Come Back to the Breath

The last week has really shaken me up. I’ve been fortunate enough to have the ability to be able to easily fall asleep and stay asleep my entire life. There have only been a handful of times where this hasn’t been the case. This past week is one of those times. As soon as my brain comes back on line, the normal stillness and sense of ease has been replaced with racing thoughts that send me immediately into a state of panic. It feels too dangerous to fall back asleep. These fear addled thoughts demand my attention.

Somewhere in my half conscious state in the early hours of this morning, a realization struck me. Anxiety feels urgent. It feels like whatever the fear is focusing on is something that needs to be addressed ASAP. The sickening tension in all of my muscles, my short, quick, shallow breaths, these are all things that my mind tells me are a product of impending peril. I have to fix the thoughts to feel better. So I spend countless hours ruminating on unknown eventualities, trying to determine some perfect solution. Agonizing over my inability to do so. Will I feel like this forever?

In the middle of this cycle as I tossed and turned in my bed earlier, a had a glimpse of important insight. These thoughts are not directly causing these physical feelings. No, they are influencing my breath. My erratic breathing is causing these unbearable sensations in my body. I don’t need to fix the thoughts. They can stay exactly as they are, utterly unsolved and unsolvable. All I have to do is consciously come back to my breath. No matter what my mind is telling me, if I can slow down my breathing and extend my exhales, I’m going to feel better.

After just a few short moments of trying this out, I was asleep again, peaceful and safe. One of the most difficult aspects of anxiety for me is being able to convince myself that it’s okay to let it be there. Usually it compounds indefinitely as I try desperately to “fix” whatever it is that is causing my anxiety. But some fears can’t be fixed. Some nights I’m fixated on the fact that I and everyone I love will die one day. There is no mental contortion that I could create to make this okay. My brain begins to panic even more when I can’t come up with a way to eradicate the fear. The important thing is to remind myself that I don’t have to have answers for all of my anxious thoughts. In fact, trying to “fix it” just feeds them.

The breath is where my true power lies. It is the anchor tethering me to the present, the only moment worth living in. Even in the case where I genuinely would benefit from forming an action plan, I can only do that in the present. And I can only do that well from a calm frame of mind. If you’re someone that suffers from severe and chronic anxiety like me, comfort yourself with the knowledge that you don’t have to battle your fearful thoughts. Practice letting them be. Just come back to your breath. The proof that the thoughts themselves are not the problem will become evident when you realize by slowing down and deepening the breath you’ve returned to a calmer state.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe I could ever feel better when my fear seems so big and important. It feels like I can’t breathe because this heavy weight of my (sometimes legitimate) fear is pressing me into the dust. In reality, it’s the opposite. Or I suppose it’s rather a feedback loop. I’m afraid so my breath becomes shallow. My shallow breathing makes my sympathetic nervous system take over, and the cycle continues to intensify. The key is in realizing where my control truly lies. I can’t control my thoughts. I can’t control the external world with all its unknown variables and potential dangers. What I can control, if I choose to do so, is my breath. This is my power to break the cycle of distress.

If your thoughts try to tell you that you shouldn’t calm down because you NEED to be alarmed by these fears and address them, just gently remind yourself that if these fears are truly issues that need to be tended to, you can still do that from a state of calm. In fact, you will be better at coming up with a plan once you’ve settled your body and mind anyway. So just breathe. As long as you’re breathing everything is going to be okay.

