“What is This?”… Breathing Through Moments of Distress

by meditative - January 2nd, 2015

The question- What is this?- may not be answered by the thinking mind- the answer may only come from entering directly into the physical experience of the present moment. Ask yourself this question right now- even without distress- and it can be applied to whatever the present moment holds. Become aware of any physical sensations in the body subsequent to asking the question- just breathing normally with the sensations, and coming back to them… again and again. Feel the energy in the body as you focus on the “whatness” of the experience. Only by doing this will you answer the question- “What is this?”

Trying to maintain this kind of awareness in moments of distress can be quite challenging since we often defer to our most habitual defenses such as justifying, controlling, closing down, seeking diversions, and so on. These strategies serve to protect us from feeling the pain of distress that we do not want to feel. Our human compulsion is toward comfort and relief. We are driven to either avoid, fix, or get rid of our unpleasant experiences.

Let’s look briefly at ‘anxiety’ as it’s natural to want to avoid feeling it. Some of us try to become distracted from the experience while others of us try very hard to figure it out. Direct, physical experience of the anxiety in the moment by asking… “What is it”… focuses our awareness closer to the answer we aspire. We’re simply asking what it actually is.

Asking this question can be fundamental in awakening our inherent capacity to be curiously inquisitive. It is our curiosity that manifests an intention to be willing to explore unknown territory- to places where the ego doesn’t want us to go- and into the depths of our underlying fears. In our fearful and distressful moments- when everything seems dark and unworkable, we might find it extremely helpful to anchor to our breath by breathing deeply into the center of the chest… on the in-breath, and on the out-breath… extending warmth and compassion. Breathing deeply into the heart and physically connecting with the center of our being is a way to extend loving-kindness to ourselves even when there appears to be no loving kindness in sight.

By breathing the distressful sensations we may be experiencing into the center of the chest, we can learn to stay with the actual sensations of distress itself. To ask “What is this?– and truly reside with what we find there- takes considerable patience and courage. At first, we may only be capable of doing a couple of breaths at a time, but with patience and perseverance, we will find that with this awareness there is healing. ‘Distress’ is not solid, and we don’t need to remain hooked to the habitual thoughts, physical sensations, and memories associated with its appearance in our experience. Our awareness helps to dissolve these barriers, and ultimately our wall of fear.

Always remember that we are never truly alone in our distressful moments- these are shared experiences of many others who have suffered from the same or similar distress and wishing compassion to all of us. This heartfelt sentiment is universal to our interconnectedness as human beings.