Lately, I’ve been really bad at life. After my recent birthday, I’ve been finding it hard to get up in the morning, hard to contact my friends, and even harder to make sure I am eating enough. I am simultaneously bored and jittery. I’ve had social upsets back to back this year, but I’m also stubborn and a psychology student, so I’ve been trying to trick myself into controlling my thoughts and emotions, hoping to thrust myself out of this rut. As you can imagine, this often backfires and leaves me in a puddle on the couch watching marathon episodes of Gilmore Girls and eating Ben and Jerry’s vegan ice cream. Not good.
So today I went back in my journal and I found this entry and it’s helped me a lot. I thought I’d share it with you.
How I learned the 4,000 year old Method to Mind Control
It was July, 2002. Hemp bracelets, Dave Matthews Band, and the new volkswagen beetle were are the rage. But at 5:30am that summer morning, all I could think about was the mosquito bite on my left ankle.
I was explicitly instructed not to move for 30 minutes. Sitting in a circle with 5 other people, our eyes half open, I knew any sudden movement would immediately disturb the other members of the group.
But the itching. It radiated up my leg, simultaneously burning and tingling. I had to make it stop.
My mind reeled.
“Maybe if I shifted my weight, the friction would scratch it, just a little.”
“Oh no, that’s worse. So much worse. I hope nobody saw me.”
“What the heck kind of mosquito was this, anyway?”
“What if it wasn’t a mosquito bite, wait, what does it look like? It could be a spider bite. Do they have black widows in Connecticut?”
“It burns. I’m dying. I can feel the poison—“
My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of 3 distinct, echoing bells. I bowed deeply to the group, making sure to catch a glance at my ankle.
Definitely just a mosquito bite.
I heaved a sigh of relief and began to collect my things. I heard a gentle rustling behind me and I turned to see my teacher looking at me, smiling.
His hands were folded behind his back as he slowly walked toward me. Despite the Portishead t-shirt he was wearing and the fact that he was only just a few years older than me, he carried that distinct zen-like authority– a mix of playfulness and seriousness.
“We all have trouble with our minds,” He began. I scratched my mosquito-bite absently and nodded. “We all think the way to control our minds is in our head. But you can’t control the mind with more mind.”
And then he told me the 4,000 year old secret to mind control.
You already do it. You just don’t do it well.
Shunryu Suzuki, who was one of the first Zen monks to bring Buddhism to the West, once said that the concept of “I” is just a door that opens and closes with each inhale and exhale.
Breathing is something we’re all born doing. And at first, we’re even doing it properly. Picture how a baby breathes. She’s breathing from her belly. The air first fills the abdomen, then the rib cage and finally the upper chest. It creates a small wave-like motion, and creates almost no sound.
Babies do not have a lot going on in their minds. They aren’t worried about how much money is in the meter, or what to make for dinner. Their thoughts are basic: Warm. Hungry. Thirsty. They are, for the most part, peaceful.
As we age, our thoughts become more complex. We begin to develop worries, anxieties, expectations, and regrets. Over time our breathing becomes more and more shallow, reflecting this chaos. Instead of breathing from our abdomen, like a baby, we breathe from our chest and neck.
Your body thinks your boss/boyfriend/traffic is an attacking lion.
Historically, our ancestors would utilize shallow breathing when they were in danger. It is the body’s way of cuing the sympathetic nervous system, also known as our “fight or flight” mode. This mode would result in rapid heart rate, increased adrenaline, and excess cortisol to give us a burst of energy.
All this is great if you’re preparing to go to battle with a lion or run away from an enemy.
While our boss or traffic aren’t as life threatening as a lion, our bodies still react the same way to perceived threats. These days, the reaction isn’t followed with a burst of physical activity– instead for many of us it has become our normal operating state.
You might think that more energy is a good thing. In fact, it’s pretty common to be habituated to this state of high anxiety because people think being stressed out makes them more focused. In reality though, studies have shown that when the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, the ability to creatively problem-solve plummets. Reactions become short, emotions heightened, and communicating clearly with others nearly impossible.
Furthermore, when we’re constantly inducing this state, our minds and bodies never really get a chance to rest. This can have a severely adverse effect on our bodies, including premature aging, high blood pressure, or even death.
Ancient Technique for Mind Control
The ancient yogis recognized the reciprocal relationship between the breath and the mind. A calm breath induced a calm mind. A calm mind induced a calm breath. In fact, an entire limb of yoga, called pranayama, deals with this relationship specifically. The word pranayama itself means “control of life force.”
Even Siddhartha Gautama, who was for a time a student of yoga, recognized observing the breath as a way to bring the mind to the present moment. While he didn’t address pranayama directly in his teachings, many of modern practices of Buddhism use the breath as a technique for practicing mindfulness.
Which is how my zen teacher came to teach me this technique back in 2002. It is simple enough to do anywhere, and can even be utilized in moments of high stress to create a clear and focused mind.
- step 1: Lie flat on your back or sit upright in a chair with a straight back and feet flat on the floor. Place your hand on your abdomen.
- step 2: Begin by observing your natural breath. Does your chest rise first? Does your abdomen rise? Is the breath loud or soft? Constricted or open? Rapid or slow?
- step 3: On your next inhale, breathe through the nostrils and consciously allow the abdomen to rise as the body fills with air.
- step 4: As the breath deepens, note how the ribcage also expands to allow more oxygen into the thoracic cavity.
- step 5: As you exhale the air through the nostrils, bring your attention to the abdomen falling, then the ribcage slowly snapping back into place.
Simple breathing means simple mind. Simple mind means simple breath.