I wanted to share a mindfulness/meditation practice that has been of benefit for me as well as for the people I work with. While this particular structure came out of my practice I cannot say that I created it. It is very much grounded in the traditions of the Dharma(Buddhism) as a way to stay in the present moment without getting hooked into our various thoughts and feelings that lead to stress and suffering. It seems to be particularly good for those of us that get caught up in certain patterns and ways that we seek validation for our very existence.
The fields of psychotherapy, self help and Buddhism are full of various ways that people can change their relationship to their internal dialogs, thoughts and feelings to reduce suffering (reducing the effects of self judgement, self criticism, worries, fears, sadness, etc.) They encourage noticing thoughts without following, believing, being distracted or even rejecting them. Simply following one’s breath and using it as an anchor or central focus alone is a common and powerful method.
However, beginning this practice with only the breath to focus on can be difficult, especially if there is additional stress associated with being in the present moment without a perceived focus/support/distraction. (Those with significant symptoms of anxiety, depression, grief or trauma for example.) There may also be stress that manifests physically and negative feelings of discomfort can be perceived as overwhelming unless there are additional supports.
Including a mantra, phrase or intention paired with this attention to one’s breath can provide additional support. Sometimes having a phrase/intention to anchor oneself to, while other thoughts are occurring, can help to maintain the desired concentration and focus.
This now brings us to the particular phrase that I wanted to share and discuss: “Nothing to do. No-one to be.”
The beginnings of this phrase first emerged spontaneously while I stood in the woods, reflecting on my experience, after a training of the Internal Family Systems model taught by Dr. Schwartz here in CT. The training was good, thorough, provided good clinical skills and also provided more opportunities for me to be myself, grow as a clinician and to continue to value and develop my own ability to be present while sitting and being a witness to clients’ difficulties.
As I stood in the woods, beside a tree, with a thin layer of snow on the ground slowly chilling my feet, I truly felt in that moment that there was nothing else for me to do. Where I was and what I was doing, how I felt and how I wanted to feel were all connected and enough. In that moment, I also realized that there was nowhere else I needed to be. I felt complete(not a typical occurrence I might add).
My sense of well being, peace or connection was not dependent on a particular task being completed or to have to go over there where the grass is always greener. All was good as it was. I was enough, just being there, in that moment. There was nothing to prove, and no-one to prove it to, nowhere else I thought I needed to be that would be better. I wrote this phrase down so that I wouldn’t forget it. It seemed important.
Fast forward a few years later while sitting on my own meditation cushion, I began to observe the pattern of my own thoughts. I had been using a strategy in improving my concentration by labeling thoughts as they emerged and returning to focusing on my breath. Soon, I became curious about my thinking tendencies and began to categorize the thoughts as I became aware of them. Over time, and while trying not to be obsessive about the categories, I began to notice some things. Certain thoughts were particularly good at drawing me away from being present.
The first, had to do with doing. These were thoughts and daydreams revolving around getting things done, worrying about the things that I had to do, organizing things to do, brainstorming, analyzing things I had done to make them better, reflecting on things I hadn’t done, etc. Some of these thoughts appeared positive and towards goals that I thought were important. (Ahh the trap of thinking that my thoughts were so important and right.) Some were negative or self critical connected to doing things wrong, not doing enough. Overall though, there was an undercurrent that the way that I valued or criticized myself was in the things that I did or did not do.
As I recognized this, I remembered the phrase from those moments in the woods. “Ah…so.maybe when I inhale I can focus on ‘there is nothing to do’ and on the exhale it will be ‘there is nowhere to be’.” So I jumped in and began to repeat these phrases with my breath. (Also recognizing that I was again ‘doing something’. However, it soon became clear that the ‘nowhere to be’ was not quite accurate. The thoughts and images appeared more related to roles that I put myself in or imagined I was in that most pulled me away from the present. So I changed it.
In other words, having thoughts about being in some kind of role justified not being in the present moment. That the thoughts were justified if related to improving ways that I was a good….therapist, healer, teacher, father, husband, person, etc. This, I came to understand was a familiar thread in my own sense of self worth. That if I did well as a …(fill in the blank) that it made my life worthwhile and of value to myself and others.
I had been hearing about using phrases to help with focus and decided to use these as ones that I would try out. While it actually took some time to condense the themes down to simple phrases that I could remember and use, when I did, it was startling how effective they were. On the inhale I would say to myself “there is nothing to do” and on the exhale “there is no-one to be.” As soon as I used them I noticed a surge of focused thinking and responses about them. “Of course there are things that need to be done…Well you are doing something by repeating these phrases and focusing on breathing so its not really a true statement…These things are important and its OK to fulfill a role, to be someone that is good and helpful…” and on and on. And I was able to stay with my breath and phrase and notice the thinking swirling around. Without getting hooked into them.
As I continue to notice these thoughts on and off of the meditation cushion, it becomes easier to dismiss the notion that I have to abide by certain standards to feel of value. It also becomes easier to experience the flip side of that as well. That I am enough and of value simply because I am. Just as the Buddha touched the Earth as a witness to his right to inhabit his place as an awakened being, overcoming even self doubt. We also don’t need to prove our worth to inhabit a place of self love, acceptance and wholeness. What are we trying to prove, anyway?
Our inherent worth is actually not bound up in these notions but goes beyond, or rather, is not even attached to them at all. Our “value” is not contingent on anything. And in fact putting value on ourselves and our existence misses the mark on the reality of our life and existence. So…without getting too far into a discourse of what value means, what “I” mean and what this is all about. I want to encourage you to try this strategy for noticing the varied chatter that goes on(certainly in my head, possibly in yours too.) and not getting hooked into its importance, and instead staying present and just sitting(or standing, walking, eating, whatever you are actually doing). Inhale,”there is nothing to do”. For the time you have set aside for this practice there is nothing else to do but to be here, now. Exhale. There is “no one to be”. You don’t have to try and be “….”, anything. Just be, here, now. breathe. Inhale, exhale. notice.
Why do this? Well it is in the present that we make our decisions, where we live. The more present we are, the clearer are our decisions, and the more connected these decisions will be to the life we want (or the life we are in). If we want to encourage change for the better, then we need to be present enough to see where we are and where we want to be. Hope this is helpful.