Free Yourself Chapter 1
Chap. 1 YOUR TRUSTING HEART: The Power of Conscious Choice
“When the [inner] struggle stopped, a quiet presence opened up that I knew was home. And with that I had a sense of peace, of trusting who I really am.” Tara Brach
I lie on the living room couch exhausted two weeks before Christmas. Luckily, after years of coming back into the present, I know how to switch channels. I shift focus—away from racing thoughts about cards and packages to mail—to my trustworthy anchor, my breath. As I watch my inhale and exhale, my breath deepens, body relaxes, pulse slows. I reconnect with my heart, trusting what is.
From this deeper sense of self, my wise heart easily holds what I am thinking, feeling, seeing, hearing and sensing all in spacious awareness, taking none of it too seriously. Focused fully in the present, I now see the snow-laden ponderosa pine towering outside the back patio window and hear a black crow flapping her wings overhead. For a few seconds, my sacred connection with all living things floods my senses. I see how the ponderosa’s huge presence—and my own trusting heart—accept and receive life on life’s terms. A veil of inner peace descends over me.
Awakened with gratitude, Christmas chores all feel workable again.
Our heart trusts life. It trusts the present moment, where life happens, and where our heart always lives. It trusts the infinite wisdom and truth that unfolds in the everyday details of ordinary life. It delights in all the sights, sounds, thoughts, feelings and experiences sharing this present moment without judging any of them.
When we join our trusting heart in the present moment, we too trust life.
Whether we are Christian, Muslim, Wicca, Jew, Buddhist or Atheist, we can all use the practical life wisdom Buddha offered 2,500 years ago. It still applies today.
Buddha had a knack for describing what makes us tick in terms we can understand. He taught that, in the big scheme of things, we humans react unconsciously to life, wanting life somehow to be different, better, easier (my way). Without realizing it, we stay adrift in anxiety, fear, doubt and judgment below our awareness. Whether living in Europe, Asia, Africa, North or South America, we are all born into a blinding molasses-type substance called unconscious conditioning. Until we spend some minutes each day making these unconscious habits conscious, they rule our life.
While we go about the business of our lives, we spend the lion’s share of our time letting thoughts, fears, doubts and judgments captivate every waking minute—as if these are who we are. Of course we don’t wake up declaring, “Today I’ll waste every moment lost in thoughts.” No, it occurs unconsciously below our awareness. Like subliminal ads at a drive-in movie, these habits grab our attention while we are driving, working, eating and doing our busy lives. But thoughts are fickle, unreliable. They slide down the slippery slope into fear, doubt and judgment without notice.
The grand prize for waking up out of our unconscious conditioning is better than a brand new Mercedes. Buddha taught that, underneath all thoughts and fears and feelings and sensations, we are all born with an unlimited capacity for joy, loving-kindness, compassion and inner peace. This is our pot of gold. Inner peace and freedom lives right here, right now always, inside our trusting heart.
For instance, when Lois’ husband died suddenly of a heart attack at fifty-six, she felt sad, angry and hopeless. “Now I have no reason to live.” But as Lois watched her incessant thoughts—“This should never have happened this way”—she focused in the present. “All my thoughts terrified me, but I trusted my body to know what to do. It relaxed into sobbing for all the sadness in my whole life. Afterwards, the inner peace that arose inspired me to keep honoring my waves of grief.”
Shifting from unconscious habits into freedom takes some fancy finagling.
UNCOVERING OUR REAL DAILY PRACTICE
Many of us already practice yoga, meditation and prayer daily. But this book addresses our Real Practice the other twenty-three hours a day. Every minute we indulge anger or judgment (however justified), we postpone freedom. Every hour we take a ride with fear’s story about losing our lover, job, home, savings or health, we cultivate fear. Every week we resist what is true and tell ourselves that life should be different, more in our favor, we perpetuate a false belief we should have questioned years ago: “If I’m clever enough, I shouldn’t have to suffer ever again.” Lucky for us, Buddha saw right through our most common human fallacies. He saw that suffering is woven into the fabric of life and taught us to reduce our suffering by accepting—not resisting—this truth. Buddha further described how three human propensities perpetuate suffering: craving, aversion and ignorance. When we constantly crave more love, money, homes, sex and the latest cell phones, we create a Petri dish of restless dissatisfaction, never satisfied with what is true. When we spend hours trying to avoid the imperfection, loss and sadness that come with being human, we waste time trying to avoid the unavoidable. When we bury our head in the sand, uninterested in how unconscious thoughts, feelings and beliefs sabotage our lives, we let ignorance rule. Such craving to acquire and achieve more, coupled with avoiding dislikes and ignoring what is, only perpetuates a gnawing feeling that who we are and what we do is never good enough.
