An interesting thing happens when I focus on my breath. I get distracted. Seriously. I count my breaths, and I get to about 14 or so, then all of a sudden, my brain “changes the channel” like it’s handling a big old remote control in my head, and before I realize it, I’m off thinking about something that has nothing to do with counting my breaths.
Sometimes it has nothing to do with anything in my present life at all.
And it can take a few minutes before I even realize I’ve wandered off.
I’ve been reading some writing about zen and zazen, with a special focus on learning techniques for helping my mind better manage my brain. It’s been tremendously helpful to me over the years. I first started actively practicing silent meditation decades ago, and I started getting more into zen back in the early 1990’s. I credit it with helping me get back on track, after a number of years of confusion and frustration after my car accident in the fall of 1987. Learning about zen and zazen from someone who practiced it regularly and showed me how it was anything but a dull, dreary way to fritter away the hours, and I learned a lot from sitting in silence regularly.
I also credit it with helping me after my car accident in 1996. I had a regular practice by that time, and I was able to get very deep and very quiet. I think the zazen really helped me get back on my feet. Between changing jobs to something that had me interacting more with stoic computer screens, and having an active zazen sitting meditation practice… and practicing intentional, mindful observation (instead of off-the-handle knee-jerk reactions) at work, it truly helped me handle the intense changes that were going on with me.
Alas, my fall in 2004 totally hosed my practice in a really severe way. I had been getting more into the “samadhi zone” (where you experience oneness with everything, and you’re in a place where no time and no space exists, there is only now), and it was good. But then I fell down those stairs, and within a few weeks, I was swearing off the “fru-fru” meditation routine, journaling, or doing anything other than just living in a very reactionary way, taking cues only from outside me, not inside.
It was truly weird. I couldn’t figure out why, all of a sudden, I wasn’t at all interested in sitting in silence. It was the last thing I wanted. Very uncharacteristic for me, actually. And the sudden lack of ability to focus on things intentionally, along with the inability to just get started with what was in front of me, not only hosed my zazen practice, but also screwed the rest of my life in general.
Now I’m back at sitting zazen, after being convinced I had to give it up for good. I had been thinking for the longest time that there’s no way I can get back to my practice – my brain is too jumbled up, and I can’t manage to sit still for longer than 5 minutes. But then I dug up one of my old zen books (the only modern zen book that has much meaning for me, actually), and I started reading it, and I started thinking about my practice in terms of the Samurais of yesteryear, and something clicked.
TBI doesn’t make me less suited for zazen and that sort of focused practice. It makes me more suited for it.
So, now I’m back at it. I am realizing that I probably have to spend a lot of time building myself back to where I was before, but these things take time. I’m also reading more about how the kind of belly breathing that you use when you’re sitting zazen is extremely helpful for balancing and stabilizing the autonomic nervous system. It actually helps get heart rate variability under control and synch up circulation with your respiration. It works on all levels, and in Eastern and Western contexts. There have even been western medicine studies about how slow, controlled exhalation helps to balance out the autonomic nervous system, bringing the sympathetic (fight-flight) and parasympathetic (rest-digest) into good balance. Not too little of each, as that produces what one person calls a “puny” and weakly constitution, but more of each — in balance with one another — so that you can live your life in a good way. With balance.
That’s really what I’m seeking. Balance. Stability. Oneness of samadhi. And an even-keeled autonomic nervous system. I’ve had some pretty severe blow-ups in the past week or two, and when I look back on them, I can see very clearly the physiological sources of them — it wasn’t just emotional or mental — it was physical issues I was having. Too little sleep. Not enough rest. Letting my system get all revved over good things… only to have it get revved in the opposite direction and blow less-good things all out of proportion.
Molehills into mountains — and then I fall (and push everyone else) off the mountain.
So, I need to focus in. Spend the time in zazen and focus on my breath. Take care of my body, my physical vehicle, and stay present in the moment. My system is accustomed to fight-flight dramas and being fueled by the biochemical cascade of stress hormones — so it naturally seeks a place where I’m in such a state of alarm and distress that I’m blocking out all “extraneous” stimuli that feel like they’re too much to handle. And if I can’t find that… I’ll actually create it. Because that’s what’s familiar and comfortable and useful to my system, which tends to get low and irritable without it.
But that unconscious biochemical “strategy” is a recipe for a nervous breakdown. I need an alternative — and I have it. I can create that 100% total-focus state in my mind in a positive, non-self-destructive way by deliberately focusing on my breath and counting… counting… counting… and making sure I don’t lose track around 14… and then 27…. and then 38… It’s really, really hard. It takes all my strength and focus to do it. And the deeper I go into it, the more I can replicate that present-only state which typically comes with a dramatic emergency. This way is cleaner, smoother, and it actually strengthens me instead of wiping me out. Granted, it is not as extreme and it’s not like the quick sugar-high of instant drama alert. But the high is more thorough and it lasts longer. And in the past I found that the more I worked at it, the easier it became.
So, I need to resume that practice, be patient with myself, and just breathe intentionally. Intention especially involves focusing more on exhalation than inhalation. That focus stimulates and puts the emphasis on the parasympathetic nervous system, which I can use, as I’m skewed towards the sympathetic.
Well, it’s all good, it’s all fascinating, and it’s all an excellent opportunity to learn.
Now, what is the most present task at hand? To get on with my day. Focus in. Let’s go. Onward.