Saturday, January 4, 2014

Just Breathe

Mindfulness is either on the cusp of something great, or risks becoming the latest self-help fad to perish from oversimplification.  It has, without a doubt, improved my functioning with bipolar disorder.  In working with others, I have seen similar results.  And while research specific to meditation and bipolar disorder is scarce, the effect of mindfulness on other mental illnesses is well documented, and positive.

But it’s not so easy.

The nascent field of secular meditation instruction for personal improvement is beginning to promise an awful lot for very little effort.  Chip Wilson, founder of lululemon, has kicked off the whil initiative.  The premise is great results from one minute of meditation.  The UK firm Headspace provides daily meditations and messages that promise all the benefits of more rigorous practice.

Maybe my opinion is colored by the austerity and rigor of my Zen training, but I fear some of this borders on hucksterism.   I have absolutely no problem with people marketing meditation or making money off of it.  It’s an income source for me.  But as in other wellness fields, the expectations for mindfulness have been set very high and results are being touted for less and less effort.  Dieting, fitness, and the self-image industry have suffered from, and continue to suffer from, big promises for minimum investment (of time – the money spent on this stuff is huge), when what are really necessary are self-discipline and the time to make it work.

Yes, I want people to read me and attend my classes and workshops.  Instruction is valuable and can be inspiring.  Sharing a common experience with others, too, is important.  But before you dive into the next fad meditation, or buy the latest app, consider the elegance and simplicity of basic, time-tested, meditation methods.  Before you open the latest book on the underpinnings of meditation, or the great metamorphosis you can undergo if only you do this thing, judge whether or not your time may be better spent just counting breaths.

For most people, a basic exercise in focused attention, such as placing one’s attention on the breath, and coming back to it when the mind wanders, can yield all of the results offered by meditation’s salesmen.  Do this for a significant period of time each day and things will improve.  You can spend all the money you want on mindfulness, but what counts is the effort.

Consider the words of management consultant Fred Kofman:

When your emotional circuits are strong, they can withstand high charges.  When they are weak, intense emotions will blow your fuses and disable your conscious mind.  Your behavior will then fall under the control of unconscious defense mechanisms.  Regardless of how many books you have read or seminars you have attended, you will forget them all and turn into a fight-or-flight machine.  Taking a conscious breath is the simplest way to reengage your awareness and choice.  In breathing, as in any other skill, practice makes perfect.  In order to take a breath when it counts – that is, under highly charged conditions – it is necessary to take about 10,000 breaths in training.

I have heard meditation described as effortful effortlessness.  It takes work.  Spend what you will and gather as much information as possible, but you’re going to have to do the work.  So try something right now.  Turn off your computer or device, close your eyes, and just breathe.


  1. George,

    I really liked your recent post, and originally saw it on Psych Central... clear, commonsense... level-headed. And thank you for the work you are doing with others and bringing mindfulness to them. Keep up the good work!

  2. Hello,

    I really loved this post. I am no zen master; I have read very little on meditation. But I practice it. I don't time myself, but I have noticed over time that if my meditation time doesn't last at least 20 minutes I get nothing out of it. It takes time to really let your mind unwind from the hectic craziness around you.

    Thank you for this.