Fear is Futile, the Future May Never Come

The future is always uncertain
fear cannot solve anything
instead it keeps you small
trembling in your lowest frequency

A protective shield repelling
all positive energy from entering
there is no way to escape pain
avoidance only amplifies it

How many things have I agonized over
that never even came to pass?
I've aged myself tenfold expending energy
on the ugliest ideas of things that would never happen

The art of living is learning to be present
no future safety and comfort will matter
if we can't even enjoy the peace we have now
so let your mind be still, just exist

All we can do is savor the moment
everything else is only theoretical
there is no use struggling with demons
that we may never meet along our path

Build resiliency for whatever may arrive
by cultivating a garden of delicious experience
that will satiate you as the future floods in
you are alive, you are safe, just breathe

Mind-full

Mindfulness is trusting
that this moment is enough
showing our appreciation
for the gift of now

Setting aside our doubts
to delve deeper into the present
seeing past the surface simplicity
to be enveloped in sheer awe

Each minute becomes magnified
under the gaze of the focused mind
purpose found in pondering
a cloud's reflection in a puddle

It's surprising what can fill your cup
when you pay attention to the pouring
of each moment into the next
perfect stillness in motion

Black Raspberry Rain

The warm, thick water
at the edge of the river
guides me along the 
texture of the rocky shore

the soft rhythm of the waves
against my bare legs and feet
sand sticks to me as I remerge
through the trees along the road

the humid air clings to my lungs
in an oppressive cloud of heat
storms slowly accumulating
above the distant horizon

ripe black raspberries beckon
from the wild hillside bramble
the heat is dissolved by cool droplets
as I begin to collect my bounty

enjoying my palmful of sweet fruit
letting the rain soak my hair
and paint dewy beads against my skin
the swell of sweet music in my ears

I laugh at the sheer delight of being alive
overcome by gratitude for all my senses
overwhelmed with love for this world
savoring the childlike joy of simplicity

each present moment can be populated
with precious miracles like these
may my mind remain still to witness
my heart always open, ready to receive

Reset Button

the smallest dose
of ancient medicine
breaks down the walls
I build around myself
letting the world in
once again

a reminder of what is
the tether of the present moment
pulling me along through time
the curiosity of the child inside
waking to a wonderful world
that's been here all along

the sheer beauty of bird calls
as I add my own joyous song
the deep knowing of connection
that binds me to all beings
in this mysterious adventure
of unlikely existence

the realization that I am here
a vessel to fill up with love and awe
by witnessing the miracle of reality
gratitude spills from my eyes
in salty streams of sacred serenity
thank you, thank you, thank you

The Rush to React

Nothing is ever as pressing as the one who’s pressing would like you to believe. And I am content to walk a little slower, because there’s nowhere that I really need to be.

The Difference in the Shades – Bright Eyes

The sensation of being rushed or in a hurry has been chasing me around for years now. I don’t remember how or when it began, but that fluttering, panicked sensation in my chest seems to always be with me. I start jerking myself violent forward through my day from the moment I wake up. The last few days I’ve been lingering for just a few minutes in bed after my alarm sounds to caress and snuggle my sweet animal children, and it’s been amazing to see just how much my mind tries to resist that and tell me I don’t have time for something so precious and worthwhile. My consciousness leaps straight from the peaceful oblivion of sleep to a three-alarm fire of strict routines and to-do lists in an instant.

While I particularly struggle with giving myself the time to just live and experience the life around me without frantically lining everything up for the next moment, I think a lot of other people have this same problem. Sometimes waiting feels as frightening as death itself. If someone makes a comment, if I get an email, if I’m invited to do something, or even have an idea I feel compelled to focus my entire attention toward responding or taking immediate action. It feels strange just to remind myself that I don’t have to react. Certainly not immediately, but often times, not at all.

It’s easier to see the error in this way of living when I watch those closest to me. It’s painful to watch someone continue to leap into awful decisions just because they feel they have to pick from the ones in front of them in each moment, that waiting is not an option. When you find yourself in a situation where both paths laid out before you are unappealing, it’s okay to decide not to choose either one and wait for other opportunities to present themselves. There is so much value in waiting, in stillness, in just observing, in watching patiently, mindfully. In a world where only bold, immediate action is given any acknowledgment, we are quickly losing sight of the quiet talent of simply being.

