Cultivating Courage: Finding Refuge in the Body & Breath

This is the first of an eight talk series on engaged mindfulness and compassion practices. These will be posted every Friday following each gathering of the Engaged Mindfulness Meditation Group.

Recording of talk and guided meditation (begins at minute 12.40)

Frank Ostaseki, co-founder of the Zen Hospice Project and author of The Five Invitations, shares, “The object of meditation isn’t to change ourselves, to throw out the old and bring in the new. It’s about making friends with ourselves, meeting each and every part of our lives with curiosity and compassion.” This attitude of curiosity and compassion is at the heart of mindfulness practice. It debunks the myth that we practice mindfulness meditation to fix ourselves as if something were wrong with us. There is nothing wrong with us. Instead, we practice to get to know ourselves more, to bring this attitude of curiosity and compassion to that inner understanding. And as a important consequence, we bring this same attitude to our interactions, perceptions, and understanding of others. This attitude is even more essential now than ever.

Life has been quite challenging for many of us and just getting through the day can be an act of courage. Perhaps you are like me and have been grasping at courage for much of your life. About 15 years ago, I got a tattoo on the back of my neck that symbolizes courage because it is a way of being I have wanted to inhabit. It was not until I began studying and practicing mindfulness and compassion meditation that I experienced courage taking root in my life. I have begun to live my life more fully and be more open to sharing myself with others.

In reflecting upon the concept of courage, I looked into its etymology. The modern dictionary definition of courage is “the ability to do something that frightens one.” However, the root “cor” comes from Latin meaning “heart” or “of the heart.” According to Brene Brown, who has spent years researching shame, vulnerability and courage, shares that in its earliest form courage meant “to speak one’s mind by telling all of one’s heart.” She calls courage a heart word and has translated it to wholeheartedness. I appreciate this translation because so much about being courageous, especially during difficult times, is about our capacity to show up in the world without fear.

According to Jack Kornfield, who is one of my teachers, talks about the courageous heart as “one that is unafraid to open to the world, to care no matter what.” This reminds me of how much we need each other right now. How much courage is happening in our world with protestors, essential workers, teachers going back into schools. Consider John Lewis’ famous phrase “good trouble.” There are many of us getting into “good trouble” in response to this deeply uncertain and painful time in our history. For me, these past several months have felt like a long, nauseating amusement ride. I believe it is a necessity that we cultivate a courageous heart.

To be courageous, we have to be willing to open to our vulnerability, which Frank Ostaseki describes as “the doorway to the deepest dimensions of our inner nature.” Vulnerability can be quite scary and unsettling. Just saying the word, can activate stress and anxiety, particularly in this pandemic and economic instability. Many are vulnerable due to compromised immune systems, loss of employment, high levels of fear and uncertainty. Place this on top of our decades of conditioning where showing vulnerability was looked down upon, it is no wonder why our impulse is to attack, defend, or hide. This is a normal response because it is a survival mechanism, our bodies are always trying to protect us. However, our inner nature is strong, resilient, caring and good.

Brene Brown shares “you can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability.” I have experienced the truth of this statement throughout the five years I have been practicing. Mindfulness meditation reveals to us that our vulnerability is an asset, a strength, rather than a liability or weakness. As we awaken more to our inner nature, our truest selves, we grow that courage to be compassionate to ourselves and others, including strangers and those we label as difficult, challenging, or impossible.

So how do we cultivate courage, relate to our vulnerability as a strength? This is where finding refuge in our body and breath becomes a profound practice. The word refuge means “a condition of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger or trouble.” Learning to tend to our breath and befriend what arises in our bodies, we can take refuge from the turbulence happening within and outside of ourselves. We can create a safe container to explore and access our vulnerability. This is one of the many intentions people bring to practicing mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the act of purposefully paying attention to the present moment in a balanced and non-reactive way. Sounds simple, but can be quite challenging. That is why it is called a practice. The three pillars of mindfulness are intention, attention and attitude. Intention is the WHY of our practice. This is unique to each person. It can change and grow as one practices. My intention for sharing this talk is to offer a space where we can learn how to be more courageous, access our vulnerability through practicing mindfulness of the body and breath. Attention is the WHAT of our practice. We begin practicing by noticing what we are paying attention to, noticing where our attention is drawn. Attitude, a critical aspect of mindfulness practice, is the HOW of our attention, our response or relationship to what occupies our attention whether that be sensations in the body, thoughts, emotions, or our environment. Mindfulness practice asks us to shift our attitude from our usual judging or evaluating mindset to one of curiosity and kindness. This shift in attitude takes constant practice and the benefits are worth it!

Mindfulness practice is a whole person experience where we are awakening the connection between the mind, body and heart. I use the word awakening because much of what we experience is below the line of consciousness or awareness. As we spend time meditating (formally and informally), bringing a kind and curious attitude to our experience, we move what has been unconscious above the line, growing our field of awareness. This awareness becomes another refuge, a safe haven, by evoking trust in ourselves and our capacity to be with whatever arises, even when it is unpleasant, uncomfortable or undesirable. This is when we can begin to heal, to grow, to experience more joy, gratitude, love, happiness, agency, resiliency, connection and peace. 

Jill Satterfield, an international embodied mindfulness teacher and with whom I spent a week-long silent retreat, shares, “By witnessing how we are, in our body, heart and mind, we become armed with the necessary information needed to respond thoughtfully and with care…This intention to pay attention leads us to skillful action–in our own inner and more private world and in the shared world at large.”

This has become so true for me. Over the past several months, my body and mind have been flooded by stress, anxiety and fear. Perhaps, you can relate. What has changed for me over these years of practice is that I no longer react the same way to these floods. Instead, I respond more skillfully. In the past when in the throws of such a flood, I would lash out in anger or severe irritability, sitting in this state for hours. I easily became hijacked by these intense emotions. Consequently, I caused harm to myself and to my relationships. Through practice, I learned to take refuge in my body and breath insomuch that my impulsivity lessened. In a way, a gap was created between the stimulus and my response (how I was relating to the sensations, emotions or thoughts that were arising). A more recent benefit of this practice is my growing courage, the willingness to be vulnerable, to share my heart regardless of what is given back to me. This is all part of my daily practice.

As we move into our meditation practice (guided meditation begins at 12.40 in audio above), remember that formal meditation is like the gym for our mind. It is our practice space so we can access this kind and curious attitude during our daily lives. Meditation is a way to listen to the wisdom of the body. Our body is always present even when our mind is not. The technique of anchoring is a useful way to enter our bodies and access its wisdom. Just like we secure a boat so it does not get lost at sea, we can anchor our attention in the present moment. As our attention moves away from the anchor, we gently guide our attention back without judgment or critique. In this meditation, we will us our breath (a common entry point into meditation) and our body to anchor us in the present moment.

Informal Practices

Apply these throughout your day to further integrate the skills practiced in formal meditation.

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