Our new practice begins by honestly asking, “What is my real daily practice? Am I proving myself right today at the expense of proving a loved one wrong? Am I strengthening skills of worry, anger or hopelessness by indulging these endlessly? Have I spent hours lost in a fear fantasy of losing my lover or child?”
Jan’s aversion to ever feeling lonely held her stuck in a marriage ten years after it died. “Fear of never finding true love kept me swirling in confusion and indecision,” Jan said. “One day at the end of meditation, when I asked myself, ‘What is my real practice,’ I saw fear’s claws in me, keeping me imprisoned. I filed for divorce the next day and, five years later, we both found people we really love.
My favorite question for calling myself into the present is, “Am I here now?” When I stop thirty seconds to come back into the present, I often laugh out loud. I’m amazed at how wild mind bounces all over the place from last night’s gluten-free linguine to how grandma made spaghetti the night before she died on the dance floor at seventy-two to some future time when my back pain is gone.
Chapter two, Your Curious Heart, details the power of questions in depth.
Being present redirects our focus from unconscious to conscious thoughts. It names thoughts “thinking” and lets them go. It gives us courage to face grief and anxiety, or snap out of future fantasy to feel gratitude for what is true. It invites us into the present again and again to bask in the joy and inner peace right here.
For example, Charlotte felt consumed with jealous rage. “When my husband went on nightshift with a female cop, I felt insanely jealous,” she said. “I called my doctor for anti-anxiety drugs and we joked about a lobotomy to quiet my thoughts. But each time I sit in my car, deep breathe and name the thoughts ‘thinking,’ I find peace of mind. Some days I may spend hours naming thoughts, but it’s better than believing those images of my husband with another woman.”
Being present frees us from identifying with the unconscious prison of fear, doubt, anxiety and judgment we inherit at birth. It puts us back in the driver’s seat, stopping the runaway train of thoughts. By coming back into the present, we stop reliving that same old disappointment story. We wake up out of the dream of unconscious thought and become who we are—awareness watching thoughts.
Being present offers a new foundation under our feet. Rather than stay loyal to the suffering, dissatisfaction and not good enough of old unconscious habits, we stand grounded in the present, embracing our trusting heart.
ADOPTING THE POWER OF CONSCIOUS CHOICE
Being present introduces The Power of Conscious Choice. Every second of every day, whenever we notice thoughts as thoughts, we have choice: We can let that despair drag us around by the nose like it has for years—or choose joy. We can stay lost for hours in a fear trance about losing our income—or choose presence. We can worry about our teenager breaking curfew—or choose freedom. Being present in joy and freedom is always our moment-to-moment choice.
Presence brings conscious choice. Conscious choice brings freedom.
However, we humans don’t surrender our timeworn strategies for avoiding discomfort easily. Several times every day, we kick and scream, begging life to fit our mental picture of how it should be. Since thoughts promise freedom from suffering and more, we trust thoughts far more than the simple truths revealed in daily life. With that pleasure carrot dangling in front of us, just out of reach, we stay lost too long in clever fantasies promising freedom from pain. When we finally wake up out of this stupor, thoughts have exhausted our patience and exposed their ineptness.
At this juncture, our trusting heart becomes our new brilliant hero. Equipped beyond imagination for handling overwhelming feelings, our heart lays down a new blueprint for feeling happy, peaceful and free again—one that works. It thinks far outside the box with such illogicalresponses as holding our fears about money or losing our savings and our despair about living alone in loving compassion.
Our heart even welcomes fear like an old friend by whispering, “Hello fear. I was expecting you. Sorry to rush off but I’m having too much fun creating joy to visit.” When our brilliant heart stumbles upon us lost in fear, it chooses freedom by reminding us, “All you need do to dissolve fear is love the fear just as it is.”
Stepping into the present happens in a few seconds. The problem is, we must keep choosing it moment by moment. Three quick practices show how easy it is:
Our breath lives in the present, so this offers an easy entry point. If we only have a few seconds in the grocery line or at a red light, we can pause, notice a fear story in our head such as losing our job, take a deep belly breath and replace that story with “I am free,” “I choose inner peace” or “I let go of everything unlike love.” The second we say any of these phrases, our unconscious fear story dissolves.
If we have two minutes, we can ask ourselves, “What do I long to hear now? Would I love to hear that I’m never alone, or I am safe, or everything will be okay?” Rather than waiting for anyone else, we can whisper loving words to ourselves. If we have ten or twenty minutes, we can sit erect in a chair, close our eyes and focus on the breath in our belly. This practice, called Insight Meditation, teaches how the mind works while we anchor our awareness by watching our belly rise and fall with our inhale and exhale. Despite religious preferences, we all breathe. So we can all sneak in five, ten, twenty or thirty minutes a day to watch our breath—and watch our thoughts slip-slide into plans and memories, fears and doubts, judgments and regrets. Returning to our anchor, the breath, calls us back into the present.
