Thich Nhat Hahn said “No mud. No lotus.” This means that if we do not go through the struggles, the hard times, and the challenges, then we do not blossom into that beautiful lotus flower. I totally get that. My difficult times have taught me volumes. I have come to think of them as blessings actually. I have learned that without struggle there is no freedom.
Freedom from what? Freedom from stress, suffering, and dis-ease; freedom from the patterns of thinking that have kept me playing small, feeling insecure, and in the hell of a deep rooted belief that I do not belong; freedom from the regret of the past and fear of the future; freedom, basically, from my own thoughts, and feelings that are the result of old conditioning.
Three practices, within the context of mindfulness of the body, have helped me to slough through the mud and lean into and live the beauty of that lotus blossom. The three practices are: noticing body sensations, breathe awareness, and observing my thoughts. mindulness
Mindfulness of the Body
Mindfulness of the body practices are accessible and profoundly transformative. Anyone can learn them. They do require some instruction and of course the discipline to actually do them. They also require patience with the slow dissolving nature of old habits of mind and ways of being before the new wisdom arises.
These practices have given me tools to calm myself when I am getting flooded with difficult thoughts and/or emotions; created a strong and viable connection between my mind and my body so they communicate with one another in healthy and helpful ways; and expanded my ability to accept the full range of human experiences that occur in my life rather than resisting what I do not like and trying to hang on to what I do like. For the most part, I have stopped taking everything so personally too.
Mindfulness of the Body is literally a relapse prevention superpower.
Noticing Body Sensations
The first useful practice of mindfulness of the body is noticing bodily sensations. I can now detect low-grade anxiety in my solar plexuses before it rises to my throat and floods my entire thoracic cavity. When I am overdosing on anxiety, it makes a drink or a drug look like a good idea. If I am aware of any difficult emotion at the beginning stages of it, then I have a window of opportunity to take specific actions to manage it more skillfully. Calming myself in this way helps keep small things small. I have way less five alarm emotional fires and tend toward serenity and calm rather than chaos and drama.
I practice trying to stay connected to read my body’s language so I know what to say or what to do in order to live my values. Most of us can identify with the phenomenon of having a “gut feeling.” This is deep intuition that is a lot wiser than my thinking mind. Through paying attention to the sensations, pulsations, and internal indicators of my body, I can avoid situations and predicaments that are not healthy for me. That gut feeling is no longer a slight whimper but often times a lion’s roar. And I listen.
Another useful mindfulness of the body practice is awareness of my breath. My breathing will become shallow and faster when I am experiencing stress. It has this jagged edge feel to it that is a signal to me that I have to take appropriate action. The body knows. And it does not lie and tell me untrue stories like my thoughts do. I have come to trust it.
Simply noticing the quality of my breathing is an indicator of my current state of wellbeing. If my breathing is rapid, shallow, and jagged, I check out my hands, jaw, and shoulders. If they are tensed up and contracted, my body is experiencing a high degree of stress and likely pumping out a stress hormone. I am in danger of acting out in ways that are self-injurious and not at all helpful to others.
Taking deep long slow breathes helps a lot. I will inhale for a three count and then exhale for a very slow six count. For five breathes. Most times balance and equanimity begin to emerge, and a calmer, saner me is back online. Just. Like. That.
It really is that simple too. But it is not always easy. Catching the stress early, before it has its talon’s firmly planted in me, is way easier to down grade through breathing then once I am in full-blown stress mode.
Observing My Thoughts
One of the greatest assets to my recovery has been the ability to observe my own thoughts. Mindfulness practice has given me the skill to watch my own mind. Anne Lamott has been quoted as saying “My mind is a dangerous neighborhood that I try not to go into alone.” She gets me.
My biggest problem has always been, and continues to be, that I tell myself something and I believe me. Then I act accordingly. Observing my thoughts gives me space to question, analyze, and assess the thought before I act or trust it. I have developed a pause button between the thought and the potential action that has helped to avoid all kinds of uncomfortable and unwise situations.
For example, just the other day I had the thought that nobody really cares about me, like truly cares. My mind then went looking for evidence to support this thought. I told myself that so and so never calls me. I thought of that group of friends that does things without inviting me.
Then I noticed this thought and was reminded that it is a familiar visitor. I was observing my own thoughts. This idea that I do not belong and that no one really cares about me is from experiences of my past. They are not true thoughts but they strut about in my head as though they are kryptonite true.
I used to react to these thoughts and sink into a funk that was difficult to get out of and uncomfortable to be in. Because of the skill of being able to observe my thoughts, I see the familiar visitor and think “Oh look at that thought.” No need to judge it or be self-critical. Just a kind-hearted noting. Then I call my wife, my sister, my brother, and/or my best friend to just say hey and connect. Sometimes it is just a quick chat or a conversation about future plans.
I get connected. I feel connected. Belonging returns. The uncomfortable visitor has moved along. It will visit again. Hopefully I am watching so the visit is a short one.
Mindfulness of the body through these three practices is a relapse prevention tool. I do not get so uncomfortable that I find it necessary to engage my addictive behavior. I don’t go as deep and I don’t stay as long.
Well worth the effort beyond measure.
No mud, no lotus.
If you are in recovery from addiction, Prana Recovery Centers can help teach you mindfulness of the body techniques and give you the space to practice in a supportive environment with others.
Bottom Photo credits: Simon Wilkes