One of the things I do when I start every single life coaching session is a simple one: We take a moment, just to breathe.
“Try to take the kind of inhale where your shoulders go up a bit, and then when you exhale, make a bit of a noise as you release the air,” I invite my clients. “Move past the prim and proper breathing.”
And we sit like this, in perfect stillness, for just the first few moments of the session. I do this in part because for many of my clients, this is the first time all day that they’ve had a moment to stop and just breathe. My tribe tends to be pretty driven, intelligent types–the types who have usually seen themselves as too logical to be doing any self-help work; the types who kinda-sorta-a-little-bit think (like me) that the term “coaching” is…well, a bit ridiculous. They have full lives, and full days, because they’re full of ideas and are very purpose-driven.
Again and again, they tell me the same sorts of things: that the breath helps them relax. Or that they look forward to it, all day. Or that they’re amazed by the power of this simple tool and how little time it takes.
But then there’s that one time–the time when the breath doesn’t relax them and instead, something (beautiful) comes up.
I’ll hear the emotion wavering in her voice as she shares with me that the stillness actually made it harder to keep some of the tough stuff at bay. I’ll think, “How courageous she is, to bring this here, to give voice to her experience.”
I’ll say, “Tell me more.”
Meditation Tells the Truth
I am a lover of truth. I grew up feeling like I couldn’t tell the truth, that there were consequences in my family for truth-telling, and I remember leaving home at eighteen, fiercely independent, and thinking to myself with relief that I no longer had to worry that if I told the truth, my character or behavior would be trashed.
I had left home. I could hang up the phone. I could leave the restaurant. I could, if needed, order someone to get out of my house. Typically, after leaving home, it usually never came to anything that dramatic, but just that knowledge was enough for me to feel like perhaps I could…breathe.
There was just one problem. I, too, would come to meditation, and instead of feeling the nice, fuzzy, relaxing feelings, my “stuff” would come up. Anger. Rage. Replaying conversations in my head.
Meditation brings us to the truth. People say they want concrete ways to move past their blocks, but we’re not sure “how” to do it.
Meditation, in my experience, is “how.”
No More Running
At first, I wanted to run from the sadness. This wasn’t what was supposed to happen in meditation! Wasn’t meditation supposed to bring enlightenment? Compassion? Calm?
Somewhere along the way, someone more experienced than myself suggested that I just “sit with” the sadness, as if the part of me that was sad was a friend in need–a friend who needed someone to sit beside them, to be with them without trying to “do” or “fix.”
So that’s how I sat, and that’s when I learned that meditation was helping me to practice, and slowing down to get some breathing space is a practice, in a very pro-active and practical way, this whole “make friends with yourself” thing that so many self-help books are talking about.
We read all of the time about how we’re supposed to accept ourselves, make friends with ourselves, love ourselves, as if it’s as easy as turning on a switch.
Sitting with my sadness–sitting with myself in sadness, in the way that I would hope for a dear friend to sit with me–was what taught me about befriending myself.
In sitting with my sadness, with no intention to do anything and with no intention to “fix,” I could offer myself the truest kind of acceptance.
This is an empowering kind of acceptance, because it doesn’t require anything external. You’re always the one breathing with yourself, and no one else can do the breathing for you. When you find your way to the other side of sadness, after having sat with it and accepted it, it’s a triumph.
No one else did this for you; you created your freedom, all on your own.
Back to Center
Nine times out of ten, my meditation practice is nothing but pure stillness and noticing. Then there’s the tenth time, where I get to practice being with sadness, or antsy agitation, or something else that feels uncomfortable.
I’ve learned that at such times, it can be helpful to remember that whatever I’m experiencing during a sitting is exactly what I’ll experience, “out there,” in the world.
As living, breathing humans, we’re all going to get sad, or agitated, or uncomfortable. We have choices–release it, or hold it in. Most of us choose to hold it in. We bury it under work or martyrdom or addiction or drama or something else. Then, when it does come out–as the feelings almost inevitably must–we feel as if life has spun out of control, the tears endless, the frustration magnified, the discomfort so acute that you might start to question everything.
People say of meditation, “it brings me back to center.” The center of what?
The center of your feelings. It’s the center of “being with” feelings–and “being with” them is a form of releasing them–that doesn’t go to such an extreme as venting them out onto other people or losing your grip on your life when depression visits.
This one deceptively simple practice of being willing to breathe in, breathe out, looks so innocuous and passive, yet it’s the doorway to actually dealing with the truth of who we are.
Back to center, indeed.
If you are a truth-seeker, a freedom-seeker, meditation is the most powerful practice you could engage with. And–it is definitely a practice. It’s something that evolves and grows as you change and shift. It goes as deep as you’re willing to go. It gives back benefits equal to what you’re willing to invest.