Following each chapter, four Heart Tools drawn from Buddhist wisdom and Body-Centered Therapy create a road map to practice consciously choosing freedom. Witnessing thoughts, naming them “thinking” and letting them go in meditation frees us to bask in the joy, kindness, compassion and inner peace that is our birthright. When we add Body-Centered Therapy’s powerful tool of locating feelings in our body and breathing directly into them, free of story, we release traumas that plagued us for years. Woven together, these two giants form a winning ticket for waking up free in minutes in the comfort and privacy of our own home.
To practice conscious choice, we must first make ego’s habits conscious.
ONE SMALL PART OF US RESISTS THE PRESENT LIKE THE PLAGUE
Most of us have heard of ego and let ego run our lives without realizing it. But few of us know how deeply our ego—the small, less mature, defensive part of us that reacts personally to every little thing— sabotages us by resisting the present. Whether it speaks loud and demanding or soft and seductive, our ego exhausts itself convincing us that we have much more important things to worry about and plan and do than waste our time in the silly, boring present. But underneath all this bravado, ego treats the present like a life-threatening plague.
Ego’s job in life is keeping us safe at all costs. As safety manager, it takes this job very seriously. It can’t help itself. But in its near-sightedness, it cannot decipher between fear and reality. If it convinces itself that our lover might possibly hurt us, ego does everything in its power to destroy our relationship. Ego rallies all its loyal soldiers—fear, worry, doubt, judgment and despair—to pull off its latest heist.
Remember, safety (not happiness or love) is ego’s single goal. It pulls out all the stops when helping us avoid possible hurt, discomfort, illness, suffering or pain—especially a broken heart. All day long, ego crams our head with incessant thoughts, memories, fantasies, fears, regrets, plans, worries, hopelessness—anything to distract us. We might say ego has a phobia about the present.
Besides grandma’s wedding ring and dad’s gold watch, we also inherited an unquestioned loyalty to ego’s shenanigans. When it labels our current experience as “good” or “bad,” we buy its judgment. When it devotes hours to analyzing past hurts in a futile attempt to avoid future hurts, we swallow its conclusions whole. When ego captivates us with juicy stories about my thoughts, my feelings, my wants—knowing how susceptible we are to stories about ourselves—we ride the big wave.
Ego does all this below our awareness, counting on our ignorance.
Now is the time to question our undying loyalty to one small part of who we are. One scratch below the surface reveals how ego acts and thinks like a five-year-old. It hides under the bed at the whiff of any unfamiliar, unpredictable, unexpected things that might cause discomfort, creating more suffering for us in its wake.
If our goal is freedom and joy, we need to see through ego’s clever antics.
Some deep excavating is in order. Ego mastered its games centuries ago and fine-tunes it every time it captures our attention. First, we need to replace ego’s false kingpin, “If you just get it right next time, you’ll never have to feel hurt, disappointed, scared or rejected again” with the truth: “Suffering comes with life.” We smile and nod at ego’s compelling stories and, instead, hear our trusting heart whisper softly, “You’re save to feel the fear or doubt directly and let it go.”
Sue and Carol both demonstrate how easy it is to shift into the present. WhenSue’s husband of thirty years left for a younger woman, she struggled to get out of bed all morning. “My mind kept going over and over the past, judging me for every time I told him what to do. I couldn’t stop finding the one thing wrong.
“But once I dropped into my trusting heart and came back into the present, I named all those thoughts ‘thinking’ and focused directly on the real culprit—my fear of being a bag lady. Many a sleepless nights, I put both hands over my heart and reassured my scared ego, ‘You’ll be okay. I’ll take care of you.’”
As Carol faced breast cancer, her ego feared staying in the present locked in her death sentence. But her trusting heart revealed the healing powers of presence.
“My whole life, I prided myself on my smarts. I denied the cancer was real, staying busy helping others. But my resistance gave ego a heyday. It pummeled me constantly with thoughts about dying and pictures of caskets. When I shifted focus into my trusting heart, I saw all the precious beauty of my child’s eyes, my husband’s smile and my home cluttered with shoes and toys. Whether I die next month or fifty years from now, my heart taught me to smile at fear’s great imagination. When I label it “fear” and let it go, I remember that fear doesn’t know anymore than I do.”
We can’t stop fear or judgment. Ego’s thoughts arrive before we have time to think about them. But we can consciously choose how to respond. Stepping into the present is a gift we can give ourselves anytime, anywhere, any moment. Presence, our inner compass, navigates our choices toward inner peace and freedom.
Our journey into waking up free begins as we:
Notice ego’s seductive strategies for resisting and reacting personally.
Notice ego’s compulsion to make our reality different, better, easier.
Notice ego’s chronic like/dislike reaction to what is true and let it go.
Notice ego’s obsession with past and future thoughts and let them go.
