Pursuit of Calm #20
Whilst FaceTiming my Dad recently, he randomly asked me if I’d ever consider entering a Buddhist temple. I replied “I don’t think so”…I then went on to say something along the lines of “I love Buddhism not because I’m seeking enlightenment per se, but because it helps me get to know myself better. It’s common-sense-simple to understand, and guidance that you can actually do. I find it enormously pragmatic, practical, and kind…and extraordinarily powerful”
Simplicity…therein lies the challenge
Giving it further thought after putting the phone down, what turns me on about Buddhism is though their wisdom and lessons are very simple to understand, the immense challenge, or as Pema Chödrön calls it, ‘mission impossible’, is putting their advice into action everyday.
Which is what I attempt to do each day, because, in my opinion, there is is no utility in gaining knowledge if it can’t be put into action, and practised to benefit our wellbeing and growth…right!?
However, what really, really, really turns me on about Buddhism, what makes my mind and heart explode (that’s a good thing), is the more aware (calmer) I become of my own thinking and doing actions, the more I realise that there is an opportunity, for me, to practice and train in virtually every.single.thing.I.do-feel & see.
So when things invariably go pear-shaped throughout the day, I essentially have a choice – I can avoid, ignore, and / or react unnecessarily, resulting in being self-triggered to reach for the booze, bong, or other methods of self-battery. Or I can view the obstacles as ‘reality’ and an opportunity to lean into, and deliberately practice strengthening my calm present-mindedness, by exercising:
my kindness muscle
my compassion muscle
my tolerance muscle
my patience muscle
my muscle muscles
my STFU & listen more muscle…
Dealing with reality is a big job…so I like to be prepared.
‘Calm present-mindedness’ is a skill that I believe we all need now more than ever. A consequence of modernity means our ability to remain (most of the time) undistracted, satiated, stress-free, sober and addiction free(ish) is not only becoming more and more challenging, but increasingly detrimental to the fabric of our relationships and our mental-health…you only need to listen to the conversation threads that dominate our community, observe the social and political polarisation, and the skyrocketing mental health stat’s affecting virtually every age group.
Now more than ever we need to take responsibility for ourselvesand practice installing our own ‘internal-buffers’, or ‘circuit-breakers’, to better manage our relationship when it comes to not only our over-reliance on pleasure and comfort, but to deliberately practicing strategies to stress-test ourselves, to increase our mental and physical steadfastness (eustress)
And this is where breath-work (and meditation: my next post) can be profoundly helpful. As it’s both a “de-stresser” and a “eustressor”
Conscious breathing is the best antidote to stress,
anxiety and depression.
Firstly “breath-work” isn’t some new-age, woo woo knit-your-own-yoghurt, ‘shake your chakra baby’ gimmick. Yogi’s and other ancient wise-baldies have been quietly ohm’ing the benefits of breath & breathing properly for millennia.
Modern science, medicine and psycho-therapy has been slowly catching up over the past 50-odd years, and now proffers benefits that include:
- Aids positive self-development
- Aids introspection, reflection
- Bolsters a sense of calm (breath-type dependant)
- Increases focus, alertness and creativity (breath-type dependant)
- Increases self awareness
- Improves general health and bolsters immunity
- Aids digestions
From my own experience, I’d also add:
- Improved self-control & discipline
- Improved sleep
- Ability to listen more
- Reduced cravings, less impulsive.
- Increased ability to recognise and audit contrary behaviours and habits
- Increased sense of joy & inner-cheerfulness
I approach my own morning breath-work routine as a cognitive pre-amble to my meditation. Even before I’ve had my first coffee my brain at 3-4am is already operating at its creative, ‘firing on all cylinders’ best… so I find it very helpful to conduct some cognitive-calming breath-work exercises before I attempt meditate.
So my routine is as follows:
Firstly: 3-5 minutes of box breathing.
Breath in through the nose to a count of 4-6
Hold for count 4-6
Breath out through gently pursed lips (like if your were breathing-out through a straw) to a count of 4-6
Hold to a count of 4-6…and repeat for 3-5 minutes.
“No matter what you eat, how much you exercise, how skinny or young or wise you are, none of it matters if you’re not breathing properly.”