Even when the external world isn’t keeping us busy with stimuli to force a fast response, our inner world is. I make my emotional experiences so much more painful by feeling the need to do something about them. When I’m sad, I intensify that despair by trying to claw my way out of that feeling in any way that I can. When I’m anxious, I compound that frenzied energy by running from it, wondering about it, and trying to “fix” it. Even happiness sets me off on a quest to somehow bottle it and ensure that it stays with me, rather than just giving myself permission to enjoy it while it lasts.

Our emotions are often helpful, valuable cues. Even so that doesn’t mean they always require intervention or conscious direction. Emotions and internal experiences or mental states are there to be noticed and observed. Sometimes it helps me to pretend I am just a passive observer watching the external and internal events in this life. Then I don’t feel so much pressure to get involved with every little thing. I become aware of the benefit of simply watching everything unfold with openness and curiosity.

There is nothing wrong with slowing down and giving yourself space to experience whatever comes in the moment. This moment, no matter what it holds, is the only place we’re meant to be. Don’t miss the beauty of it, the uniqueness of it, by trying to get to the next moment faster. This moment is where your whole life is happening, take the time to notice it, savor it, enjoy it with playfulness and curiosity. There is nowhere else that you need to be.

Living in the Future

Peace can only be found in the present
there is nothing more stressful
than living in the future
with the landscape of life
laid out before us
the horizon is forever offering
new reasons to cower in fear
there is no reason to concern yourself
with things that have not happened

presence is a practice
the art of being where you are
cannot be mastered in one day
begin by guiding yourself back
when you find that you have strayed
into that foggy premonition
of darker days to come
fear will only block the light
that shines on us right now

Beyond the Intellect

They gather like wolves on the boardwalk below. They’re howling for answers no wolf can know.

Mewithoutyou – Fox’s Dream of the Log Flume

I’ve been reading War & Peace these last few weeks. Pretty ironic considering the state of affairs in the world right now. Nonetheless, the passages I read last night were very insightful. One of my favorite characters, Pierre, is talking about God, religion, and spirituality with an old freemason. The conversation goes as follows:

He is attained not through reason, but through living.”

“I don’t understand,” said Pierre, dismayed at the doubts surging up inside of him. Put off by the vagueness and weakness of the freemason’s arguments, he felt the dread of unbelief. “I don’t understand,” he said, “why human reason cannot attain the knowledge you speak of.”

“The highest wisdom and truth is like unto the purest liquid which we try to absorb into ourselves,” he said. “Can I receive that pure liquid into an impure vessel and judge of its purity? Only through the inner purification of myself can I bring the liquid received within me to some degree of purity.”

While I still don’t believe in the Christian God or the Bible, and have a general distaste for this particular expression of spirituality, I do think these words have a certain truth to them. I may not be religious, but in recent years I have come to consider myself a spiritual person. Hidden inside the horrors of the churches that have cropped up around the world in various forms, is a poignant, important truth. I don’t think it’s merely a coincidence that all forms of religion seem to share very similar threads. There is wisdom to be obtained there. I once held logic and intellect above all else, scoffing at the idea of faith. Now I think there is a place for both.

I used to believe that everything could be understood through science and reason. My experiences with psychedelics, more than anything else, have opened my mind to the idea that there are things our minds are just not capable of grasping. There are states and perspectives we cannot even conceive of. I’ve always been a curious person. As a child I had so many questions that seemed beyond answers. I contented myself on the idea that after I died, I could ask God. Then I would finally know everything and nothing would be a mystery to me. When I lost my faith, I also lost that comforting thought of finding answers one day. Now part of me thinks that far away hope might not be entirely off.

“You’ll die and all will end. You’ll die and know all, or cease asking.”