Right now if we pinch ourselves, we might wake up out of the sleepwalking story playing in our head and stay present for a few seconds. But shortly the next thought will drag us into ego’s never, never land of past memories, future fantasies and countless regrets of how life, love and this moment could have been better.
Floating in and out of conscious and unconscious thoughts frustrates us—until we realize that the process of waking up free is a lifelong process. Each time we catch ourselves mid-sentence lost in judgment, doubt or fear, we need to celebrate. We can jump for joy until the next moment we get lost in thought.
But with each passing day, as we label thoughts and let them go, we find ourselves living in the present more often while moments of staying lost in anger, jealousy or worry occur less often. Our true nature—our unlimited joy, kindness, compassion and inner peace—patiently awaits our arrival in the present.
TRUSTING BARE ATTENTION AS OUR PRIMARY SOURCE
Buddha pointed the finger at ego’s stories with a tool called “Bare Attention.” It means resting in the facts of this moment without letting ego embellish them or create a mental story that consumes our focus and attention for hours.
Right now, my bare attention is: It is 10:48 Monday morning, October Fifth. Yellow aspen leaves outside my window sway in the breeze. My left knee aches after Sunday’s six-hour hike. I feel relief seeing this morning’s clear sky after lightning storms attacked Durango for two weeks in late September. Today’s thirty-six degree highs signal an early winter. Twenty-five grosbeaks line the back deck railing as they gorge in sunflower seeds before migrating south. I feel excited to write.
Externally, trusting Bare Attention brings our full attention to our sensations: it focuses on what our eyes are seeing, our ears are hearing, our nose is sniffing and our hands are touching in the present. It sticks to the facts, just the facts, without indulging ego’s personal preferences, judgments, reactions or stories. In other words, it dismisses ego’s snobbish judgment about what is wrong with our current experience and how life could be more perfect if this had never happened.
Internally, trusting Bare Attention names our inner sensations: contraction, pain, tightness, numbness and tingling. It also names inner feelings passing through such as fear, joy, sadness, hurt, guilt or resentment free of judgment, That is, presence notices what is without needing to get rid of any sensation or feeling.
The problem is, we humans have great trouble sticking to the facts. We all love a juicy story, especially our own. And ego joins in by planning our next great scheme to gain pleasure and avoid discomfort. It’s a deeply ingrained habit. We routinely go off on some tangent about how we like or dislike, love or hatewhat is happening now with a passion—or a vengeance. Several times a day, without any prodding from the peanut gallery, we launch into elaborate details about what happened, who did what to us and how it shouldhave never happened.
For instance, Sharon entered my office in tears. “We’re losing our home!” she said. “With Tom not working, our three rentals are our only income. And with two of them vacant, we can’t cover our mortgage this month. I’ll have to go back to work.”
“I hear how scared you feel, but I want you to try a great tool. Bare Attention is stating only the true facts without elaborating on what might possibly happen.”
“We have two vacancies and we’re losing our home,” Sharon repeated.
“The facts are that you have two vacancies and Tom is still out of work. The rest is conjecture based on fear. What would you love to tell yourself instead?”
Sharon paused to focus on her breath. “I’d love to notice fear as fear, trust the truth of these vacancies and visualize new, good tenants as my higher, wiser choice.”
The following week Sharon arrived grinning. “Last Friday I signed a one-year lease with a single guy from Albuquerque transferred here for his job. We still have one vacancy remaining, but my hope is back. I like this bare attention stuff.”
When we trust the present we relax into what is, whatever it is.
CHECKING IN WITH OUR BREATH
Whether we call it meditation, meditative awareness or watching our breath, our heart loves nothing more than to bask in the present, free from ego’s thoughts, judgments and fears. It finds freedom whenever we focus on our breath.
There is just one tiny hiccup.
The more we watch our breath and come back to the present, the more we notice zillions of distracting thoughts racing through our mind. Even with a strong intention to stay present, ego’s lifelong obsession with thinking, thinking, thinking is so deeply entrenched. Shrinking this habit requires focus and attention.
Often beginners to meditation mistakenly believe that thoughts will stop by naming them “thinking” and letting them go. But no matter how committed we are, and how many minutes we watch our breath daily for years, we still think a lot. Thoughts come with being human. What changes is the type of thoughts we infuse with our attention. By labeling thoughts “thinking” and coming back to the present, to the inhale and exhale of our breath, we waste less moments lost in fear, self-doubt and judgment thoughts. The subsequent open space leaves us many more moments in a day to focus attention on kindness, compassion, joy or what we want to create. These fresh, conscious moments add up to peacefulness inside.
When we finally realize that the part of us lost in anxiety, worry or despair for hours, days or years is our immature ego—not us—we feel tremendous relief.
The truth is, any overwhelming thought possesses no more importance than “I want a stick of chewing gum.” We are the ones who infuse thoughts with passion and meaning. Out of unconscious habit, we give worry thoughts top billing. The more often we repeat a fear like, “If I lose my job, I’ll lose everything,” the more real and terrifying it feels. Nobody knows what will happen next, not even fear.
