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.

Playing with Your Personal Edge

Yoga is a mirror to all of life. All of our habits, thought patterns, personal beliefs, and doubts can be discovered and analyzed on the mat. One thing you may have heard before if you’ve taken a yoga class is the phrase “your personal edge.” This is referring to pushing yourself not into any particular shape or variation of a pose, but just to where you feel yourself reaching the edge of your body’s ability. More specifically the edge is right where you feel challenged, but not any pain or severe discomfort in your body. Finding that edge is a practice in itself. There are many challenges to keep us from recognizing it. Our ego may want us to go beyond that edge, to show off, or prove something. Our self-doubt and fear may want us to hold back and never meet that edge to ensure we don’t fall or fail or whatever other story it might be used to telling us.

A lot of people, myself included, spend a lot of their yogic journey, trying to master advanced poses as if checking them off some kind of yogi achievement list, or attempting to fill up a well of pride inside. Especially now, when we have all seen the impressive feats yoga can train the body to perform on Instagram, YouTube, or somewhere else online, it’s easy to forget that these physical forms are not the purpose of yoga. These magnificent, beautiful shows of flexibility, balance, and strength are a byproduct of showing up every day and meeting your personal edge. I’m sure the first yogis had no idea that the body would even be capable of these asanas in the beginning, they revealed themselves to be possible little by little as these seasoned practitioners slowly followed that ever moving edge.

At the same time, meeting your personal edge isn’t necessarily about “improving” yourself either. All of these outward results of doing so are just distractions and illusions. The real benefit of playing with that edge is what it feels like when you’re doing it. In yoga, as in life, if we push ourselves too far we become frustrated and disheartened. But if we never challenge ourselves, we will become bored and stagnant. Sometimes even after we’ve learned these lessons on our mat, it can take years for us to make the transition off the mat and into our everyday lives.

I’ve always had a hard time finding a healthy middle ground, in yoga and in life. I used to push my body a little too hard in my practice, aggressively forcing it into every more strenuous postures, occasionally even resulting in injury. Then I pulled back. For awhile, this was a welcomed relief from high expectations and pressure to outperform myself every day. However, now it has transformed more into a fear of testing my limits at all, in favor of easier, yet perfectly executed poses. I have this same problem in every aspect of my life. I seem to be in a state of constant fluctuation between frustration and boredom. I push too hard and feel awful when I inevitably fail or burn myself out. Then I pull back so much that I become bored and disinterested all together.

Watching “Is It Cake?” on Netflix the other night, I was in awe of the way these pastry chefs believed in themselves. I could not even fathom what gave them the courage to try things that I would have immediately written off as impossible or at the very least, far beyond my ability. I see so many people doing this every day. People starting businesses, creating their own products, writing books, etc. I envy their self confidence and bravery. At the same time, they’ve taught me that rather than lack of ability or external circumstances, I am what’s holding me back from achieving my own personal successes.

I worry so much about what the final steps will be and my perceived inability to reach them that I never give myself permission to start where I am and focus on the first step. I become so obsessed with the end goal, that I forget to enjoy the process. In life, as in yoga, the true reward is not the final product, it is the blissful focus and moments of flow that we experience along the way when we are teasing the limits of our own ability.

I’ve been waiting for something to come along and shake me out of this directionless boredom I’ve been stuck in for so long now, forgetting that I have the power to push past this whenever I want. Because I never feel “ready”, my growth is usually the result of unforeseen circumstances forcing me to go outside of my comfort zone. I think I comfort myself with the idea that “I didn’t choose this. I never said/believed I could do this. So if I fail, it’s not my fault.” In reality, I’m just afraid of my own ego. I’m afraid that if I believe in myself, if I try to do something great and discover that I can’t, then it will reaffirm my own self-doubts and cause me to face the tongue lashing of my own inner critic. Somehow it feels safer to expect to fail. Then if I do, at least I can say I was right all along. Ensuring that, if nothing else, I’m at least still smart.

Even though this is the way I feel, it sounds utterly ridiculous to read this rationalization back to myself. Yoga has also taught me to set intentions and use them as an anchor. For so long now, my unconscious intention has been “avoid looking like a fool.” Totally losing sight of my aspirations and goals, not even considering what exactly a “fool” looks like. When I really think about it, I wouldn’t call someone who tries to achieve something great and fails a fool. It’s far more foolish to live your whole life clipping your own wings in an attempt to save face.

As I move forward with this knew wisdom, I want to remember that I get to set the intention. It doesn’t have to be something so concrete as “publish a book.” An intention can be something like “to be curious” or “to search for my personal edge.” This leaves a lot of room for exploration, surprising ourselves, and unexpected forms of success that may not look like what we thought they would. When I become frustrated, it’s usually a sign that I’ve gotten distracted and lost sight of my true intention. All I need to do is slow down and remember what I really wanted out of this experience and letting go of what my ego tells me success looks like. Really success doesn’t look like anything. It is not a physical manifestation, it is a feeling. Something that comes about it all sorts of unique ways. Something we are all capable of experiencing.

You Have Everything You Need

I have been feeling really drained and stressed out lately. I feel like the weeks have been flying by without leaving me any time to do the things I need to do. It seems like I have an ever increasing list of chores, but less and less time to take care of them. Whenever things start feeling frantic like this, I tend to lean on self-medication hard. I start to use marijuana, kratom, alcohol, cigarettes, etc. as a crutch to get me through the day. Inevitably these things become less and less effective as time goes on. And when that starts to happen, the panic sets in.

