“If only we’d stop trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time.” ~Edith Wharton
Several years ago a well-known Zen Master accepted me as a long distance student. In one of our first email exchanges I wrote, “Dear Teacher, I am trying to sit every day for thirty minutes and in my practice I am trying to follow my breath.”
“Please,” he wrote back, “stop trying. You are your breath.”
I remember reading his words and feeling perplexed, confused, almost annoyed. What in the world did he mean? Wasn’t it obvious that we had no choice but to be our breath?
Weren’t we all breathing beings? And how did “being breath” in the end relate to my life, to my meditation, to my hope of becoming a better human being, to my daily chores of diapers and laundry?
When my teacher’s words arrived, getting to the mat was a huge effort. My meditation was at the mercy of my three young kids and my husband, who had to agree to watch them for the half-hour I would shut myself in the basement.
Most of the time I found myself making “deals” such as: “If you watch the kids for me, I’ll watch them for you while you go running” or “I promise I’ll do all the cooking and the dishes tonight!”
Once I finally managed to get to the meditation mat, I would set the timer and start counting my breath: one (breathe in), two (breathe out), three (breathe in), four (breathe out), five (breathe in), six (breathe out), seven (breathe in)…
Needless to say, my thoughts would immediately jump in and I would find myself losing track of my breath and my counting. I would have to start back from number one, only to see the distractions appear all over again. I don’t remember ever getting to number ten.
Not only was carving out thirty minutes for meditation a huge effort, even the apparently simple task of counting the breaths revealed itself to be an exhausting endeavor.
I knew at an intuitive level that it shouldn’t have been like that—I knew that my teacher was right—but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what I was doing wrong.
It took me eight year and many major life crises, failures, losses, and illnesses to understand the meaning of his words.
Now that my life has fallen apart like I never thought it would or could, I know what my Zen teacher meant: I was trying too hard.
I can now see that in my meditation I was not actually “following” my breath. I was trying, very hard, to catch it. I was chasing it. I was trying to grasp it, trying to hold onto it, trying to make it fit into my orderly numbered, counting boxes.
I was trying so hard to reign it in. I was trying so hard to control it.
Once I realized that, it only took a moment of self-honesty and one quick look at myself to see how that same impulse to control my breath was operating in all aspects of my life.
I was “trying” to be a good mom and always promptly responded to my kids’ needs, even when their needs could have probably waited just a bit longer—enough, maybe, to give me a chance to finish a chore or a much treasured cup of tea.
I was “trying” to be a good wife and “tried” to always be available for conversation, even when all I wanted and most needed was some quiet time to myself or simply some peace to concentrate on cooking dinner.
I was “trying” to be the do-it-all woman and took on a full-time teaching job, one hour away, while still teaching evening music classes.
I was “trying” to keep the social life of the family rich and fun and took on social commitments during the weekend even though most of it needed to be spent cleaning the house or going to church with the family.
Just like I did with my breathing, I was chasing my life in the attempt to reign it in, to catch it, to grasp it in the hope of gaining some control over it.
It took seizures and a diagnosis of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy (which also meant the loss of my job and the end of my career as a music teacher), a messy divorce, two moves in less then a year, financial uncertainty, and more losses of friends to finally admit that I just could not “try” anymore.
I could no longer make my life unfold the way I wanted it to unfold or make it look the way I thought it should look.
I could no longer “try” to make people happy; I could no longer be what I thought they wanted me to be.
I desperately wanted healing, and yet I didn’t even have the physical strength or the mental clarity to begin to mend the broken pieces of my shattered life.
Unlike Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love), I could not take off and go on a retreat in India in the hope to find my own lost self; my three kids and dogs needed me. Nor could I go to Italy to be with my friends and family.
Instead, I found myself completely alone after having lost the entire social circle I shared with my husband, and after moving to a small apartment in a struggling small city where I had no connections whatsoever.
There I had no choice but to confront my brokenness and aloneness; there I had to accept all the limitations of my new life, and as Charles Bukowski says in his poem “Alone,” there, I had to learn my walls, I had to accept them and learn to love them.
It turned out that, for me, the only way out of my darkness was not to escape it but to plunge right into it.
Among the walls of my apartment I found myself gravitating to the mat again only to find out this time that I couldn’t even physically sit. I had so much emotional pain stuck in my abdomen and chest that I couldn’t even feel my breathing.
Since the only way I could become aware of my breath was by lying down, I decided to meditate in a supine position, shavasana style.
Once I gave myself the permission to do that, something great happened: I experienced gravity, and gravity held and healed me. My abdomen relaxed. I could finally feel my belly muscles rising and falling; I could finally feel my breath.
With gravity’s healing support, I could then observe the breath; I could notice it, witness it.
In my brokenness I had to finally let go of control, surrendered to whatever my life was and had become, trusting that the breath of life would take me where I needed to be, every day, every moment.
That was only few months ago and now I am finally able to sit on my meditation pillow.
Following the breath is also quite a different experience. When I sit, I am able to be a viewer, an observer. I watch my breath, I watch what it’s doing, I observe its rhythm, its ups and downs, its ins and outs, and I just let it be. I accept it with all its irregularities. I just let it do its thing.
I am not sure yet how all of this is getting played out in my life. One thing I have learned, however, is that letting go of how we think our life should be and letting ourselves fall, maybe even backward, into radical self-acceptance and radical self-love are gifts to be treasured—even if those gifts come through harsh life lessons and losses.
Some of us were lucky enough to come into the world with those gifts built into our system. Some of us have to consciously make an effort and work hard at cultivating them—sometimes at creating them, sculpting them from the raw matter of our mistakes and failures, inventing them out of nothingness because nothing or too little was given to us.
But that, in my opinion, is where it’s worth trying. That is an effort worth making—one that will not assure us of a smooth ride but that might bring us to a place of inner peace, joy, appreciation, and gratitude, where a lasting transformation might actually happen.
And then, after we stop trying so hard to chase “happiness,” to control life and make it look the way it ought to look, then we can probably begin to have a pretty good time.
Boy relaxing image via Shutterstock