I was thinking about the top benefits that nearly a decade of meditation has brought to my own life–what have I really ended up with, after all those hours on the cushion, all those moving meditations and inquiry meditations and mantra meditations?
These were my top four–the top four reasons to establish a regular meditation practice.
#1: To become suspicious of any “Top Whatever Reasons” lists. Meditation brings us to a place of critical awareness, where we stop taking things at face value.
When you’re on the cushion, or practicing a walking style of meditation, or noticing how quickly emotional states warp in a movement meditation (all different styles explored in 30 Days of Meditation), you stop believing that whatever you’re thinking or feeling in the moment is any kind of absolute truth.
You start thinking critically, more willing to engage in a process of inquiry rather than bouncing back and forth between “maybe this my problem” and “no, no, this other thing must be my problem.”
You might even stop seeing things as “problems.”
#2: Because it enhances your physical health. Mindfulness-based practices have been shown in clinical studies (“clinical” meaning controlled studies that administer scientific measurement) that at the very least, meditation reduces stress and anxiety.
In some studies, it’s been shown to reduce depression, and others have suggested that it lowers risk of high blood pressure and heart-disease. The field of mind-body medicine is exploding as neuroscientists look into how we might even promote our own healing with meditation or mindfulness-based techniques.
#3: Because it reduces overwhelm. In my Breathing Space circles, I talk about how overwhelm isn’t really “problem,” but what we think about our busy schedules and to-do lists is the problem. There are plenty of people with busy schedules and to-do lists who take a pretty measured approach to everything that they do–and they aren’t overwhelmed (at least, not chronically).
It’s the out-of-control thinking that gets us overwhelmed, and meditation practices become the place where thoughts can be distilled down to their essence, and then examined. When we start examining the thoughts behind our overwhelm (“If I don’t get this done, it means ____”) we can start to change our relationship to overwhelm.
#4: Meditation is communication with our deepest selves; it’s where you go to know yourself intimately, beyond to-do lists and personality archetypes and what other people think of you.
In 30 Days of Meditation, I ask people to think of the relationship they have with their practice. What would your meditation practice say to you, if it could speak? What would it ask you? What would it be trying to tell you?
It’s really hard not to see the truth any time we remove distractions. This is what meditation does, in essence–the practice removes distractions.
On March 4th, 30 Days of Meditation will begin its inaugural run. I’ve spent a decade practicing meditation, sometimes more often and sometimes less often, and I’m not someone who just walked into the practice, all blissed-out in my hot little stretchy pants as I burned some incense, and immediately went, “Ah, yes, transcendence.”
Meditation practice is for everyone. It’s for you. It’s enlivening and enlightening. It’s a pragmatic and useful path to self-realization and deep growth–and it’s a way to just chill out in a life that feels hectic, over-worked, under-appreciated, and chaotic.
Meditation is how you come home–to yourself.
Check out http://www.30DaysofMeditation.com to learn more and to register.
I was talking to my friend Margo about a chronic issue that spanned more than a few of my life categories.
She said to me–simply, plainly, without judgment–
“You always complain about this.”
The shock of her words was somatic. I experienced them in every cell of my being.
My default response to anyone’s frank feedback used to be: “How dare this person say that! Why would this person say that to me? This is their crap, not mine. I’m so hurt that they would say that, so they must be the mean one, here!”
Luckily, I’ve orbited the sun enough times to understand that what I feel as a default response is not always the full truth of a situation.
I took a deep breath. What do I know of Margo? That she is an incredibly loving champion of her friends. She lavishes praise when it’s due. She’ll go the extra mile to support someone, to let them know that she utterly cherishes them.
Sure, she could have phrased it differently. She could have just let me vent.
She was choosing, instead, to do something that we’ve created enough safety in our friendship to have: truth-telling that helps one another move past delusion.
What Kind of Friend Are You?
I see this all of the time, especially with business: People simply don’t want to tell a friend the “truth.”
They want to “support” the friend. They want to tell the friend to go after their dreams. The friend calls to say how excited they are that they’re going to start a new product line or quit a job, and the people around them go– “Good for you! That’s so awesome! The world needs this; it’s about time! I’m so happy for you!”
People do this because they believe in the friend and–let’s just be honest–they want to be seen as supportive.
I think this approach to “being supportive” is catastrophically fucked, for the person who is assuming the risk.
Because most people who use the cheerleading of friends to help them bypass internal doubt and hesitation, end up paying for it–there’s more struggle.
True “support” is the friend who reflects back honestly what they see (and true adulthood would be the receiver’s willingness to take what they like, and leave the rest).
