An excerpt from How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers (Second Edition). Copyright 2018 by Toni Bernhard. Excerpted with permission from Wisdom Publications.
In the years since I’ve been chronically ill, more essential to me than formal meditation has been mindfulness outside of meditation. Mindfulness refers to paying attention to your present-moment experience. It’s as simple as that. There’s no belief system associated with mindfulness. For me, fully engaging my present-moment experience has become a refuge from the exhaustion created by constant discursive thinking, whether I’m ruminating about the past, worrying about the future, or judging what’s going on around and inside me.
I’m aware that the word mindfulness has become so pervasive in our culture that it can feel as if it’s lost its freshness and even its meaning. My goal in this chapter is to make it come alive again by offering specific ideas, rather than just telling you, “Be mindful of everything you do.” And so here are five simple practices that are easy to try. See which ones resonate with you.
I adapted this from a practice that my husband devised to teach mindfulness at Folsom Prison, where he’s a volunteer chaplain. He calls it the “three-breath trip.” It’s been tremendously helpful to the inmates, especially because they live in an environment that’s not conducive to formal meditation.
Here’s how it works. Whatever you’re doing at any moment, switch your attention to the physical sensation of three in-breaths and three out-breaths. That’s all there is to it. It’s a simple but powerful practice—and only takes a few seconds.
Three-breath practice grounds you in your body, which brings your attention to what’s going on right now in your life, because your body is always in the present moment. Most of us spend a lot of time unaware that we’re lost in thoughts—often stressful and judgmental ones. They may be about the past or about the future, or they may even be a running commentary on our present-moment experience. Three-breath practice brings you into the present moment and, by doing so, provides healing relief from all that mental chatter. Because I don’t seem to be able to control the scenarios my mind cooks up whenever it pleases, some days it feels as if three-breath practice is the only thing that keeps me sane!
One afternoon, during the time I was working on the revised edition of this book, I lay down for my daily nap—a necessity with my illness. But instead of being able to relax my mind and body, my mind started churning with a half dozen ideas for new material I wanted to include in the book. Then I started worrying that I’d forget these new ideas. And so I gave in, grabbed a pad of paper and a pen, and took a few notes. Then I returned to the task at hand—that nap—but my mile-a-minute thinking resumed. It was anything but restful.
I could feel the tension escalating in both my mind and my body because I badly needed to nap. So I tried three-breath practice. I took three conscious breaths by paying attention to the physical sensation of the breath as it came in and went out of my body. In that short space of time, all that mental activity—which was exhausting physically, too—gave way to a sense of ease. Then I said to myself, “It’s time to nap,” and I was able to. I’d only add to these instructions: “Repeat as necessary!”
I use this practice several times a day. I like doing it at random; no matter what I’m engaged in, I’ll stop long enough to take three conscious in-breaths and out-breaths. As a bonus, when I exhale on that third breath, a feeling of peaceful calm comes over me, sometimes strong, sometimes slight—I’ll take either one.
Three-breath practice is beneficial in a second way. When you find yourself in a difficult or antagonistic situation where you might react impulsively and later regret it, intentionally switching your attention to three conscious breaths gives you the time and space to reflect before speaking or acting. This makes it much more likely that you’ll react in a skillful way to whatever situation you’re facing.
I’ve discovered that truly being present for my experience brings with it a feeling of contentment that’s often tinged with awe, as I pause and take in the wonder and mystery of being alive at this moment.
Recently, one of our town’s most treasured citizens passed away after a good long life. The obituary in our local paper noted that Martha loved to say, “The past is history. The future is a mystery. The present is a gift.”
I hope you’ll take refuge in this gift.
Toni Bernhard was a law professor at the University of California—Davis. She is the author of How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers (Second Edition), How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow, and How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide. She can be reached at her self-titled site, Toni Bernhard.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com