Gary Gach: Pause. Breathe. Smile. Spiritual Awakening as an Art Form

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August 14, 2018

Gary Gach: Pause. Breathe. Smile. Spiritual Awakening as an Art Form

Gary Gach August 14, 2018

Gary Gach is a writer, meditator, and mystic who draws on his diverse life experiences to inform his nonfiction and poetry offerings. He is the author of What Book!? and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Buddhism. With Sounds True, he has most recently published Pause, Breathe, Smile: Awakening Mindfulness When Meditation Is Not Enough. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Tami Simon speaks with Gary about the titular process of pausing, breathing, and smiling—how it can center you immediately, plant seeds of awakening, and help light the way on the path to peace. They talk about the “mouth yoga” of the half-smile and why meditation is only “part of the menu” of daily mindfulness practice. Gary and Tami also discuss what it means to exist in three kinds of awakening reality: the spaces of impermanence, interbeing, and selflessness. Finally, Gary shares his love of reading and writing haiku, offering a spontaneous haiku poem that arises in the course of the interview. (59 minutes)

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Inspiration: 27 Vital Aspects of Breath

Pause, Breathe, Smile by Gary Gach

Have you ever paused to consider how amazing your breath is? Here’s a list of some inspirational aspects of breath. (The word inspiration itself means to breathe.) Some might already be familiar to you. You may feel drawn to appreciate some more than others. Devoting close attention to any one will lead to all the others. It’s all there – in a breath.

 

1  Present-ness

My mind wanders. My thoughts drift off. Sometimes, I could drown in regret, lost reviewing the past. Meanwhile, my breath is always precisely in the present moment.

2  Happiness

When we drop our worries and hurries, we can fully connect with our aliveness. Breathing with this joy on our lips, we learn a deeper, more enduring happiness. It’s our birthright. Conscious breathing can be a great relief, having nothing else to do but be – and a reminder there are enough simple reasons for happiness in this present moment.

3  Leadership

I’m a follower of my breath. Following my breath can tell me volumes about how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking; where I am and where I need to go in my life. When I notice my mind has wandered – I simply draw attention back to my breath.

4  Constant Companion

Since my birth, no one and no thing has been as close to me, without fail, rain or shine, as my breath. No sensation has been as familiar to me. When I follow my breath, I feel myself coming home, where I’ve always belonged.

5  Best Friendship

Ultimately, no one may love me as much as I do. To remain faithful to my part of the relationship, I pay utmost attention to my breath. Sometimes, I need to take time for us to get to know each other better.

6  Relational

I say, “my breath,” but I could b breathing in your out-breath. The simple implication of breath’s merging of within and around can dramatically shift my perspective.

7  Inspirational

We have many muses in our creative life. They may take the form of rituals, people, or substances. My primary inspiration is breath.

8  Nature
Through my breath, I observe my connection to Nature and her processes. The in-and-out of breath mirrors the natural cycles – the tides, the sun and moon, life and death.

9  Slowness

Nature reminds me to slow down, since my observation reveals how slowness tends to predominate our surroundings. Paying attention to breathing, it tends to deepen and slow, of its own, naturally. Living in a culture addicted to an ever-accelerating pace, slowness can feel like salvation.

10 Calm

Paying attention to breath allows it become as deep as it wishes to be. When I feel my belly soften and breath grow deep, my vestigial instincts of flight-fright-or-fight have gone away: less stress! I am aware of how calm I feel.

11  Solidity

Without calm, my strength can dissipate, disperse, and scatter. Without calm, I cannot engage in gentle inquiry into the nature of self and reality. My reserve of calm assures my presence has solidity, even in emergency. I can show up, and be present when I show up.

12  Silent

Paying attention, I notice breath is slower than thought. Nor does it obey the restrictive patterns of verbal language. I pay close attention to each quiet breath, from beginning, middle, and end – and with a blank space, in between. This silence is not blind.