Whether we admit it or not, we step into the unknown everyday. No matter which thoughts hold our attention, we handle the unknown everyday. If we think about it long enough, nothing in life turns out the way we or fear thought it would—not childhood or college, not loving or parenting, not aging or dying, nothing.
This is where our trusting heart steps in. When we pull attention away from ego’s compelling stories, we feel more space around thoughts inside. Issues feel more workable. Focusing on our breath in the present makes us start to wonder, “If I’m not my thoughts and fears, who am I? And who notices thoughts come and go?”
We discuss Our Awake Heart in greater detail in chapter three.
Yesterday on my morning hike, I was lost in thought. I obsessed about a young couple coping with a recent affair. Fears about them breaking up swarmed in my head—until I remembered to focus on my breath. Instantly I labeled the fears “thinking” and shifted channels to what my eyes were seeing.
The next hillside stood ablaze with red, burnt orange and yellow leaves as the oak brush delivered its fall performance. By dropping my story, my belly took a deep breath. Ego’s story about the affair took a backseat to being present. Two weeks later, the young couple shifted into compassion and forgiveness.
Day in and day out, when back pain or illness strike, when the stock market plummets or life disappoints, our heart helps us see even this is an opportunity to say “yes” to what is. Being present allows us to see thoughts as thoughts, feelings as feelings and fears as fears. In the open space that follows, we wake up and consciously choose which thoughts deserve our focus, time and attention.
When we stop resisting what is true, stop arguing with reality, we are free to choose presence. The more often we hold fear in compassion, the more safe we begin to feel in our body, despite what is happening around us. By stepping away from ego’s tyranny, we flow easily toward our heart’s unlimited capacity for joy, kindness, compassion and love that live in the present, with our breath.
Being present helps our eyes and heart open to the hidden mysteries of life. With trust, we accept that we are having the life lessons we need to have right now to mature. Over the years, as life and love stretch us beyond ego’s comfort zone, we respond to our feelings, our heart and life with acceptance and compassion.
In those precious moments when we bask in the silent present, everything stops. Worry stops. Anxiety stops. Fear stops. Despair stops. And in the quiet stillness, we see what has been true all along—that life moves through us in its
own timing, own changes, own unparalleled wisdom. Our job is to witness it.
Resting in life’s timeless wisdom helps our body feel more peaceful.
CHECKING IN WITH OUR BODY
We may exercise, feed and dress our body, even take it to the doctor for a colonoscopy. But how often do we stop to listen to our body? Nowadays, we push and push our bodies to exercise daily, work hard on too little sleep, sit still at a computer endless hours, digest everything we stuff in our mouth, and starve for days on a fad diet. We get mad when our adrenals collapse from sheer exhaustion. And when illness or injury erupts, we pop pills to silence our body’s alarm.
Being present in our body is a two-way street. Since the body lives in the present, like our breath, it delivers loving messages to us every day. These arrive nonverbally, through symptoms, pain and illness, designed to paint the short path back to balance, freedom and inner peace. If money fears lodge in our lower back, it begs, “Please, please let me dance or run or walk to move the fear out of my body.” When digestive pain persists, our body coaxes us in a loving way to address that hurt or sadness stuck in our belly. Rather than silencing our pain with pills, being present is focusing on our body and asking, “What are you trying to tell me?”
This permits us to acceptwhat is true and respond with respect.
For instance, Clare struggled with migraines for years—until she realized the headaches gave her body exactly what it needed in that moment. When Clare paid close attention to her tiredness and voluntarily rested in a dark room, the migraines lost their job. As she listened, her body no longer needed to press the issue.
Olivia arrived in my office crying out, “I don’t want to die!” She had come from her doctor’s office, where she was diagnosed with uterine cysts. After sharing the details, she closed her eyes and took several deep belly breaths. When I invited her to focus directly on the cysts in her uterus, she began sobbing.
“I never thought about this in years, but I had an abortion twenty years ago just after high school,” she said. “Since I was raised a staunch Catholic, I never told my parents or boyfriend or forgave myself.” After her crying subsided, Olivia placed both hands over her uterus and whispered, “I forgive you, Olivia, for going against your faith and for holding this dark secret against yourself all these years.”
When her doctor x-rayed her two weeks later, the cysts were gone.
We may try to eat healthy, exercise daily and practice Pilates, Chi Gong or Yoga regularly. But making friends with our body is respecting when it speaks to us through symptoms—and hearing its loving message. It is taking five minutes each morning to close our eyes, scan our body from head to toe, and welcomeany tightness, pain, tiredness, pressure or symptoms into our awareness without wishing they were different. Again, the key is being present with what is.