Will the new view I tentatively hold of death, I think it’s possible I may still have all the answers some day. When this fragmented consciousness disconnects from my mortal form, it will be submerged once again in the larger ocean of all that is. I want to believe that there is peace in that dissolution. That I will once again understand and remember all that I have forgotten in order to take part in this earthly existence. Yet, even this explanation isn’t exactly right. Part of me feels sure that whatever the real answers are, the full truth of reality is something that we simply cannot comprehend or conceptualize in the brains we are currently working with as humans. That is why no answer appears sufficient or correct, testable, or provable. There are no satisfactory answers that we can obtain in this life regarding those large existential questions of who am I, what is this, why am I here.

These questions and our endless, futile search for definitive answers to them have caused suffering throughout all of human history. We wrestle constantly with the gnawing ache to know things that cannot be known. This is were I believe that faith becomes a valuable asset to us. Faith can be twisted and used to manipulate the masses to bow to corrupt authorities, and for most of my life, this seemed like its sole purpose, to trick and take advantage of people. Now I find myself longing for a more abstract and vague faith. Not a faith in some supreme, all-knowing being. Not faith in the institutions of mankind. But a faith in the idea that there are things at work in the universe that I cannot comprehend.

This form of faith is a great comfort. It is a surrender. It is the acknowledgement that I do not understand, that I can never understand, and that that’s okay. I don’t have to keep struggling and suffering for these important answers. I won’t find them. I may not even be asking the right questions. There is such peace in trusting that everything is as it should be. That everything is going to be alright, even if you can’t fathom how. There is a reason, an explanation for all of this seemingly random chaos out there somewhere. We must accept that we are only working off of very limited, myopic understanding. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s all we’ve got to go by and we have to keep going despite not having the full picture.

In this way, faith is a necessary part of life for all of us, it is a constant practice, whether you consider yourself religious/spiritual or not. Faith is that energy inside of us, that yearning, that momentum that keeps us going despite all the pain, the suffering, the confusion, the doubt. It’s scary to relinquish control in favor of faith, but it is what we all must do sooner or later. Logic, reason, knowledge, and intellect can only take us so far. Certainly use them and value them. They are essential, important, wonderful tools. But also know that it’s okay to let go and surrender to the unknown, the unknowable too. It’s going to be okay, even if we can’t understand how. Everything is as it should be.

Getting Out of My Own Way

When was the last time I truly allowed myself to do nothing? Was there ever a moment that I’ve allowed myself that space, that freedom? No matter how busy I make myself day after day, year after year, I still go to sleep at night feeling like I’ve wasted so much time. I still wake up every morning with the pressure of thinking I’ve dwindled away all the days before. I keep myself in a flurry of frenzied thoughts and trailing to-do lists. I hold my breath as I rush around my home, my office, my head, trying frantically to get as much done as possible.

I tell myself that I’m trying to do extra work to create a bubble of free time for myself in the future, but that future moment never arrives. There is always something more that I could be doing. From time to time, I become so overwhelmed, so run down by my own errands that I have to stop and try to remember why I’m even doing any of this. I must have a good reason right? What was my ultimate goal again? What’s the point of all this work?

When I ask myself these questions, it’s hard to wrap my mind around the answer that always seems to come up. My only real goal, the thing that I’m struggling so desperately to achieve is just to be happy. I become so tangled in all the techniques I’ve piled on to my daily routine in order to facilitate a happy life, that I forget happiness is a choice. All I have to do is keep making that choice in every moment. These limits and restrictions and qualifications I put on my happiness are mine to hold on to or let go of as I wish. No amount of self-help or self-care rituals will generate happiness in my life. These things are just reminders, opportunities for me to give myself permission to experience the happiness that is already inside of me.

Despite all my years of yoga and meditation practice, I keep grasping and clawing at the world around me, at my external circumstances, trying to reach some perfect, organized, flawless outer condition in order to finally rest. I keep feeding myself a story that I know is a lie. I say, “In order to be happy, I must do this or achieve that or resolve all the problems in my life.” I place my happiness in some far off idealized future world that is intangible and unattainable. Then I beat myself up for not being able to reach it. “I’m a failure! I’m lazy! I’m not trying hard enough! I’m too easily overwhelmed! I’m too mentally ill to ever be happy!”