13  Anonymity

My breath is totally unconcerned whether or not I am up with latest fashion, or what I look like. I don’t need to cultivate an identity. Breath accepts as I am. In that complete acceptance, I could be nobody – or anybody. This is anonymity is a passport to the undomesticated world of the wild.

14  Impermanence

Breath is a living example of the impermanence of all things – a reminder of the importance of flow. You can never breathe the same breath twice.

15  Focus of Awareness

Meditating, I could focus on sound, which is also ever-present, but I like breath best.

16  Emotional Self-Regulation

Being intimate with how a breath arises, manifests, then falls away is a transferable skill, applicable to emotions and thoughts. These too arise, take form, and pass. Besides my recognizing they’re impermanent, it’s great to also be able to catch negative thought forms and destructive feelings at their inception – before they’ve pulled us along by the nose – learning to step away from their pull on us, understand them, and heal and transform their energies.

17  Direct

Breath isn’t symbolic nor abstract. There’s no need to look behind breath, searching for hidden meaning. Beyond anyone else’s words or labels, connecting with breath is to see for one’s self, through direct experience.

18  Intentionality

Wanting to change my behavior – my thoughts, my words, and my deeds – conscious breathing is wonderful training. To be conscious of just one breath immediately sets intention into motion. Conscious breath provides a space where I can consider how to respond, rather than react.

19  Universal

Like the wind that encircles the planet, breath is everywhere. It knows no religious denominations, national boundaries, ethnic differences, or social classes. Languages vary but they all tend to point to the vital connection to life of breath.

20  Vital

Mindful of breath, I return my attention to the fountain of life. Dead people don’t breathe. Many languages equate our personal breath with a connection to something greater than ourselves.

21  Centering

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi once likened breath to a hinge between mind and body. In present-moment awareness of breath, my body and mind find each other. In the vital spaciousness of breath, body mind spirit can align as one.

22  Interconnection

Scientists tell me my breath nourishes the green world of vegetation, and vegetation nourishes my breath. I know, first-hand, such interdependent interconnection of all things through my breath. I can feel how body conditions mind … mind conditions body … breath conditions both.

23  Letting Go

Breathing out teaches me a central lesson: letting go. I can’t breathe in without breathing out.

24  Ineffable

Breath is invisible. It has no color, no shape. It’s invisible. Breath – like mind, like life – is ineffable.

25  Selflessness

Breathing out, I let my exhalation simply fall away from my body, as if as far as to the horizon. Then I wait. I am as still as a hunter waiting for a deer. I don’t summon it, nor try to will it into existence. My next breath comes, nevertheless. As if of itself. Without fixed identity, lacking any separateness, empty of ownership. In this, it is perfectly open to anything and everything, as limitless as a big clear sky. Selfless.

26  Prayer

Mindful breathing can be a form of prayer.

27  Engaged

Breath can’t be confined to a monastery. It’s actively engaged in the world.

 

Gary GachGary Gach hosts Zen Mindfulness Fellowship weekly in San Francisco, since 2009. He’s author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buddhism and editor of What Book!? ~ Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop. His most recent book is PAUSE   BREATHE   SMILE ~ Awakening Mindfulness When Meditation Is Not Enough. This brings mindfulness full-circle, back to its roots as a spiritual as well as secular path for complete awakening. It’s available in both paperback and as an audio book. His work has also appeared in over 150 periodicals and a couple dozen anthologies, including The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Huffington Post, In These Times, Language for a New Century, The Nation, The New Yorker, Technicians of the Sacred, and Yoga Journal.  More info : GaryGach.com.

 

Pause, Breathe, Smile by Gary Gach

Buy your copy of PAUSE, BREATHE, SMILE at your favorite bookseller!

Sounds True | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

 

Copyright © 2019 by Gary Gach.

