leaning into the pain.
During the birth of my second son, I woke up to the realization that I need to be intentionally present with every moment of my life, rather than being reactionary. That means that when I’m nursing the baby, I’m right there nursing the baby, feeling him roll my skin between a chubby thumb and forefinger, experiencing the warm, heavy weight of his body relaxing, breath slowing. I keep my breath at the forefront of my awareness in order to stay focused and present. When I’m laying in bed with my three year old at night, listening to his brain dump, the continuous stream of consciousness as one non sequitur strings together with the next, and the next, I’m actually laying there with him, experiencing that moment with him, smelling his hair, watching the way his lips form words, the sparkle in his eye – not thinking about dishes in the sink, or the work I have to do, or relaxing in bed with my husband.
As every breath, every heartbeat, every squawk of a child becomes my teacher, I’m learning to be responsive rather than reactionary, I’m learning to be with the moment, to let thoughts freely come and go without feeling attached to them or driven by them. As I learn to sit with experiences and let them unfold, I’m refining myself. I’m being a full participant to the process, allowing myself to be refined by the experiences that each new day brings. It’s not just about being mindful and present for the good times, it’s about being present for all the times. Being really, truly, living-breathing-experiencing present for each and every moment, no matter how mundane, or how painful, or how joyous. Not looking forward or thinking back but being right there, holding each moment in my hands and watching it unfold.
Now, this all sounds well and good on paper, and in the calm stillness of sleeping children it seems amazingly easy and attainable. But sometimes sitting and being with a moment, just being, the way my cat sits still and just witnesses existence, is extremely challenging. Not only do our minds tend to wander from one thought to the next, from one emotion to the next, but many moments are uncomfortable to be with. The last half hour of our morning routine is never smooth at my house. The baby is always ready for his first nap, the three year old, in anticipation of the transition to preschool, is always punchy or needy, my husband and I are often annoyed. Sitting in the kitchen corralling a kid who wants to repeatedly ask me questions that pop right out of his never-ending stream of consciousness (what does a ladybug say, Mom? Why do we eat? Where does hair come from? Can you draw a bucket loader?) and a baby who neither wants to be here nor there but would prefer to yelp in seeming agony while arching his back and rolling his head around pathetically – yeah, in those moments I’d much rather set my mind on what’s to come – in 5 minutes this one will be in the car, in 10 minutes that one will be asleep, and then I can drink my tepid, 2 hour old coffee in peace and attend to my work affairs which have been piling up all morning. But mindfulness calls me to be with all of these moments, to practice being wholly present with my kids, so that I can see each moment as it actually is without judging it.
Or how about sitting with mourning, whether tangible or intangible, loss of a loved one or loss of an illusion? It’s much easier to think back on times that were pleasant or to think forward to the future when the pain won’t be so acute, but I think we are supposed to delve into the pain of the present moment, to feel and experience it fully so that we can see it for what it is and overcome it. To sit with it and let it just be, rather than pretending it’s something else or judging it for being what it truly is.
Breathing intentionally gives birth to mindfulness. Breathe in breathe out as you drive to work. Breathe in breathe out as you change a diaper. Breathe in breathe out as you listen to your upset spouse. Breathe in breathe out as your kids scream into your ears – and suddenly there you are, in the moment, feeling the tendrils of each emotion as it glides through your fingertips, looking at the experience holistically, as a full and complete experience, rather than judging it. It’s not easy, and I fail at it multiple times per day, but in those times when I can really just sit and be – allow my breath to calm my heart rate and allow moments that bother me to just be moments that I experience so that I can act rather than react- my kids are better off for it, my husband is better off for it, and I’m much better off for it.