Secondly: 5-10 minutes of Alternate Nostril Breathing (ANB) or Nadi Shodhana Pranayama
With regular practice ANB will have a profound impact on your body, mind, and nervous system. This very simple, yet powerful tool, will clear and calm you both cognitively and physiologically. It places you in a very ‘grounded’ position to start your day. It’s a ‘balancing’ breath-work practice, which I find perfect before meditation, or later in the afternoon, or early evening.
Take your right hand, block off your left nostril by putting gentle but firm pressure on it with your thumb. With a long, slow deep breath, gently inhale though your right nostril.
Hold for 3-6 seconds.
Then release the thumb and, using the index finger on the same hand, gently/firmly block off the right nostril. Whilst this nostril is blocked, gently and slowly exhale through the left nostril. Hold for a count of 3-6. Keep the right nostril blocked, then slowly inhale through the left nostril. Hold for 3-6
Then block the left nostril, and exhale through the right nostril. Continue this process, alternating between each nostril for 5-10 minutes
Once completed, I will then proceed with my meditation for 20-40 minutes (details in next post)
“Efficient breathing means that fewer free radicals are produced, reducing the risk of inflammation, tissue damage, and injury.’
The Oxygen Advantage
Some other very useful breathing techniques:
For Calming: Left Nostril Breathing. (LNB)
We have a ‘sympathetic nervous fight or flight system’, and ‘parasympathetic nervous rest & digest system’. We can use breathe-techniques to trigger either system ‘for our benefit’.
LNB will trigger the parasympathetic system, via the left nostril, and thus increase a sense of calm and relaxation. Simply take your right hand and, with your fingers outstretched, block off your right nostril by putting gentle pressure on it with your right thumb. With a long slow, deep breath, gently inhale through your left nostril. Then, just as gently, exhale long, slowly and completely, again through your left nostril.
Be mindful to relax your body
Mentally ‘track’ the up breath and feel the breath fill and expand the abdomen, on the out-breath again slowly ‘track’ the breathe through the nostril, whilst feeling the abdomen empty and contract.
Again, we attempting to create a slow, efficient and cyclical breathe – Inhale for a count of 4, hold the breath for a count of 4, exhale slowly to a count of 4, hold breath for a count of 4, breath in for a count of 4….repeat 5-10 minutes
As your breath improves and becomes more efficient, increase the counts to 6-8.
For Energising: Right Nostril Breathing (RNB)
Need more energy, focus & clarity?
When you feel the need to ‘wake-up’, and increase energy, clarity and focus, then practice RNB – follow the steps as above, but use your left hand thumb to gently block the left nostril – and repeat long slow nasal breaths through the right nostril.
The Physiological Sigh: This is a perfect breath-technique that can be used throughout the day, and in real time – during work, socialising, or gentle exercise.
The Physiological Sigh [Check out this 4min video from my man-crush Dr Andrew Huberman] is a double inhale breathing technique to instil an immediate sense fo calm.
- Inhale through the nose, followed by another short, sharp nasal inhalation
- After a brief pause, exhale slowly and extended through the mouth – repea
Like every new endeavour we undertake and desire benefit from, the results from breath-work will only materialise if consistency is maintained.
It’s the usual suspects that mess with your ability to be consistently consistent – namely stress, alcohol & lack of sleep.
Also, get the notion out of your head that you can become good at something really quickly, or without learning and practicing. View breath-work, like any new practice, as a form of Productive Discomfort. As you challenge yourself, your comfort zones adjust. Soon, what was difficult and anxiety inducing becomes easier…when things become easier, we get more confident and courageous to continue. Apply this narrative to all aspects of eustress…and resist the booze and get a good nights sleep. #itsnotbrainsurgery
Start by allocating 5-10minutes a day only…then proceed to scale up the more comfortable you become.
Fin…Tools For Thriving In Turbulent Times
When we decide to make inroads to address our well-being we can tend to focus and invest our time and money solely on our physiology. Often our actions are geared primarily to ‘remedy’ our physical appearance…we’ll seek ‘external fixes such as ‘detoxes’, ‘diets’, ‘gym memberships’, ‘weight-loss’ programs etc.
But what about our psychology?
What about the very thing (your mind) that is instigating the actions and behaviours that are making you feel the way you feel…toxic, overweight & unhealthy?