 

MINDFULNESS 24/7: 5 Simple Everyday Practices

24/7 Mindfulness, Gary GachMindfulness can be defined as the clear and calm energy of an intelligent alertness, spacious and awakening. The good news is it’s present all the time. It’s inherent in our human inheritance. We need only to remember this. Here are five simple everyday reminders for mindful living to try for yourself.

[You don’t need to take them on all at once. As you learn to incorporate each into your daily life, gradually, any one can be a model for all the others.]

1) BREATHE, YOU ARE ALIVE!—Conscious Breathing

Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, the grandfather of modern mindfulness, gives us this brief reminder to remember: “Conscious breathing is my anchor.” This thought stops me in my tracks. With breath now as basis of my awareness, I have returned to the present moment. Even when my mind might wander elsewhere, I can feel my breath in my body is in the present moment, my underwater anchor supporting my awakening mindfulness.

Allowing body, mind, and breath (spirit) to find each other helps me live fully. Paying attention to What Is, as it manifests right in front of my nose, lets me see things as they are, rather than through colored lenses of fantasy and personal cravings, invisible filters of cultural conditioning, and frames of ideology.

Conscious breathing doesn’t require taking a full breath, or any particular kind of breath at all. Rather, just being mindful of breath can amplify concentration which can, in turn, awaken full awareness. This can even lead to the cool, lucid plateau of meta-awareness: awareness of awareness.

See for yourself. Enjoy just three conscious breaths—right now!—and feel yourself solidly grounded in moment-to-moment awareness.

2) PAUSE—Intentional Conduct

To enjoy just one conscious breath means to pause. Pausing opens up a vital space. Between stimulus and unconscious reaction, I have space to discern how I might best wisely respond to what’s at hand. What can I do, right now, that could be harmful, and what might be beneficial? This too is spiritual practice, making evident my values via concrete action.

Throughout the day, I remember to pause, return to my breath, and check intention. A wonderful reminder is to smile. Aware of your breathing, notice what happens if you also give yourself the gift of a smile. Just a faint smile can help me realize I have enough reasons to be happy in the present moment. Earth beneath me, blue sky above, air in my nostrils—life itself! My smile also arouses my sense of taking responsibility, truly being author of my life, to live the life I was meant to live.

Plus, a smile can be contagious. Here is a fulcrum, so to speak, that can facilitate deep transformation. That is, to my intentionality I add relationality. It’s my intention for myself—and for others. I know my well-being is intertwined with the well-being of everyone else. We’re all in this together.

The Dalai Lama sometimes refers to his “selfish altruism.” That’s an honest way to view relationality. Who wants to live in a world where everyone’s depressed, burnt out, and close the edge!? I recognize I am not free unless everyone else is too.

To check how I’m doing, I use my life as the clear mirror of my practice. For instance, I look in the rear-view mirror of my actions. (I consider actions, by the way, as including thoughts and words, as well as deeds.)

As the East Bay Meditation Center reminds us all, there can be a difference between intention and impact. If my actions have good intentions but are triggering destructive emotions in others, it’s a good cause for engaging in self-examination as to what I still need to work through.

3) DEEP LISTENING—Awakening the Mind of Love

Now you know the three primary reminders I engage with in my everyday life: breathing, smiling, pausing. From that base, I am glad to offer three more.

Living in an Information Age, I feel like I’m being asked to get a glass of water off an open fire hydrant. It’s this way with stimuli in general—too much. Instead, I listen to what’s really important. I hear what’s not being said, as well as what is. This way, I can connect with info more deeply.

How does this work? I listen without my interrupting what’s going on. I’m simply present, without agenda or labels.

I train this skillful listening by being aware of each breath—arising, manifesting, and falling away. My body has been breathing all my life. Now I’m learning to be intimate with it. This awareness then becomes the model for my listening to my emotions and thoughts, as they too arise, take form, and fade away into other phenomena. I pay attention to whatever’s coming up within me, openly, with a nonjudgmental, gentle curiosity.