There is so often this lingering sense of fear that looms around me. It is an ever-present unease, a whisper in my ear, telling me I need to go, run, flee, get away somehow. From what? I couldn’t say. To where? I don’t know. Yet this feeling is powerful, it waits for those moments of weakness and overwhelms me. It is momentarily placated when I am able to “escape” my own mind for awhile with some substance or another. But as I’ve said, that is only a highly unhealthy, temporary fix at best.

While I was meditating today, I came back to a realization that I’ve had a few times before. Even though I was pressed for time and could only sit for 5 minutes today, it was enough for a few moments of profound healing. Just like always, I felt a lot of resistance to the stillness at first. It never ceases to amaze me just how hard it actually is to just breathe. Once I allowed myself to surrender and drop into the soothing rhythm of my own breath, I found so much peace within that was waiting for me. Everything always seems so simple in those moments, so clear.

I remembered that I already have everything that I need inside of me. I don’t need any chemicals or substances to calm me down. All I need is this breath. I have the power to go within whenever the outside world becomes to much. I can go to that silent, still, safe place. A place that is even deeper than the constant noise inside my head. My own private sanctuary where I can heal and stay as long as I like. All I’ve got to do is give myself permission to go there. To let go of all of the things that are weighing me down. It may not be as easy as it sounds, but it is possible.

Short meditations like today’s remind me that even a few minutes can make a huge difference. It isn’t always necessary to set aside a half an hour or more for meditation. There is always time to center and ground yourself in the breath. Even if it’s just a minute, even if it’s just three deep breaths. Anything is better than nothing at all. And I don’t need to limit myself to practicing once a day. This isn’t just something to check off of a list. Meditation is a tool that I can utilize in my most difficult moments. It is also something I can do when I want to savor a particularly good one. There is really no limit to the potential of this mindfulness practice. I would like to learn to integrate it more into my day to day existence. It isn’t simply a healthy activity like daily exercise. It is a way of life, it is taping into that deep peace and wisdom that we all have inside of us. It is an opportunity to drink from that bottomless well of energy within.

Everything is going to be alright. You have everything that you need. You are more powerful than you know. You are the love, you are the peace, that you seek. Just breathe.

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Denying Myself

Last night I was able to manifest an enlightening moment of expansive loving kindness. Just the moment before that, I felt like I was on the precipice of a panic attack. I felt held together by just static and stitching. I was afraid I was going to pieces. But I managed to blossom instead. I decided to stop fixating on trying desperately to hold myself together. Instead I chose to reminisce, to remember what it feels like to feel in love with this life. To find a seat of gratitude within my soul. To shift my vantage point.

I so rarely remember that I am capable of doing this. It seems so impossible, yet so easy. I forget to even stop and consider trying. So often we feel like merely the passengers on this journey, or like we are lost at sea, at the mercy of the ocean waves far from the shoreline. We are fighting so hard to keep our head above the water, that it doesn’t even occur to us that we can choose to breathe below the surface.

Life is very similar to dreaming in a lot of ways. Maybe that’s why I am always looking for messages and lessons from my sleeping mind. Last night felt like a dream in which you realize you are dreaming. Suddenly you remember that you are in control. In waking life we may not be able to completely alter the world around us, but we can completely alter our inner world whenever we want. We are the artists of the landscapes inside of ourselves.

If this is true, why is it so hard to believe it some days? I know very well there are times when fluffy thoughts like these cannot reach me. I mentioned in my post yesterday that this loving awareness, this simple bliss, these are my natural state. These feelings are the true expression of my soul. All I have to do is allow them to flow from me, to let my heart remain open. How quickly I’ve forgotten all the profound wisdom I read in The Untethered Soul.

So often I stifle and block my own love, my own happiness, my own peace. I block off that flowing spout of energy from my heart space. I begin working with brick and mortar from the moment I awake. I am an expert at denying myself. When my thoughts begin racing with everything that is “wrong” what it’s really doing is tallying up all the reasons that I’m not allowed to feel okay, to be happy. I’ve been telling myself “no” for so long that I started to forget I had the power to say yes. I am the one who has written these arbitrary rules on love and happiness.

I don’t have to wait for everything to be perfect before I let myself be happy. In fact, I have the power to decide that everything is already perfect right now. Today is an excellent, magnificent day to be happy. Nothing can take that happiness away from me, except me. It’s always easy to be in love, to be blissful, because this is how we are meant to be. The suffering and exhaustion that accompany depression, anxiety, anger, fear, hatred, are created from the immense effort of acting and feeling so contrary to our soul’s essence. It’s always harder to be something you’re not.

I think somewhere along the line this ever-present mindset of scarcity and limited resources, led us to believe that we have to ration our love, our joy. But that well has no bottom. We never have to fear we will run out of these things, because they are us, we are one and the same. I’ve learned to let the thinking mind limit my potential. I give myself “rational” reasons not to be happy. I tell myself I don’t deserve to feel good because of (x) or after doing (y). I’ve been feeling like I have to choose between denying myself or denying reality. But that isn’t true. I can be flawed and imperfect and still happy. Love and happiness have never hurt a situation.

No matter what I am faced with in this life, no matter what mistakes I’ve made or continue to make, I still deserve to be happy. It’s not silly or selfish or wrong. Because by sharing this energy with the world, I am doing what I have always been meant to do. What we are all meant to do. What everyone has been telling us to do since we were children. Just be yourself. That timeless, limitless, ever-present, powerful self that lies at the seat of every soul, the manifestation of love, of joy, of light, of hope. All we have to do is remember. Remember who you are.

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