Simple Practices

Begin with breath awareness. No matter how you may feel about it based on previous experience, there are a lot of good reasons to start here.

Bearing in mind that “simple” doesn’t always mean “easy,” remember that your success is nonetheless inevitable, gradually and increasingly, if you practice.

The “Be a Balloon” Exercise

Focus on your breath for just a moment. As you do so, imagine an uninflated balloon. Now imagine that you ARE that balloon. With your first inhalation (through your nose if you can), imagine the balloon inflating. Feel the breath causing your shoulders to rise and your rib cage and belly to expand, allowing the breath to come in.  Inhale slowly and keep going until you can’t go any further. Hold your breath briefly and then exhale slowly, through your mouth, as fully and as deeply you can, doing your best to be a balloon which is slowly deflating, shoulders falling, rib cage and belly contracting. When there is absolutely no more air left in the balloon, repeat this process at least two more times. While doing so (and here’s the hardest part), do your best to banish thoughts from your mind. Since thinking is inevitable for most people, expect thoughts to come in. For the purpose of this practice, think of them as unwelcome intruders into your mind. As soon as you notice yourself having a thought, do your best to escort it out again and return your attention to the balloon. It’s perfectly natural for the mind to wander away, like an inattentive puppy, and need to be retrieved. Even if your whole practice consists of retrieving and re-focusing your attention, it’s okay. Distraction is natural. Sometimes it’s inevitable. Your experience will vary. So don’t worry. You’re already doing an excellent job. You might not think so, but it’s true. Take a leap of faith and be a balloon once or even twice or three times a day for one week. Each time when you conclude your practice, ask yourself what differences you notice, if any, in how you felt before and after it.

The Inventory

As in the “Be a Balloon” exercise, begin by focusing on your breath for a moment. Breathe in slowly, inhaling as long as you can, through your nose if possible. Hold it briefly at the top and then breathe out through your mouth, exhaling as fully and deeply as you can. Repeat two or three times. Now, do it again, only this time, close your eyes and imagine you’ve got a flashlight in your hand. The flashlight is your attention, its beam bringing into your awareness whatever you see as you point it in whatever direction. With your eyes closed, imagine pointing the beam at the top of your head and then very slowly move down into the rest of your body, first one side and then the other, front and back, all the way down to the tips of your toes and including your arms and your hands. It’s like you’re exploring a house with no electricity, just going room to room with your flashlight, seeing what you see in the light of its beam, taking a kind of inventory. In this practice, the idea is to simply notice any sensations you find. You may observe things you’ve never noticed before. And where you do notice tension or discomfort, try to direct a deep breath into that place and imagine the area expanding, releasing, and softening. It’s natural to need to do this more than once. Imagine your breath helping to enlarge constricted places, inflate collapsed places, and straighten hunched places. All the while you’re doing this, remember to take deep breaths (through your nose) and exhale them as fully as you can (through your mouth). Try to be curious, easy, and non-judgmental with this experience. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. You’re doing fine. After you’ve taken your inventory, see how you feel compared with how you felt before you did it. See how your mind feels before and after too.

The Beach Blanket

As in the “Be a Balloon” exercise, begin by focusing on your breath for a moment. Breathe in slowly, inhaling as long as you can, through your nose if possible. Hold it briefly at the top and then breathe out, exhaling as fully and deeply as you can through your mouth. Repeat two or three times. Now, do it again, only this time try to allow a more accepting, non-resisting attitude toward reality, exactly as it is right now, to come into your mind and body. This stance is a way to say “okay” to the current state of things no matter what it is. Imagine a blanket spread out on the beach for a picnic on a beautiful day. Now imagine clouds blowing in. Rain begins. The blanket, which only moments ago was bathed in sunlight, and which is still spread out upon the sand, is now being showered with raindrops. The idea here is to be a little bit more like the blanket, just “accepting” the rain as it did the sunshine. As you continue breathing, see if you can “inventory” the content of your awareness right now. What thoughts are you thinking? What body sensations are you experiencing? See what you find when you “look” at your body (sensations) and your mind (thoughts and feelings). This kind of “inventory-taking” entails cultivating a kind of non-judgmental stance, not unlike a scientist observing a phenomenon and taking notes, just noticing, without commentary or preference, the thing being observed. It also entails a certain kind of acceptance of the thing (sensation, thought, feeling) just as it is.  The “Beach Blanket” exercise can help us step back and observe ourselves and our current reality with less emotional reactivity than we would otherwise have, especially when we’re experiencing any kind of distress. And the less emotional reactivity we have, the more serene we’re likely to feel, even on “rainy” days. Remember too that this kind of “acceptance stance” does not mean we behave passively toward circumstances we find unpleasant; it simply means we suffer less in the face of them.