Just this morning, I had to stop my meditation midway. Difficult emotions and thoughts were arising, and I wanted to quit. Then I remembered not to look away. After all, the only way out is in. After setting my intention to give myself enough self-care to make it through, I returned to my meditation, and listened until I soon heard the key to where I need to go next with some of the current sensitive, vulnerable, juicy, meaty stuff in my life story.  [To Be Continued.]

With the clarity of mindfulness, our heart opens to the realization we all want the same thing: an end of suffering and a life of happiness. When we liberate ourselves from our prison, the prison of the illusion of our separateness (“the skin-encapsulated ego,” as Alan Watts says), the eye in our heart can open: the eye of true love. Then we can see and hear ourselves and life around us as it is—a miracle.

4) SLOWLY, SLOWLY, STEP BY STEP—Walking Meditation

Sitting still may be the most commonly known posture of meditation in the world. You can see it in ancient South Asian statues and Mayan, alike. Yet the body has four basic postures: laying, sitting, standing, and walking. Being aware of our body, whatever position it’s in, is an everyday meditation anyone can practice.

Walking meditation is simply meditation walking. Try it—walking from a car to a door, or walking down a street. Notice your body and its posture. Is it relaxed, yet alert? Can you notice your breathing?

As you walk, notice how many steps for an in-breath; how many for an out-breath.  Maintaining awareness of present-moment breathing, I’m no longer marching, marching off into a fictive future, to attain some abstract purpose. Instead, I’m permeable to what is. As it is. Within me, and all around. With each step, I’m arriving in the present moment—the only moment ever available for me to live.

Rather than trying to get anywhere—I’m almost aimlessly experiencing the miracle of walking. Zen ancestor Rinzai tells us the miracle isn’t to walk on water, nor to walk on coals. The real miracle is to walk on this green earth.

As with sitting, formal walking meditation can take a good 20 minutes before you can feel it digging a well of peace for you to draw from throughout your day. Such formal meditation might be just walking slowly for twenty minutes, as slow as synchronizing your left step to you inhalation, and your right step to your exhalation. Remembering to smile. Being aware of what it’s like to be stepping into the unknown, with eyes born for wonder.

5) SLOW FOOD IS SOUL FOOD—Mindful Meals

I practice sitting still in the morning and evening, and walking meditation before lunch or dinner. Plus, there’s a meditation you can practice three times a day: mindful meals. When I teach this, I begin with Raisin Meditation: experiencing the whole universe in a single raisin. And mindfulness meditation is as light and common as a raisin.

Anyhoo—you might try out these five basic steps the next time you’re alone at the table for a meal.

First, pause. Look. Smell. Take it in.

As you feel your gratitude arise at the generosity this meal represents, take a moment to express it. Even if it’s just “Thanks!” or “Grace!,” “L’chaim!” or “Bismillah!”—everyone knows how to do this. (And the food knows too, and will respond by tasting better when you give thanks for it.)

Second, as you bring it to your lips, pause to regard each bite.

Third, as you chew, please consider how this is a messenger of the whole cosmos. In any slice of food is present the gift of earth, rain, air, sun, and many hands. Awaken to the marvels of the interconnectedness of all things—interbeing—enabling this meal.

Fourth, remember to put down the fork. (Don’t reach for the next mouthful while still chewing the present one.)

Fifth, from time to time, pause between bites. Be mindful of how your body knows how to perfectly extract the nutrients from food . . . exchanging enzymes and aminos . . . adding to and supporting your life and your practice of the way of awareness. (Will somebody please say, “Amen!”?)

So, whether you’re a newbie, or wish to take a deeper dive, I hope any or all of these simple practices will water your roots and extend your wingspan.

Enjoy the journey!


