Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child – our own two eyes. All is a miracle.
~Thich Nhat Hanh
I have a question and I invite you to pause immediately after reading the question and witness how connected your mind and body are—or are not—in that moment. The question is an easy one. Ready? How are you breathing right now? Pause and really ponder how you are breathing—and then read on.
Other than “in and out”, how were you breathing? Shallowly, rapidly, evenly, deeply, and slowly? Because mindfulness is a cornerstone of my teaching, I will always ask this question of the audience when I stand before them. There is generally a slight collective pause as the group focuses on their breath, then a few chuckles, and then silence as they contemplate the question. Many people say they are not even aware that they are breathing—let alone “how” they are breathing—until they are asked. I ask this question during my presentations to illustrate the fact that mindfulness, more than any other single practice, opens the window in consciousness which enables us to perceive the miracle of all miracles—life itself—and to partake in the gift it can offer in the present moment. And, it all begins with mindfully focusing on our next breath, and then the next, and then the next…
As an experiment, I timed how many breaths I take in one minute. The answer is 15, which equates to 900 breaths per hour, equating to 21,600 breaths per day, for a grand total of 7,884,000 breaths in a year. Consider that the very first thing you did when you arrived on our blue pearl of a planet was to breathe in and the very last thing you’ll do when you leave the planet is to breathe out. My point is that it’s the countless breaths we draw between our coming and going that we take for granted and they are the ones that matter the most. Why? Because each breath is the essential link (essence) that tethers us to the present—which is where life is always waiting for us to show up and fully engage in the miracle of the gift being offered. As the master mindfulness teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, put it, “If you miss the present moment, you miss your appointment with life.” In other words, assuming most of us breathe with about the same regularity, out of the 7,884,000 breaths we have taken in the past year, how many opportunities to “marinate in the miracle” of life have we missed because we weren’t being mindful of the gift that lay at our feet then and there?
From antiquity, mindfulness has been a practice understood and employed mainly by mystics, monks, and others following the esoteric teachings of the east. Enlightened beings have been teaching and practicing mindfulness for thousands of years so there is nothing new or novel about the concept. Mindfulness may seem new to many of us in recent years because it is being cleverly packaged for—and marketed to—the western mind and lifestyle. From yoga classes to corporate boardrooms, mindfulness is the word de jour that appeals to many of those trying to accomplish something specific with more ease and grace and less stress. That’s a good thing. The challenge is we tend to overcomplicate mindfulness with 21st-century thinking, compartmentalizing it when and where it is “necessary” to complete the task at hand as if our mindfulness practice had a point of arrival or is just something we pull out of our tool belt when an issue arises. When we understand that practicing mindfulness isn’t just a means to an end—a tool to serve us in our pursuit of specific outcomes—we begin to see that it is actually a lifestyle choice we can employ throughout our daily lives; a way of living, of breathing and walking a sacred earth, every moment of our lives—rather than something necessary to do only on special occasions or in times of crisis. Simply put, in the words of author, Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Mindfulness means that we commit fully in each moment to be present; inviting ourselves to interface with this moment…with the intention to embody as best we can an orientation of mindfulness, calmness, and equanimity right here and right now.” Note, he didn’t say, “Just between the hours of 8:00 am and 5:00 pm, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.”
The Challenge of Syncing Mind with Body
As Kabat-Zinn infers, with a deeper understanding of mindfulness, we will begin to see it as the internal infrastructure, the bridge, that connects everything we say, think, and do, to the present moment. This is its primary purpose; mindfulness “disintegrates” the metaphoric time machine in which many of us live that keeps us trapped in the future or the past—be it five minutes or five years. Have you ever paused to consider that your physical body is always in the present moment; it has no say in the matter. The question is, where is your thinking mind a majority of the time? Generally, our mind is stuck in the past dragging the dead corpse of yesterday along—or in the future where we project ourselves into a place in time where we have absolutely no control. This is not to say we have no business in either of those places. Because we live in a human skin we have to find balance—and make peace—with the fact that we exist in a linear world largely dictated by calendars and clocks. The practice of mindfulness simply ensures we don’t linger in either place longer than absolutely necessary. But, there is also another piece to add to the puzzle, to the practice of mindfulness to make it complete.
Mindfulness Is Not Enough
So far as I am concerned, nothing can exist to me unless I am aware of it…There can be no Conscious Intelligence unless It is conscious of something…
Mindfulness is only one aspect of present moment mindedness; yes, it opens the door of consciousness and is essential in calling the thinking mind back into our body so that the two become as one in the holy instant of now. However, the question that begs an answer is, what do we do after we fully arrive at a state of being present in the moment? Do we just sit there in a lotus position, breathing and meditating on oneness—or is mindfulness a practice we can take with us as we head out the door each morning? As one of my teachers said, “Realization, without application, is hallucination.” The application aspect of mindfulness requires the intentional act of integrating our being with our doing; it is a quandary that can be likened to walking the razor’s edge—which is a metaphor for being in a position in which two different issues must be carefully and simultaneously balanced for either one to be effective: One of these issues is mindfulness—the other is awareness. Ernest Holmes’ aforementioned quote points us in the right direction because it infers that without an awareness of “what is” it can’t exist as part of our reality.
Mindfulness + Awareness = Engagement
Many people think of mindfulness and awareness as being the same thing—and they are not. Mindfulness brings us to the present moment in which we realize our oneness with life, but awareness is the laser light that focuses on what is happening at that moment. While mindfulness may induce a sense of being in bliss, awareness induces a sense of connection, inviting us to engage in the present moment irrespective of where we are or what we are doing. Logically then, mindfulness and awareness go hand-in-hand much in the same manner that one’s perspective (mindfulness) establishes their position (physically or mentally) in the present moment—while their perception (awareness) colors and determines how they interpret what they see. Anyone who has ever flown in an airplane knows the higher you ascend, the more expansive the horizon is and thus, the greater your perspective becomes. Nothing “out there” necessarily changes, but how you see it changes immensely—and that is the takeaway; this is the power of mindfulness (perspective) when coupled with awareness (perception); we see more deeply into the mystery and miracle of life that lies before us.
The Miracle Mindfulness Reveals
Master teachers have long taught that life itself is the greatest gift we have ever been given—and it is a pearl of great price. What we do with the gift is how we honor the giver of the gift. If we have eyes to see it, mindfulness elevates us (in consciousness) to a position to witness how the miracle of life avails itself to us every moment of every day—inviting us to embrace it fully. Our awareness of that gift is what separates us as a species from any other thing (living or not) on the planet. In his compelling book, The Living Universe, author Duane Elgin writes, “American Indian lore speaks of three miracles. The first miracle is that anything exists at all. The second miracle is that living things exist. The third miracle is that living things exist that know they exist. As human beings conscious of ourselves, we represent the third miracle.”
My sense is that Duane’s words are a call for greater self-awareness collectively, as a species, through the practice of mindfulness. This one concept could change our world. The fact that we can think a thought—or have an emotion—and then mindfully step back and perceive that thought or emotion (and interpret it) as it floats by is profound beyond words; it is the Universe offering us a glimpse of ourselves as sacred, thinking, volitional beings—perhaps in a way we have never seen before. If that isn’t a miracle and a mystery, I don’t know what is. This is the gift mindfulness reveals.
My question to you is, how are you breathing now…and now…and now…?