I allow my own inner voice to berate me and belittle me in ways that I would never allow anyone else to. I hardly even recognize the self-abuse I inflict every day. I place the aspirations of who I’d like to be off in the future and set up hurdles for myself to reach them. I make life more complicated, grave, and serious than it has to be. I tell myself to be calm and then pile on unrealistic tasks for myself to complete in order to permit a moment of relaxation. I tell myself to be happy while I rattle off endless criticisms of myself and everything in my life.

Life can be more simple and light-hearted if I only allow it to be. I don’t need to be or do anything in order to be happy or find peace. Those states are part of me. They are not dependent on anything outside of my head. I can go within and find peace, love, and happiness no matter where I am or what is going on in my life. They are not objects to be acquired out in the world. They are essential aspects of my nature. I generate them. I am them.

I am finally giving myself permission to stop regularly and ask, “what is it that I need right now?” and then simply allow myself to have it. Instead of withholding all of the compassion, understanding, and tenderness that I so desperately long for until I reach some distant abstract goal, I can give it to myself right now, this moment, every moment. I no longer require anything of myself in order to offer myself kindness. Real love is always unconditional. We merely clip it’s wings and distort it’s healing energy by placing qualifiers on it in any capacity.

I’ve wasted so much time and effort trying to earn love, trying to earn happiness, when in reality, all I have to do is stop choking off these energies that are always naturally flowing within me. No matter how many times I affirm it to myself, it’s so hard to remember that when I find myself in a state of distress or despair, I don’t need to do anything or obtain something to “fix” it. All I’ve got to do is be there. Just allow myself to be there, with whatever is happening internally and externally. Just allow myself to feel what it’s like to exist in that moment, to breathe, to experience life.

It sounds so simple, so easy that it just can’t be true. It’s very hard to combat so many years of telling myself the answers are outside of me somewhere, that reaching milestones and goals will bestow the inner experience I am seeking. It’s a daily effort in mindfulness to pull myself back down to earth, back into my own body, and redirect my soul’s awareness to that deep, dark, smooth, cooling stillness that soothes all of life’s struggles. It’s always right there inside of me. It is me. If I can only be silent enough to hear it’s soft, kind, loving voice. That’s the me that I want to be. That’s the me that I really am. She’s always there waiting patiently for me to come home. That path home might be perilous and overgrown at the moment, but I know with time it will be worn down until one day I’ll be able to make that journey back to myself with ease.

Coping with the End

Total disassociation, fully out your mind. Googling derealization, hating what you find. That unapparent summer air in early fall. The quiet comprehending of the ending of it all.

Funny Feeling – Bo Burnham

The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. Over the past six or seven years I’ve gone through all of these stages. Now it feels like I teeter back and forth between depression and acceptance. Seven years may seem like a rather long time to grieve, but it’ll sound more appropriate when I explain that I am not grieving the death of a loved one or a romantic relationship. No, I am grieving the earth, my own life, all life. I am grieving the slow, steady death of our planet and all that it holds.

When I first discovered just how close we already were to the end of everything, I was furious. How could those in power and those that came before me ignore this, and even worse, continue contributing to it? The bitter hatred for humanity I already harbored sharpened like a knife’s edge, cutting me deeper than it ever had before. Then I felt passionately compelled to stop our frenzied descent toward destruction. In desperation, I implored people to share my concern about what leading environmental scientists were saying, to do all that they could in a personal capacity to make a difference, even if it was hard, even if it still might already be too late.