With entrepreneurship, some people are incredibly lucky and all turns out as they had hoped when they decide to “leap, and the net will appear.” For the vast majority? Nope. It’s a recipe for Business Heartbreak. There is added (and possibly unnecessary) struggle.
The net will appear, but it will take far more than those initial pom-pom cheers to make it happen. Most friends don’t want to be labeled as unsupportive, so they don’t point that out. They don’t ask questions. They don’t bring up possible challenges.
Those years of struggle? Valuable. Every experience has something to teach us.
At the same time, I say: “Give me the friends who will tell me the truth, and tell it clean–and please, God, give me the strength to be open to hearing it, without deflection.”
“Handling” the Truth
Instead of “Just go for it!” someone might be better supported by hearing…
“I love you–and–have you considered this other approach?”
“Hmmm. I know you’re really excited about this, and yet I don’t know that that’s such a great idea. Here’s why I’m thinking that.”
“I worry about ________ happening if you do that. I’m wondering if you’ve tried…? Have you already thought about…?”
But, caveat emptor! You will encounter wrath from some people, if you do this.
Most people do not choose to be willing to “handle” the truth.
Most people simply cast off anyone who doesn’t rally to their cause and tell them how awesome they are.
Most people who do this, don’t realize that they are doing this. They shut down anyone who offers a critical perspective or a counter-argument, or they withdraw from them. They deflect.
They might even go to all of the “You’re so awesome!” friends, and bitch about the person who didn’t tell them they were awesome.
This was a huge dynamic in my friendships in my 20s. I seemed to chronically align myself with people who didn’t want anything other than validation of their choices, and who struggled to tell me the truth if they were upset with me.
I can see how we all need validation for our choices. I also can see how having a friend who cares enough to propose alternatives, ask critical questions, and try to get to the bottom of the truth, is invaluable.
Margo knows that she has this permission in our friendship. I’ve directly asked that she always tell me the truth.
Most importantly? I back that up by not making her the Bad Guy, when she does.
Take a deep breath, and ask yourself: Have you set up your friendships in such a way that the door is open for your friends to offer their feedback, and you’re willing to receive it and decide what you want to do with it–without making them wrong?
What usually arises when someone doesn’t want to “handle” the truth is deflection. I’m guessing you’ve seen this in your life, too.
Someone asks you straight up for advice, and then when you give your take on it, they get upset: “I just wanted someone to hear me out!”
Someone talks to you about a problem in their life, and then they get upset with you. “It’s not what you’re saying, it’s the WAY you’re saying it,” they say.
Sometimes it’s true–we get mixed up. We ask for advice when we want hugs; the people we talk to get on a power trip and deliver criticism harshly, instead of kindly.
But how often is it the opposite? How often is it that someone who genuinely loves you and wants to help might be trying to offer you an incredible gift–one that you’re resistant to hearing–and you reject it?
Don’t Support My Delusion
In my 20s, I grew tired of the dynamic of not being able to tell my friends the truth of what I saw. I grew tired of suspecting that I wasn’t getting the full truth from them. Those were friendships that simply could not last. Any foundation built on lies (including the dishonesty of keeping silence) cannot last.
And when did the truths in those friendships finally come out? At the end, when we were saying good-bye. The truth was (finally) revealed, but by then there was no willingness to work on changing anything.
I remember thinking, “If you’d talked to me about that thing I did two years ago, maybe I could have apologized or done something differently–but now I only half-remember what you’re saying I did that’s the cause of all of this drama. How could we have ever fixed this, under such circumstances?”
It astonishes me how often I hear women talking about other women, bad-mouthing friends for things that the other party probably has no idea they’re even doing, setting up the situation so that change is impossible.
“What does she say when you try talking to her about it?”
Cue uncomfortable silence. Sentences that are started and re-started. The admission that no attempt to talk has been made.
What in the world are we doing to one another?
The icy shock of Margo’s words were hard to hear, but as I considered the last five conversations I could remember, there was something even more shocking:
She was telling the truth. I had been complaining.
After that, I became so acutely aware of that complaining dynamic, that the problem I’d struggled with actually started to shift and become better.
That’s what being “supportive” really looks like: someone who cares enough to tell you the truth, trusting that you are adult enough to decide what you want to do with it.
The next time you’re inspired and someone reminds you that the road might be hard, don’t cast them off as a “wet blanket” who “doesn’t support” you.
The next time someone offers you feedback about how you show up, hold the space that yes, this is their experience, and also–they might be right. Their feedback might be vitally important.
The next time anything unpalatable arises, be willing to look at the truth it might be trying to teach you.
“The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”
~ Rumi ~