At sixty-two, Beth woke up each morning scared of losing her retirement. But once she replaced fear with checking-in with her body, she found peace again.
“The second I wake up, my mind races with the same old fear thoughts. But I name it ‘thinking’ and take ten deep breaths. After focusing on my right and left leg, my right and left arm and the breath inside my ribcage, I feel fully present in my body. Dessert is whispering ‘yes’ to any tension, pain, anxiety or tightness, which brings a silky spaciousness to my whole body. By time I get to work, they all tease me about having great sex that morning. I just smile.”
Making friends is including our body in our daily life by asking sincerely, “What does my body need today?” and patiently listening for an image, feeling sense or word—the way our intuition speaks to us. If we hear that our body needs a walk in nature, a massage, rest or dancing to African drum music, we create time for it.
Chapter two, Our Curious Heart, deciphers the messages of body symptoms.
Respecting our body’s intelligence allows our body to guide us toward inner peace. Since pain and symptoms are often fueled by unexpressed hurt, fear, grief or rage, making friends with our body leads to being present with our feelings.
CHECKING IN WITH OUR FEELINGS
Feelings are so misunderstood. Mostly, we try to avoid them—the negative ones, that is. We long for joy, love, happiness, hot sex and freedom, straining to hold onto these as long as we can, feeling cheated when they disappear. But sadness, hurt, disappointment, loneliness, despair—these ego tries to ignore or postpone. We may have watched our parents vacillate between two black-and-white options: Raging Drama Queen or the Stoic Silent Type. Facing those, w chose to avoid bad feelings altogether. Or we naively chose one option and paid dearly with the loss of a love relationship. By indulging or repressing feelings, lovers either leave us because we are too angry and moody, or too shut down and unemotional. We can’t win.
But being present has nothing to do with acting out, repressing, analyzing or interpreting feelings. Being present is locating where we feel sadness, anxiety, fear or despair in our body and focusing directly on that feeling, free of ego’s juicy story about what happened when and how it should have happened differently. It is pausing to ask inside, “What feeling is moving through me now?” without getting lost in it. It is breathing directly into feelings to discover a best-kept secret: Negativefeelings, given our full expression, lead directly to freedom and inner peace.
For instance, Judy came to therapy so depressed, the forty-year-old woman was afraid she might hurt herself. In our third session, I had her close her eyes and locate where she felt depressed inside. She described a tight knot in her belly.
“I thought I was over this,” Judy said, “But I’m remembering John, the love of my life. Both eighteen, we were to marry in July. We had so much fun together laughing and doing crazy things. But he rolled his pickup June 16th and was killed.” She gasped as her throat clamped shut. I invited her to take several deep breaths and breathe into that tight knot. Tears poured out. “I had no idea I was sitting on all that sadness.” Judy had plenty more work to do, but her stomach pain stopped.
Chapter three, Our Awake Heart, teaches us to focus on feelings to heal.
Direct experience permits us to accept, and love, all feelings as they are.
Feelings are like children. Once a feeling receives our full attention for a moment or two, then like a child it moves to the next thing. It is the storyabout feelings, not feelings themselves, that holds us prisoner for days or years. The antidote is to pause five times a day to check-in and acknowledge whatever feeling is present: “I feel tired, scared, happy, upset, worried, anxious, sad, contented, irritated, frustrated, hopeless, disappointed, joyful, angry, lonely, calm, peaceful, guilty, ashamed, discouraged, excited, etc.” To grow familiar with subtler feelings, it helps to list fifty feelings on a piece of paper and carry it in our pocket.
The instant we deep breathe and name a feeling, it puts some breathing space around that feeling—as if we jumped to the outskirts to watch the feeling rather than stay overwhelmed by it. This spaciousness drops the story brewing in our headand reminds us, “Yes, I’m not my feeling, I’m presence noticing the feeling.”
Befriending feelings allows our trusting heart to hold it in loving compassion.
CHECKING IN WITH OUR HEART
The late poet Rumi said, “Out beyond right and wrong, there is a place. I’ll meet you there.” When we stay present in our heart, we step through an inner keyhole to a real place inside that few of us know exists. It changes us forever. When we drop beneath ego’s incessant planning, remembering, thinking and worrying, we touch into the joy and magic of being alive. From this new vantage point, fear, anxiety and despair still visit us routinely. We still feel unhappy and disappointed. But we respond differently. Our trusting heart reassures that scared part of us that we are safe and loved, even now. No longer enthralled by thoughts and distractions, we turn our fresh attention to the hottest game in town: excavating the unlimited joy, love, kindness and compassion pulsating in our heart.
Two voices speak to us simultaneously. When we stop listening to ego’s loud, demanding voice, we finally hear the soft, wise voice of our trusting heart.