Gary GachGary Gach has hosted Zen Mindfulness Fellowship weekly in San Francisco since 2009. He’s author ofThe Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buddhism and editor ofWhat Book!? — Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop. His most recent book is PAUSE, BREATHE, SMILE: Awakening Mindfulness When Meditation Is Not Enough. This brings mindfulness full-circle, back to its roots as a spiritual as well as secular path for complete awakening. It’s available both in paperback and as an audio book. His work has also appeared in over 150 periodicals, including the Christian Science Monitor, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, the Huffington Post, In These Times, The Nation, The New Yorker, and Yoga Journal, as well as a couple dozen anthologies, including Language for a New Century, and Technicians of the Sacred. More info: GaryGach.com. Copyright © 2019 by Gary Gach. The author wishes to acknowledge Nick Aster for publishing a schematic draft of this listicle in GatherLAB.

Buy your copy of PAUSE, BREATHE, SMILE at your favorite bookseller!

Sounds True | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

Pause, Breathe, Smile by Gary Gach
Pin It! 24/7 Mindfulness, Gary Gach
 

Gary Gach: Pause. Breathe. Smile. Spiritual Awakening ...

Gary Gach is a writer, meditator, and mystic who draws on his diverse life experiences to inform his nonfiction and poetry offerings. He is the author of What Book!? and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Buddhism. With Sounds True, he has most recently published Pause, Breathe, Smile: Awakening Mindfulness When Meditation Is Not Enough. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Tami Simon speaks with Gary about the titular process of pausing, breathing, and smiling—how it can center you immediately, plant seeds of awakening, and help light the way on the path to peace. They talk about the “mouth yoga” of the half-smile and why meditation is only “part of the menu” of daily mindfulness practice. Gary and Tami also discuss what it means to exist in three kinds of awakening reality: the spaces of impermanence, interbeing, and selflessness. Finally, Gary shares his love of reading and writing haiku, offering a spontaneous haiku poem that arises in the course of the interview. (59 minutes)

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Pain as the Path

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I realized over the years of grappling with how to heal that not only was I ill-equipped to deal with the hurt I’d been given, but I also seemed to be woefully ill-equipped to reconcile with, and put a halt to, the perpetual hurt I passed on to others. Like many men, I was good at inflicting pain—and men who are good at something tend to do that thing a lot.

Not only was I undereducated in the alchemical craft of turning pain into purpose, but almost every man I knew was in relatively the same situation. Most men simply haven’t been taught how to deal with their pain and use it to become something better.

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Have you ever sat down to meditate and found it nearly impossible to relax and find the stillness you were hoping for?  There’s a little known sound healing secret that may just help you to overcome the initial restlessness when starting your practice.

The secret can actually be found in the opposite of silence, by using the sound of your voice and vocal toning to ground yourself, calm your nervous system, and clear your mind. 

How Sound Deepens the Silence

Chanting, mantra, and vocal toning have long been practiced in tandem with silent sitting meditation by both ancient and modern yogis and buddhists.  You may have experienced this yourself in a yoga class meditation that starts with three AUM’s.  There are different reasons why various types of voice are incorporated into the practice, but when it comes to preparing for silence, knowing this one concept can make all the difference.  

When we begin a practice by filling our bodies and our meditation environment with sound, whether that be our own voice, the sound of a singing bowl, gong, harmonium, or other instrument, it creates contrast with silence when the sound is gone.  There is a big difference in how we experience silence when the silence is preceded by sound, and once the sound is taken away, the silence can be experienced much more deeply.  

Peace Is A Stable Consistent Vibration

The foundational practice here is to use your own voice to create a stable consistent vibration within your body.  By repeatedly toning a vowel sound such as Eh, Ah, Oh, Uh, or AUM, on the same note, your body and mind will automatically begin to relax and become more calm and focused.  The vagus nerve, which runs through your neck, is right next to your vocal chords, and the effect of the voice on nervous system regulation is well studied.  