Surely if we’re wanting to achieve effortless lifelong health, well-being and fulfilment we need to nurture and curate a mind that guides us in that direction. If we fail to recognise this, then we should expect to continue to be a slave to our addictions and distractions, and ‘stuck’ to a ‘wellness-pursuit’ that resembles a rollercoaster ride with a broken handbrake.
To facilitate a calmer, more resilient mental framework to work from, our primary goals must include reducing our stress (dis-ease) by practicing strategies that calm our minds & physiology. Whilst also increasing our cognitive and physical strength & resilience, by engaging in & practising strategies in ‘eustress’ (self-inflicted positive stress).
Simply put, with breath-work, what we’re constructing for ourselves is dedicated alone time each day to engage in a mental practice that benefits our physical well-being, and physical practice that benefits our mental wellbeing. It is not an end-all solution, but a profoundly powerful tool that we can add to our life toolbox, that is on hand, and available to us to help us better navigate the turbulent times that we all live in.
Coming Up: Methods, Strategies & Tools in…
- I Haven’t Got Time For This Sh!t
- Meditate To Self Mediate
- The 4 ’S’s: Stress, Sleep, Sobriety & [P]Sychology
- Reflection, Reading & Journalling
- Strength Training
- The 4 “C”s: Calm, Courage, Curiosity & Consistency
- Habit Strategies
- Current Reading List & References:
Training The Mind & Cultivating Loving Kindness by Chögyam Trungpa
Dopamine Nation by Dr Anna Lembke
Welcoming the Unwelcome by Pema Chödrön
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
The Wisdom of Frugality by Emrys Westacott
4000 Weeks by Oliver Burkeman
The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy
Mindsight: Change your brain and your life by Daniel J Siegel MD
Aristotle’s Way by Edith Hall
Wherever You Go, There You Are. John Kabat-Zinn
“Start Where You Are” by Pema Chödrön
“Breathe” by James Nestor
“The Places That Scare You” by Pema Chödrön
“In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts” by Gabor Maté
The Shortness Of Life by Seneca
“Lost Connections” by Johann Hari
How To Meditate – Pema Chödrön
The Wisdom of No Escape – Pema Chödrön
‘Breaking Down the Wall of Silence’ – Alice Miller
Meditations – Marcus Aurelius
Atomic Habits – James Clear
The New Rules For Lifting For Life – Lou Shuler
Why We Sleep – Matthew Walker PhD
Essentialism: The Discipline Pursuit Of Less – Greg McKeown
Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahnemen
Flow – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
The Resilience Project: Finding Happiness Through Gratitude Empathy & Mindfulness – Hugh Van Cuylenburg
Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Foods – Catherine Shanahan MD
The School of Life – An Emotional Education
The School of Life – How To Think More Effectively
The Consolations Of Philosophy – Alain De Botton
Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief – Jordan B Peterson
The Owners Manual for the Brain: The Ultimate Guide to Peak Mental Performance – Pierce J. Howard
The Daily Stoic / Stillness Is The Key / Ego Is The Enemy / The Obstacle is The Way– Ryan Halliday
Indistractable – How To Control Your Attention & Choose Your Life – Nir Eyal
Mindset – Dr Carol Dweck
The Holy Shit Moment: How Lasting Change Can Happen in A Minute – James Fell
Stop Playing Safe – Margie Warrell
The Worlds Fittest Book – Ross Edgley
The Art Of Resilience – Ross Edgley
The Oxygen Advantage: Scientific Proven Breathing Techniques To Revolutionise Your Health – Patrick McKeown
Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking – Malcolm Gladwell
The Practicing Mind – Develop Focus & Discipline Your Life – Thomas M. Sterner
Mistakes Were Made – Carol Travis & Elliot Aronson
Man’s Search For Meaning – Viktor Frankl
Life: A Users Manual – Julian Baggini & Antonia Macaro
Good Habits Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick – Wendy Wood
The Madness of Crowds – Douglas Murray
The War of Art – Steven Pressfield
Wired To Eat – Robb Wolf
Philosophy For Life, and other dangerous situations – Jules Evans
Peak – Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool
The Body, A guide For Occupants – Bill Bryson
The Four Agreements – Don Miguel Ruiz