“Perhaps the biggest misconception is that mindfulness is all about being happy or calm. While happiness and stress reduction are common and quite pleasant side effects of learning to be in the present moment without wishing it away, they are not the same thing as mindfulness. Fundamentally, mindfulness is about becoming aware of and accepting whatever is happening, which at times may involve sitting with painful or difficult emotions until they pass, as they will. It is a highly pragmatic practice that teaches us to see others and ourselves clearly so that we can make the most skillful choice possible in any given situation.
– From Ready, Set, Breathe: Practicing Mindfulness with Your Children for Fewer Meltdowns and a More Peaceful Family by Carla Naumburg, PhD
Last Friday night my husband and I had plans to go to a friend’s house for dinner at 7:00pm. In an all too common fashion my husband caused us to run behind. Known for his tendency to begin shaving at just the time we are slated to leave the house, sure enough, at 6:45pm, I see him go to the hall closet to fetch the electric razor. I am not someone who runs late. My idea of arriving on time often involves getting places at least 10-15 minutes early. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I am never late but it’s a very rare occurrence – well, at least when I’m left to my own devices that is. When my husband and I go places together there’s a fairly good chance we won’t be on time. This is one of the areas he and I differ in. Over the years we’ve learned how to balance each other out a bit – I’ve relaxed my obsessiveness about punctuality and sometimes he mobilizes himself so that we can leave the house on time. And sometimes neither of those things happen and frustration ensues, like it did for me on Friday night.
My heart, along with my physical posture, sunk as soon as I heard the razor spring into action in the bathroom. My mind immediately started up with spinning thoughts about how he is always doing this sort of thing (which wasn’t true – using the word ‘always’ is a clear sign to me that I’m dramatizing things) and how frustrating it is that he can’t manage to get himself ready in order for us to leave on time. I could feel the agitation about the inevitability of our lateness as a weight on my chest. Knowing it would take him as long as it would to finish and that my buzzing around, prompting him to hurry up, would only create more stress, I decided to sit down and follow my breathing.
Breathing in, I feel frustrated
Breathing out, I look deeply into my frustration
Breathing in, I see that I am more than my feelings of frustration
Breathing out, I practice letting go of my frustration
When frustration or anger arises it can be easy for these feelings to run the show and consume our otherwise rational abilities to think and act skillfully. I’ve found that one of the best things I can do in moments of frustration, and its heightened cousin anger, is practice the art of stopping and breathing. And I don’t use that phrase willy nilly – it really is an art. In the past what I’ve done, when my husband was causing us to run late, was to range from huffing and stomping around the house passive aggressively to lingering around him barking snide comments, neither of which is at all helpful. When I’ve allowed my feelings of frustration to take over, matching my physical movements to my harried frame of mind, the results have never been good.
Last Friday I was acutely aware of the progress I was making when I sat down and started connecting with my breathing as soon as my husband starting shaving, just as we were supposed to be leaving the house. The frustration didn’t magically disappear, it was still present. The difference was I was taking an action to connect with it, rather than allowing it to dominate me, and the situation. In that moment of sitting down and breathing I was becoming an active participant, as opposed to a victim of my own inabilities to stay grounded.
It took me a little while to unwind my frustration. When we were finally on our way, shortly after 7:00, I quickly took it upon myself to hop in the driver’s seat of our car, knowing that of the two of us I would get us there much faster. I then proceeded to slightly frighten my husband by driving a little too closely to the cars in front of me, which I have a tendency to do even in regular, everyday situations. As a side note: my love of music would’ve normally been an aid to my calming down once we got in the car but, it just so happened, that my stereo quit working moments after we were on our way, leaving us to our silence, which I found rather timely. “OK,” I thought to myself, “I’m frustrated. Now what? Well, I have a choice here. I can keep being frustrated, which will ruin my evening, or I can let it go, which makes a lot more sense and will allow us to have a nice time with our friends.” It wasn’t like a switch had then been flipped causing my frustration to suddenly evaporate but my self-probing questions and deep looking enabled me to gain some much needed perspective. By the time we got to our friend’s house I was feeling more grounded and by the time we all sat down to eat my frustration was almost completely transformed. All residual traces of my agitation were gone by the time we parted ways and took off back home. Another side note: I was also aware that since I am used to eating dinner around 5:00/5:30 that my hunger was also playing a part in my feelings of upset as well, which was a good observation to make note of.
In the past, I would’ve ridden my wave of frustration for as long as I possibly could. I would’ve stewed in it all night, rehashing and replaying the scene over and over in my mind so I could keep my suffering alive. I would’ve been a victim of my own circumstances, and cleverly hidden it under the disguise of blaming other people, places, and things. The quote at the top of this post is well put and wonderfully illustrates my process last Friday night:
“Fundamentally, mindfulness is about becoming aware of and accepting whatever is happening, which at times may involve sitting with painful or difficult emotions until they pass, as they will. It is a highly pragmatic practice that teaches us to see others and ourselves clearly so that we can make the most skillful choice possible in any given situation.”
It can be a common misunderstanding to think that stopping and breathing are insignificant or ineffectual actions to take, especially in moments of strife and turmoil. But these practices can allow us to gain mindfulness, concentration, and insight, which lays the foundation for transformation to be possible. Stopping and breathing are not small acts, they are the embodiment of wisdom.