Breathing at the Dentist

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The practice of mindfulness is one that travels.  We can carry it with us wherever we go.  And the more places we carry it with us the more able we are to connect with a widening circle of experiences happening in the here and now.  When we cultivate connection we’re also cultivating the art of understanding and acceptance.  And the more things we can learn to accept the happier we’ll be.

Yesterday I carried my mindfulness practice with me into the dentist’s chair.  I don’t go to the dentist very often, on account of it being one of the fastest ways to spend a lot of money.  So when I do go it’s because I’m having an issue.  Yesterday I went in to have two cavities filled, one of which made it difficult to chew on one side of my mouth.  I was not looking forward to this experience, as I’m sure most everyone can relate to.  I imagine it must at times be challenging to be a dentist or dental assistant because no one is ever really happy to see you.  While one might be glad to have their tooth pain addressed not many people want to go to the dentist.  I’ve only had one other cavity in my life and so I couldn’t remember how much pain to expect or what the experience would be like but I did know I didn’t particularly want to be there.

These days I enjoy the new opportunities that present themselves in my daily life in order to expand my mindfulness practice so that it can grow and strengthen.  So while I was not thrilled about having to go to the dentist I did appreciate having a new situation in which to carry my mindfulness into.  On the way from my car to the front door of the dental office just before 9:00am yesterday morning, with a bright blue sky overhead and a nice winter chill in the air, I breathed in and out the golden sunshine and paid attention to my steps as I walked.  I greeted the man at the reception desk with  a light disposition and a big smile.  Within a few minutes I was in the dentist’s chair having a numbing agent swabbed on my gums in preparation for the insertion of a large needle.  I closed my eyes and connected with my breathing.  Breathing in I know that I breathing in, breathing out I know that I am breathing out.  Breathing in I feel my stomach rise, breathing out I feel my stomach fall.  

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Everyday Mindfulness

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To cultivate mindfulness in our daily activities is to re-engage with the present moment.  To wake up to what is going on within and around us in the here and now.  The practice of mindfulness allows us to switch off auto-pilot and turn on conscious living.  There are many ways to integrate mindfulness into our day-to-day schedule – here are some of the ones I personally enjoy:

1. Sitting Meditation.  Soon after I wake up in the morning I practice sitting meditation for 20 minutes.  I find that starting off my morning with meditation enables me to have a strong foundation for the unfolding of the rest of the day.

2. Bowing to the Earth.  I end my sitting meditation with three bows to the earth.  I consider these to be a practice in offering gratitude.  In my first bow I always say the same thing: I bow to the earth in gratitude for this one precious life.  My second and third bows vary from day to day.  Sometimes I offer gratitude to my parents and ancestors, my friends and community, or my husband and son.  Sometimes I offer gratitude for joy, abundance, the luxuries of electricity, housing, food, or clean water.  And sometimes I offer gratitude for the earth, sky, waters, air, sun, and moon.  Offering gratitude is important.  And I find bowing to be important as well.  While kneeling I bend over and prostrate to the earth, resting my forehead down on my meditation cushion, with my hands on the floor, palms facing upwards.  Prostrating to the earth is a practice of humbling oneself, of letting go of the ego, of connecting, and of offering reverence.

3. Meal Gratitude.  Before each meal I take a moment to stop and connect with the food in front of me and the many conditions present that brought it to my plate I and say a few words of gratitude.  If I’m eating with my family at home we take turns saying them aloud but when that isn’t the case (which is much of the time) I simply say them to myself silently.  I have a long and short version that I often recite.

Short version: This food is the gift of the whole universe, the earth, the sky, and much hard work.

Long version: This food is the gift of the whole universe, the earth, the sky, and much hard work.  May I keep my compassion alive by remembering that there are many people who don’t have enough food to eat or access to clean water, who will die of starvation and malnutrition today.  I accept this food with gratitude and reverence for the life I am afforded.

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Fall soon turns to Winter

By far the biggest maples leaf I've ever seen

By far the biggest maples leaf I’ve ever seen

 

Fall passes quickly here in the mountains.  Our longest season is winter here in western Montana.  Spring is also often short and summer is for many much much too short.  For me, though, time and seasons pass in just the right amount of time.  While I can get caught and attached and hung up in many varying elements of life the passing of time and the weather are areas I practice with to become comfortable amongst, accepting of, and in harmony with.

Sometimes, for me, like now, it is easier to embrace the changes of the season than to embrace my own changes.  Somehow it seems we’ve been taught that change is not only not good but it’s looked down upon as something not supposed to happen.  We’re always changing!  We just don’t always take notice.

