Despite the current state of lockdown in many places, these are dramatic times on the streets and in the hearts of many communities. It can be hard to hold all the events and emotions, especially when so many of them might seem so overwhelming. Many of us are struggling and, to be honest with you, I have been trying to give my own mind some time to settle before writing to you again. Given how we always talk about the importance of making use of mindfulness to help find a site of spaciousness from which to think about our responses and actions, I wanted to make sure that I honoured this in communications with you during these challenging times. So, in previous weeks I have apologised for being late with my message, but this time I think I should simply say that it’s taken me quite some time to see where my mind has settled.
As usual, I think I’d like to address two things: ...
It seems to me that our little community of learners on this course is juggling a range of different issues at the moment, some very substantially and substantively different from others. We have participants from dozens of countries all over the world. And we have participants from all kinds of backgrounds and walks of life in many of those countries. Perhaps it’s helpful, then, just to take a moment this week to acknowledge the varieties of experiences present even in the readership of this email. If you are someone who practices compassion or loving-kindness meditations, perhaps you might be able to keep this tremendous diversity in mind? For what it’s worth, I certainly try to do that each day.
With this in mind, like many of you, I have been thinking a great deal about the powerful phrase, ‘I can’t breathe,’ which has re-emerged as a political slogan in the USA and elsewhere following the tragic death of George Floyd a few weeks ago. It stands as a form of protest against police brutality and racism.
For me, as a white, European man, I know that I’m unlikely to be a victim of this same kind of horrifying experience. But as a mindfulness teacher, I am deeply sensitive to the importance of the breath. Indeed, aspects of the weight of being unable to breathe are personalized every time I sit down to practice, every time I invite a student to ‘just breathe,’ every time I suggest that ‘our breath is always there, like an anchor; a safe place to which we can always return.’ In other words, I am very conscious of the fact that I can breathe. And this appears to be both a literal and figurative insight, both of which expose my position of tremendous privilege in ways that I might have been otherwise unaware.
Of course, there is also a sense in which the COVID pandemic has also challenged the way that we take breathing for granted. As a virus that compromises our respiratory systems, the fear of being ill is immediately associated with the fear of being unable to breathe. So, many of us have become more attentive to (and appreciative of) our breathing. However, it is also true that COVID has exposed a great many inequalities and injustices in societies everywhere. In this picture, too, I am privileged.
This week, then, I’d like to invite you to reflect upon the ease (or dis-ease) with which you breathe, and the tremendous value – the essential preciousness – of that simple act. You might also reflect on those times at which breathing is more challenging for you. Perhaps you are an athlete, and you push yourself to the point of struggling for breath? Perhaps you are subject to panic attacks, and you know what’s like to feel the horror of breathlessness? Perhaps you can remember a moment of delight when your breath caught in your throat and your eyes widened a little in joy? Or perhaps you live in an industrial metropolis where breathing also means drawing toxic fumes into your lungs?
Whatever the case for you, I’m not recommending that you attempt to draw those experiences into your practice, since doing so is likely to be stressful and dysregulating for you. However, I would suggest that you allow these experiences to rejuvenate your appreciation of your breath. Perhaps they allow you to take more pleasure in the simple act of sitting, eyes closed, and performing a ‘mindfulness of body and breath’ practice? Perhaps they allow you a heightened sense of gratitude to your body for the way it sustains you with a simple action? Perhaps, more than anything, they encourage you to value your breath more fully, rather than to take it for granted. This sense of gratitude for the breath as an anchor, as a safe place to which we can always return, is so important to our practice. This sense of gratitude also supports the cultivation of compassion for self and others, including (and perhaps especially) for those who struggle with their breath (for all kinds of reasons).
There are other important times at which it is difficult to breathe: for example, when we are drowning. In fact, there appears to be a sense in which many of us feel like we’re drowning at the moment; we’re being overwhelmed by crises and problems, even while we continue to attempt to deal with other unresolved issues. For some, the end of lockdown has been a wonderful relief. But for others, it has been followed very quickly by another period of lockdown, with more cases reported than ever before. For some, the end of lockdown has spread disharmony, disquiet, and fear into their communities. And for nobody has the virus vanished from the world around us.
Many of you have written to me to explain the way that you carry short, portable practices (like the ‘3-step breathing space’) with you everywhere you go. Such practices are like your face-mask – you don’t leave home without them. And I think it’s certainly true, as I’ve said before, that these short practices help us to maintain our balance, poise, equilibrium, and gentleness through stressful times.
However, the renewed stress of this period has hit some of you like a tidal wave, and I might imagine that these short practices feel rather like gulping for air while you struggle to keep afloat? For others, they might feel more like moments of bailing water out of a slowly sinking boat? We are not all in the same boat after all, even if we’re fortunate enough to be in a boat at all.
If this seems recognizable to you, which I could fully understand, I would encourage you to see whether you can find a way to make use of this moment as an opportunity to renew (or to recommit to) your practice. For many, it seems that the lifting of lockdown rules has led to less time at home, which has also meant that people are spending less time on formal meditation practices (sitting practices, body-scans etc) and instead they are relying on less-formal, shorter practices (walking, 3-step breathing spaces etc) that they can do on the move, while they’re out in the urban wilds.
Sadly, experience suggests that while it’s better to do some practice (whatever it is) rather than none, it’s much better for us to continue with longer, formal practices than to swap them out entirely for shorter, informal practices. Indeed, evidence suggests that the efficacy of your ‘3-step breathing space’ might be linked to its function as a form of ‘top-up,’ building on the formal practices that you normally do at home in the mornings/evenings/whenever. Some teachers compare this to ‘charging your battery’ with 2 or 3 formal practices each week (during which you might do the body-scan or a 4-stage open awareness practice (or whatever extended practice you prefer) for 30 minutes), so that your ‘3-step breathing space’ at the supermarket or bus-stop just has to top up your charge a little.
For me, I sometimes find it helpful to think about setting sail on a boat – accepting that everyone’s boat is different. While we certainly can’t avoid needing to look after the boat while we’re afloat on the ocean, and sometimes we even have to bail water out of it, it’s best to avoid setting out with a boat that’s cracked, rotting, or full of holes. Repairing the boat while travelling in it is not ideal. Much better is it to do that work to sure up the hull and the navigation equipment before you set out. En route, you just need minor maintenance.
All of this is simply to say something like this: if you’re struggling more than you have been, and if your daily practice has changed shape recently, perhaps you might benefit from recommitting to at least 3 more formal, extended practices each week? You might then find that your emergency maintenance during the day will be more effective.
Wishing you ease of breathing and freedom from enmity,
Dr. Chris Goto-Jones.
Leiden University - Centre for Innovation; University of Victoria.
During the 2020 COVID19 pandemic, Chris Goto-Jones writes weekly emails to the participants of the MOOC DeMystifying Mindfulness on Coursera and FutureLearn. Following requests to put them all in one place, they are reproduced here.