Vocal toning and humming increases nitric oxide, which can reduce blood pressure, slow the heart rate, and slow brain wave speeds from high functioning beta to slower meditative states of alpha, theta, delta.  You can even literally sing yourself to sleep (I know because I’ve done this myself by accident while toning!)

Singing IS Breathwork – Breathing IS Sound Healing  

Sound healing is not just about audible frequencies, but also about rhythms and the frequency of rhythms within the body.  The breath is one of the most fundamental rhythms we can access for reducing stress and restoring peace within the body.  

It is well known that extending an exhale longer than the length of the inhale will slow down the heart rate and calm the nervous system.  When we’re singing, toning, humming, and extending the length of that sound, we are essentially extending the length of the exhale to be longer than the inhale.  

This is why singing IS breathwork taken to the next level with the sound of your voice.  While it may seem a bit awkward at first, your body LOVES the sound of your own voice, and you can nourish your body in profound ways using the gift of this internal instrument.

How to Practice Vocal Toning Before Meditation

Go ahead and get into your meditative position, whether sitting or laying down.  For best results, I recommend at least 3-5 minutes of toning or humming to really give yourself time to get lost in the sound.  

  1. Using your voice, find a note that feels comfortable in the moment.  This will likely be a lower note in your normal speaking range, or maybe even slightly lower than your normal speaking voice.  It should be a note that doesn’t create any strain or tension in your voice, and can allow you to relax while maintaining the pitch.  
  2. Find a vowel sound that feels good to you.  For the most grounding and calming effect use Ah, Oh, Uh, or a combination of all three such as AUM (Ah, Oh, Um).  For more “clearing effect” EE, and Eh sounds can be effective for releasing stuck and negative thoughts or emotions.  Humming with the mouth closed is also a very effective method that can be thought of as singing down into your own body by keeping the sound inside rather than projecting it out.  
  3. At the beginning of each cycle of toning, take a long deep breath through the nose to receive as much breath as you can, and then begin to let the sound emerge from your voice in a slow and controlled manner.  Try to extend the length of your sound by releasing only enough breath to create the sound.  You may find that after a few rounds of toning you are able to take in more breath and extend your sound for longer periods of time.  
  4. If you feel any self-consciousness, awkwardness, embarrassment coming up, this is totally normal, even for experienced singers!  Let it be an opportunity for letting go of any self-judgment and try to stick with the practice.  You will find that these feelings will soon go away and will be replaced with feelings of peace and even the experience of timelessness.
  5. See if you can feel the subtle vibrations traveling through your body.  You will likely find that you can feel the sound traveling all the way to your toes, fingers, the hair on your head, various parts of your skin.  Just notice where the sound is traveling.
  6. To take things even deeper, bring in the emotions/intentions of gratitude or love and visualize those positive feelings riding on the sound waves from your voice to every cell of your body, filling yourself with beautiful vibrations.  
  7. Practice for 3-5 minutes or however long feels most comfortable to you, and when you are ready, let your final sounds dissipate into silence.  Continue to breathe normally and take notice of how much deeper the silence now feels.  You may continue your silent meditation practice from there for however long you desire.

Finding Your Homenote and Balancing Energy with the Voice

If you’re enjoying the use of your voice for stress relief and for starting your meditation practice, there are ways to get even more intentional with the voice.  We have the amazing ability to clear energetic blockages, restore balance to energetic deficiencies, and return to a state of peace using our own voices.  You can learn more on my website 1:11 Sound Healing.  

Nicholas Penn

Nicholas Penn, 1:11 Sound Healing

Nicholas Penn is a life-long musician, producer, and sound therapist with a certification in Sound Healing through Globe Sound Healing Institute.  Nicholas is passionate about educating and empowering individuals to access the gift of their own voice to restore peace and improve wellness for themselves and loved ones.  He is also a producer for Sounds True and leads strategy and content creation for the Sounds True YouTube channel and Eckhart Tolle Spotify Channel.  Learn more at 111soundhealing.com   

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