Inside the naked silence of this newfound place, the present, our heart whispers kind, loving words in our ear. Like a good lover, it gently invites us to abandon all thoughts and receive the pleasures abounding in this moment. It tugs at us to pause and notice that pair of black crows traversing the crisp January sky. It reminds us that we are good enough, always, and that we are kind, loving, gentle, compassionate beings deep inside, just as we are. It nudges us to rest when we are tired, connect with loved ones when we feel lonely and trust life now.
When we listen sincerely, deep heart truths embrace us:
Our heart lives in unlimited love and compassion. It invites us to do the same.
Our heart holds both good and bad in gratitude. It invites us to do the same.
Our heart lets go ofeverything unlike love. It invites us to do the same.
Our heart feels our connection with all life forms. It invites us to do the same.
Our heart loves our humanness unconditionally. It invites us to do the same.
Our heart remembers the loving presence we are. It invites us to do the same.
Our heart sees the world through the loving eyes. It invites us to do the same.
A clear example helps our understanding. Derek lost sleep, lost hope, lost twenty pounds when the love of his life moved in with him. “Ten years of meditation don’t stop me from reacting defensively whenever Sue asks me to talk about my despair. I learned years ago, between a critical dad and workaholic mom, that sharing vulnerable stuff brings hurt. Instead, I stomp out and leave for hours.”
In therapy, Derek worked through his anger and underlying grief toward his folks. But he kept holding Sue at arm’s length. Then one night at midnight as Derek lay awake, he found an open chamber to his tender heart and stepped inside.
“It felt like a loving voice inside me, one I’d never heard before, began whispering the most loving words to me. It told me, ‘You’re safe now to let love in Derek, your own and Sue’s. And you’re never alone. I’m always here with you.’
“Like salve on an open cut, my loneliness disappeared. I treasure those words so much, I repeat them over and over until I felt so peaceful, I fell asleep.”
For the first time since he was a toddler, Derek reconnected with his unlimited loving-kindness. “I still notice the scared place inside that wants to leave. But when it arises, I put my hands over my heart and repeat, ‘I love you, Dude. I’m loving you now for being scared.’ Afterward, peacefulness oozes into every cell.”
Being present in our trusting heart is a gift we can give ourselves each morning. I do. I lie on my back with my eyes closed and take ten deep belly breaths, noticing my thoughts race. I softly place both hands over the center of my chest and repeat the word “yes” to every feeling, every pain and every sensation. Then I recall someone I love deeply. I collect all this love and shine it through my hands into my heart. As I breathe the love into my heart, a calm spaciousness descends on me.
Then I ask my heart directly: “What does my heart need today?” I deep breathe and listen for an image, feeling sense or picture. My heart may nudge me to journal, dance, meditate, sing on my morning hike or read a spiritual passage—things that feed my soul and return my spirit to balance. When I have a powerful dream, I lie still in bed to ask, “What loving message is this dream bringing me?” Over the years, with practice, I have grown to deeply trust my wise, loving heart.
Unlike ego, our heart responds to questions slowly. It ponders its response like a wise grandmother, testing our patience. But when we keep listening patiently for a picture, memory or feeling, we receive the most loving guidance imaginable. Over time, we come to count on the heart. It prods us to slow down and rest long before illness appears. It transfuses us with courage to pursue our dreams long before ego releases us from its countless “what if” fears. When we include our heart in daily life, we stay balanced, healthy, happy and peaceful. We trust life.
Being present in our trusting heart is like hanging out with our best friend times one hundred. It loves us like a good friend, mother, lover and companion all rolled into one. Whether we face loss, divorce, illness or undesired change, our heart doles out reassurance and love at every corner, every heartbreak, every point of confusion. It puts everything in fresh perspective.
When we listen, we take ego with a grain of salt. And when no words of reassurance come, our heart still holds our pain and us in a loving embrace. Since she welcomes all life equally, she teaches us to delight in every new experience.
This loving heart sits on our fingertips. Whether we stay lost in thought for ten minutes or ten years, our heart waits patiently for our return home.
When we stop buying into fear, stop chasing after answers outside ourselves, we slow down enough to hear the wise words of reassurance, kindness and compassion emanating from our heart. Always tender and loving, gentle and inviting, our trusting heart teaches us to greet each moment with love:
When anxious, our heart is right with us, softly repeating: “You are safe, even now. Take some deep breaths and hold the scared you in loving-kindness.”
When lonely, our heart comforts us: “I’m here. You’re not alone. Relax into this moment and feel all the love holding you and your loneliness in compassion.”
When ego scolds us for not having enough time, our heart counters, “You have all the time you need, always. Now breathe and feel the spacious present.”
When tired, our heart reassures us, “Rest first for an hour or two, reading something you love. Then you’ll have plenty of energy to do everything later.”