When challenges arise in our daily life it is easy to fall back on this common notion of how things aren’t supposed to change – life isn’t supposed to be like this.  When challenges arise life is changing.  And oftentimes change doesn’t start out looking so swell.  In fact, it can feel pretty miserable and agonizing.  Change, whether it happens fast or slow, is a process, an unfolding, and often involves a lot of unanswered questions, turmoil, agitation of past ideas, and restlessness.  Change takes time and adjustment and patience.

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Nourishing the Sacred in Each Other

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Tomorrow night is the start of our local bi-annual Open Way Sanghas mindfulness retreat in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh.  Dharma teacher Michael Ciborski is our visiting teacher who will be leading the retreat.  He has been leading retreats here in Montana once a year for the last few years.  And this year for the first time he ventured here with his wife Fern and their youngest child Fiana who is two-years old.

To offer a wonderful practice opportunity to the greater Missoula community I helped put together a public talk tonight entitled: Nourishing the Scared in Each Other where Michael spoke on the topics of mindfulness, deep breathing, and coming back home to the present moment.  It was a beautiful spring evening here in the mountains, the sky was a crisp blue and the sun shone down into the valley with radiance and delicate warmth.  Here in the rocky mountains of western Montana, where the chill of winter’s embrace dog ear’s more calendar months than it skips, it can often be difficult to wrangle people indoors when the sun starts to color in the landscape.  But tonight we managed to fill a room in the Continuing Education Building on the campus of the University of Montana with 50 people – and considering we were up against the International Wildlife Film Festival I think we had a great sized crowd.

Public Talk at the University of Montana

Public Talk at the University of Montana

Michael opened up the talk guiding us in some breathing exercises and then went on to speak about how our breath can put us in touch with what’s actually happening in the here and now (as opposed to getting carried away by our stories or worries…).  He said that it’s important to develop a strong muscle of returning home, by which he is referring to the present moment.  Our true home is in the present moment, it is the only moment where we are truly alive!  We cannot reside in the past, for it has already happened, and we cannot reside in the future, for it has not yet come to be.  Right here and right now, this is it!

He spoke about a three-point system (so to speak):

Stop – Connect – Engage

To stop means to stop running, stop worrying, stop the anxiety, sorrow, fear and other strong habit energies that inhibit our ability to come home to ourselves in the present moment and serve no skillful means on the path of transformation.  To connect means to become one with.  And to engage is to embrace and love deeply.

MIchael Ciborski

MIchael Ciborski

I wrote down a quote from Michael as he was talking that I really appreciated:

“We have tremendous power in the little moments of our life.”

This insight needs to be more than an intellectual comprehension.  This teaching is a deep, rich, and beautiful practice that we need to put into action as a collective community in order to foster our connection to ourselves, our environment, and one another.  Indeed it is only in the small moments of life that transformation is possible.  With mindfulness, every act we do is an opportunity to come back home.

Quiet Moment

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Fresh pine flavors spring’s footfalls

as winter cracks and melts

in warm rhythms

pulsating like deep breaths

 

Undertones of blue slate and cream

mark passing clouds

in an ocean’s expanse

of mountain skies

 

Prairie grazers coats shed thickened fur

like soft dandelion tufts

swept in currents over the rocky divide

 

As a day once bright and bold

is invited to rest by dusk’s gentle hands

colors of daffodil sun rays mute to lavender

before succumbing to a delicate ink black approach

of a rounding stone moon’s curtain backdrop

 

Silence’s volume is turned on high

as heads lay to sleep,

drops of light spill out from sputtering celestial fires,

and what once in the heightened bustle of a single day seemed dire

now dissolves on the tongue of a quiet moment

 

– Nicole Dunn

Ahhh, A Deep Breath

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It is easy to intellectualize the need to breathe.  Let us take a deep breath right now.  Good :)  Now, let’s take another deep breath and this time pay attention to where it’s coming from.  What part of our body moved the most as we inhaled and exhaled?

Most, if not all, of the time we spend breathing comes primarily from our chests.  When we take a large inhalation we can see and feel our chests rise as our lungs expand.  This, however, is not the deepest breath we can take.  When we practice to bring our breathing down even further into our stomachs we cultivate a more cleansing, grounding and fuller breath that can better nurture our connection to ourselves and the present moment.

To practice deep belly breathing let us find a stable posture to rest comfortably in.  It can be helpful to place a hand gently on our abdomen so that our minds have a physical prompt to help focus our attention downwards.  As we breathe in through our nose let us allow our stomachs to rise slowly.  As we breathe out let us practice to keep our attention on our stomach and the sensation of exhaling.  It can also be helpful to create a simple phrase to say so that our minds can stay present on our breathing.

Breathing in I feel my stomach rise high to the sky

Breathing out I feel my stomach sink down to the ground

Simply saying: rising, rising, falling, falling can be a lovely practice as well.

