“Feelings come and go like clouds in the sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
It’s been a week for most of us. Lots of waiting gave way to floods thoughts and emotions. There has been no shortage of voices, on the same page and on diametrically opposing views.
But it’s hard to do our best listening and speaking when we are anxious, stressed, busy or our mind is somewhere other than here. Feelings can fill our brain and we begin to identify with those feelings. We tell ourselves our feelings, especially the vivid ones, are THE reality. Or that they define us. Or that they are permanent unchanging truths.
Feelings are just feelings. They change. They do not define us. They can cause use to act irrationally, impulsively, passionately. They can also interfere with our ability and willingness to listen. We may know this intellectually, but it’s often so very hard to rein in those monkeys in our mind known as feelings. And when those monkeys are swinging around having their own kind of circus, our mind has a very difficult time focusing on the task at hand, the person in front of us, or the topic of discussion. Those monkeys require tools to reign them in so that we can be more focused. More than once this week, I found myself talking to someone and my head was somewhere else. My own personal squad of monkeys was swinging from their trapeze and joining each other by tails and hands.
At one point, I even said to someone, “Yeah, I’m not quite sure what her response was because I really wasn’t listening…” I realized after the fact, I had let the monkeys rule my mind. In another conversation, the driver who had recently rear-ended me was giving me intricate details of his family. As we wrapped up the conversation finally with the impetus for the call, I found myself still thinking about this man’s’ family stories. I had missed the essential information. Ha! Caught that monkey! I took a few deep breaths and then asked him to repeat the important details.
There’s an essential connection between breathing and listening. In heated conversations or debates, this is hard to remember to activate our breath to bring greater awareness. But it takes just seconds. The simple act of breathing calms the body’s nervous system and brings us present. A study published by JAMA found a growing awareness among doctors that being mindful and using the breath improves not only their own stress but the ways they engage with patients, which inherently involves listening. You don’t need to be an M.D. to stop, breathe and listen better.
And when we’re calm, we are better able to listen.
In five simple steps, you can practice this:
- Mind awareness. Recognize when your mind is elsewhere – it’s almost always elsewhere. Notice what’s happening with those monkeys, especially w hen you’re involved in something important, serious, heated, etc. Just pause for a moment and witness where your mind is. I like to envision myself as the circus master with a rope, whipping it in a circle, rounding up those thoughts and then lashing all those that are unnecessary ones right out of the circus ring known as my mind.
- Feel. Take just a moment to feel the physical sensations in your body. For some, it’s pure tension. For others, it’s a tingling in extremities. For others, it might be discomfort in the belly or a headache. Just notice.
- Inhale deeply. Let that lower belly fill up, then pause. Continue inhaling deeply and fill your rib cage. Pause again. Inhale one more time and feel the air rise to your collarbone. Pause and relax those shoulders (that are probably pretty darn close to your ears). Hold that air in for a bit, until you start to feel any bit of stress. Then slowly exhale from your collarbone, then ribs, then let that bellow drop back to your spine. Do this two to four more times. Close your eyes if it helps shut out stimulation that might be distracting. If you’re in face to face conversation you can still do this,try employing the “talk less, smile more” strategy. Stop talking, breathe deeply and let a small smile lift the corners of your mouth while you breathe.
- Let Go and Ground Take a moment and just notice where your thoughts are. Let passing thoughts pass. Ground yourself by concentrating on an object in front of you – someone’s eyes, the chair they are seated in, something on the horizon.
- Connect and listen. Now focus on listening to what’s being said, not on what those feelings are in your mind and body. Set aside your response and arguments and take in what’s being said. With those monkeys a bit better controlled, the prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that processes and listens.
Here’s to deeper breathing and better listening!
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