Being present is a gift we can consciously choose to give ourselves every day, every moment. It connects us with feeling awake, alive and connected to all of life. Each time we step out of the prison of thoughts, fears, reactions and stories, we return to pure, naked awareness. This is so simple that often we forget it is right here right now, inside, all the time. We still think, plan, remember and pursue accomplishments because that is what we humans do. But we do it awake rather than asleep. When we devote five, ten or fifteen minutes to being present daily, we feel the returns a hundred fold in vitality, good health and a fresh ability to love.
Remembering to practice is key. One moment we are fully present and free. The next, we are imprisoned in thoughts, fears, memories or reactions. Each time we come back into the present, we surrender to what is. We trust the wisdom of life. Presence is our new habit. Freedom is our new goal. Trusting life our heart’s practice. Luckily, we have the rest of our lives to practice and enjoy.
HEART TOOLS FOR TRUSTING THE PRESENT:
Spend two, ten or twenty minutes each morning practicing one Heart Choice Tool for a week. Seven days doing one practice gives you a tangible body experience of being present amidst anger, hurt, fear and the gamut of human reactions. Set the alarm fifteen minutes early to practice when you first wake up while your mind is fresh, your heart is soft, and ego is too groggy to start its To Do List. If you can’t do it in the morning, set aside some minutes after work or after dinner to practice.
- BEING PRESENT WITH YOUR BREATH: Our heart loves to bask in the present. But ego distracts us with countless thoughts, memories, worries, fears and stories. Upon waking each morning this week, take ten deep belly breaths and focus attention on the inhale and exhale of your breath. Then set an intention to stay present today by saying, “Whenever I notice I’m lost in thoughts today, I name it ‘thinking,’ let it go and come back into the present.” (Once we set an intention, this commitment pops into our awareness during the day when we most need the reminder.) As you go about your day, when you wake up and notice your focus lost in fear, doubt, judgment or thought, end the thought mid-sentence with “thinking” and focus on what you are seeing, hearing, touching or feeling in the present. With persistent thoughts, persist with letting them go and focus on your breath.
- CHECKING IN WITH YOUR BODY: In week two, expand your morning practice by focusinginside your body. Upon waking, lie on your back, deep breathe and feel the life force in your body. First, focus on your left and right foot for one second each. Continue up your body, focusing on your left knee, right knee, left thigh and right thigh. Notice your left hand, right hand, left arm, right arm, belly and chest. Take a moment to ground yourself in your body by quickly scanning your feet, legs, hands, and arms and torso in one fell swoop. Now pause to feel the life energy in your breath and your body.
With eyes closed, scan your body and ask inside, “What sensations am I noticing?” Ask, deep breathe, and patiently see notice any pain, tension, discomfort or numbness (ignore ego’s compulsion to judge these as bad). Allow these sensations to be the truth in your body now. To relieve pain or tension, focus directly on the area where you feel pain or tension inside and imagine sending your breath directly into the center of it. Watch it slowly disappear as you bring your breath and loving awareness to it.
- MAKING FRIENDS WITH FEELINGS: Ego tells us we don’t have time for feelings. But being present with a feeling for two, five or ten minutes takes much less time than staying lost in a story of grief or fear for hours or days. Make friends with your feelings by sitting or lying down when a feeling is “up” for you. Close your eyes, place one hand over your belly, the other over your heart, take a few deep breaths to relax and remind yourself that feelings are visitors that come and go. Then softly ask, “Where am I feeling this worry, anxiety, hurt, jealousy, anger, sadness or despair in my body?” By locating the feeling as a tightness or knot in your throat, chest, belly, diaphragm or back, you can focus directly on the feeling. Once you locate it in your body, take a deep belly breath and imagine sending your exhale directly into the center of that feeling. Do this for two, five, ten or fifteen minutes—however long the feeling needs to express fully and return you to spacious stillness.
- CHECKING IN WITH YOUR TRUSTING HEART: This is best practiced after Checking In with your Body for a week and Making Friends with Feelings a second week. Upon waking, lie on your back with both hands over your heart. Take several deep breaths until your whole body feels spacious. Notice any tension, pressure, tingling, numbness or feelings inside. If feelings are present, take a few minutes to breathe into them, just allowing them to be present. Now begin dialoguing with your heart. Start with a simple question. Since the heart speaks to us through dream images, symptoms and hunches, first ask, “What are you trying to tell me?” Ask, deep breathe and patiently listen for an image, feeling or phrase to bubble up into awareness. Since our heart responds much slower than ego, patience is critical. Treat your heart like your new best friend. Gently ask, “What does my heart need now, given my recent experiences?” As the dialogue flows, get creative. Ask things you wonder about: “What is my life purpose?” “Is this new lover my soul mate?” “Should I have a child?” “Is it right timing for my new business?” When you feel depleted, lost or out of balance, ask your heart, “What sounds good to heal my body, heart and spirit right now?” Grow skilled at receiving the soft, loving, compassionate genius of your trusting heart. Discover new ways to integrate this wealth of wisdom into your daily life.