Naively in the beginning, I really thought the issue was that people did not know the information that I knew, and that if they did, they would understand and take action. Depression and despair quickly set in when I realized that wasn’t the case. It wasn’t only that people didn’t know. They refused to know. As I passed through the stages of grief alone, the rest of the world hangs idle in the “denial” phase. Even though I desperately want others to be by my side through this process, I’ve come to accept that they won’t be. I’ve even begun to feel it’s a mercy that they don’t believe the things I tell them. While I want my friends, family, and community to understand the dire situation we are in, I don’t want them to suffer with that knowledge like I have for all of these years. However, in case there are people out there that feel the weight of this impending doom like I do, I want to at least share a few of the ways in which I’ve been managing to cope.

One: Historical Perspective

One of the hardest parts of all this in the beginning was feeling robbed of the long life we are implicitly promised as children. It seemed so unfair to know that I would never experience old age, that I would live only half as long as I had anticipated. Sometimes I found myself wishing that I had been born in a different time so I wouldn’t have to see the world go up in smoke one day.

I soon realized that this isn’t really something I would want. For the vast majority of human history, my life would have been far worse and perhaps even shorter. As a woman I would have had no rights or freedom. I would have likely died by now in childbirth or from some horrible misunderstood disease. The average human life expectancy for a large portion of history was roughly 30 years.

I’ll still hopefully get to live for a decade or two more than that. Not to mention the quality of these 30-50 years of mine will be far superior to the quality of billions of peoples throughout history. I’ve experienced more novelty, luxury, comfort, and pleasure than the vast majority of humans that have lived. And that I am truly grateful for.

Two: Life Will Go On

It’s no secret that I don’t care much for humanity and it’s consistent habit of committing atrocities against other beings and each other. The idea of the human race ending, pretty much means nothing to me. We are a plague on this earth and all her other creatures. But the idea that because of our stupidity, greed, and selfishness the rest of the life of earth would also perish with us was unbearable to me. I look out at the complexity, the diversity, the staggering beauty of the world around me, and I can’t cope with thinking it will all disappear with us.

Learning of the animals that are still thriving in the ghost town that is Chernobyl gave me some hope. Yes, a huge portion of the life we now know of on earth will surely be wiped out by the effects of manmade climate change and the resulting wars over the remaining resources. Yet, life in general, is more resilient than I once believed. All life will not end. Some creatures will survive even this. And in time they will grow and evolve and repopulate this decimated planet until it is vibrant and flourishing yet again. One day there will be a beautiful, new earth free from the tyranny of humans. That thought brings me some peace.

Three: Purpose is Relative

When the heavy thoughts of our fast approaching end cloud my mind, one of the main themes becomes: What’s the point? Why should I continue on knowing that the end will be suffering and annihilation? I might as well just give up. Nothing matters.

These thoughts, while poignantly felt, are puzzling to me. Why should the end being sooner rather than later effect the meaning I find in life? Whether I die at 40 or 80, there will be immense fear and suffering. That isn’t something that I would escape if the world weren’t dying with me. Besides, life is not a guarantee. I could have died in my sleep last night. I could die in a car accident tomorrow. I could have developed leukemia as a child and not lived past the age of 7.

Purpose and meaning are not dependent on the length or last sentence in this book called life. I get to decide my own purpose. I determine the meaning behind all of this. The significance of my life is not forfeited due to the sudden realization that it will be much shorter than anticipated. My life matters, my happiness matters, the love I have for others matters, regardless of when death finds me.


Contemplating and combating these discouraging, depressing thoughts is what I am tasked with now. My greatest lesson in life will be learning how to be present and grateful for where I am now, regardless of what may come in the following moment. I’ve fought and screamed. I’ve begged for the world to stop this. I’ve surrendered to my sadness and helplessness in the face of this calamity. Now all that’s left is acceptance. The severity of my fate is not what I had ever expected, but it isn’t something that can be changed or avoided. There is peace in accepting that. Through acceptance I will salvage the time that I do have. I still have time to fill with joy and love and awe, and the gratitude I feel for that fact is enough to get me through anything. It’s enough to carry me into the end.