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(The following is from: http://www.onepowerfulword.com/2010/10/18-benefits-of-deep-breathing-and-how.html)

18 Benefits of Deep (Belly) Breathing

1. Breathing Detoxifies and Releases Toxins
Your body is designed to release 70% of its toxins through breathing. If you are not breathing effectively, you are not properly ridding your body of its toxins i.e. other systems in your body must work overtime which could eventually lead to illness. When you exhale air from your body you release carbon dioxide that has been passed through from your bloodstream into your lungs. Carbon dioxide is a natural waste of your body’s metabolism.

2. Breathing Releases Tension
Think how your body feels when you are tense, angry, scared or stressed. It constricts. Your muscles get tight and your breathing becomes shallow. When your breathing is shallow you are not getting the amount of oxygen that your body needs.

3. Breathing Relaxes the Mind/Body and Brings Clarity
Oxygenation of the brain reducing excessive anxiety levels. Paying attention to your breathing. Breathe slowly, deeply and purposefully into your body. Notice any places that are tight and breathe into them. As you relax your body, you may find that the breathing brings clarity and insights to you as well.

4. Breathing Relieves Emotional Problems
Breathing will help clear uneasy feelings out of your body.

5. Breathing Relieves Pain
You may not realize its connection to how you think, feel and experience life. For example, what happens to your breathing when you anticipate pain? You probably hold your breath. Yet studies show that breathing into your pain helps to ease it.

6. Breathing Massages Your Organs
The movements of the diaphragm during the deep breathing exercise massages the stomach, small intestine, liver and pancreas. The upper movement of the diaphragm also massages the heart. When you inhale air your diaphragm descends and your abdomen will expand. By this action you massage vital organs and improves circulation in them. Controlled breathing also strengthens and tones your abdominal muscles.

7. Breathing Increases Muscle
Breathing is the oxygenation process to all of the cells in your body. With the supply of oxygen to the brain this increases the muscles in your body.

8. Breathing Strengthens the Immune System
Oxygen travels through your bloodstream by attaching to haemoglobin in your red blood cells. This in turn then enriches your body to metabolise nutrients and vitamins.

9. Breathing Improves Posture
Good breathing techniques over a sustained period of time will encourage good posture. Bad body posture will result of incorrect breathing so this is such an important process by getting your posture right from early on you will see great benefits.

10. Breathing Improves Quality of the Blood 
Deep breathing removes all the carbon-dioxide and increases oxygen in the blood and thus increases blood quality.

11. Breathing Increases Digestion and Assimilation of Food
The digestive organs such as the stomach receive more oxygen, and hence operates more efficiently. The digestion is further enhanced by the fact that the food is oxygenated more.

12. Breathing Improves the Nervous System
The brain, spinal cord and nerves receive increased oxygenation and are more nourished. This improves the health of the whole body, since the nervous system communicates to all parts of the body.

13. Breathing Strengthen the Lungs
As you breathe deeply the lung become healthy and powerful, a good insurance against respiratory problems.

14. Proper Breathing makes the Heart Stronger
Breathing exercises reduce the workload on the heart in two ways. Firstly, deep breathing leads to more efficient lungs, which means more oxygen, is brought into contact with blood sent to the lungs by the heart. So, the heart doesn’t have to work as hard to deliver oxygen to the tissues. Secondly, deep breathing leads to a greater pressure differential in the lungs, which leads to an increase in the circulation, thus resting the heart a little.

15. Proper Breathing assists in Weight Control

If you are overweight, the extra oxygen burns up the excess fat more efficiently. If you are underweight, the extra oxygen feeds the starving tissues and glands.

16. Breathing Boosts Energy levels and Improves Stamina

17. Breathing Improves Cellular Regeneration

18. Breathing Elevates Moods
Breathing increase pleasure-inducing neurochemicals in the brain to elevate moods and combat physical pain

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Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) teaches that our breath is our anchor.  With our breath we bridge the mind and body together.  So often our minds and bodies operate separately.  When we’re driving our car our minds may be thinking about what to make for dinner or stuck on something someone said that annoyed us.  This is very common.  How often are we present with what we’re doing while we’re doing it?  Maybe never?  With deep, mindful breathing our minds and bodies have the wonderful opportunity to reconnect with one another, to become friends, and to be in relationship with the present moment.

What I most love and appreciate about deep breathing is that it’s a practice that we can infuse into any part of our day.  Whether we’re sitting at our desk, on the computer, standing in line in the store, making dinner, or taking a shower we can come back to our breathing in and breathing out and shine the light of mindfulness onto everything we encounter and experience.  Deep breathing is not dependent on anything other than what we’re doing right now.