Atticus Harris

in search of simplicity

The Restless Present: How Learning To Breathe Can Help You Find Peace

When will this be over? It’s a question, or more of a feeling, that often comes up when I’m meditating. Despite my intentions to meditate and my own desire to do it for a certain time, there’s always resistance inside of me. Some days I have reached down and looked at my timer, giving in for a moment to the need to be somewhere else already. Other days I try to examine from where inside me that feeling is coming. When you try to sit with a restlessness and understand it, you’ll find that it’s hard to define. The shape of it shifts and dissipates. It’s like a mist: for a moment it appears to be an immovable object, but if you shine a light on it for long enough the cloud evaporates and is gone.

What happens in meditation is usually happening in life. So if a persistent restlessness seems to come up, again and again, each time you sit, it’s likely that this feeling is present in life off the cushion too. This is how it was for me – through most of my 20s I’ve been dissatisfied with things in a way that was hard to pinpoint. I could be having a good time with friends, but I’d be uneasy about the whole situation. I might be spending time with my family, but would be unable to shake the sense that I was missing out on something else.

To begin with, I couldn’t figure out what caused these feelings, or even that they might be related. It wasn’t some strong sense of unhappiness or depression, it was more like an undercurrent that tugged at me all the time. A kind of low-level pain that you choose to ignore until it flares up. To understand it you have to slow down, focus and pay attention. Meditation creates the space for you to focus and that’s why it can be so hard in the first place. When you sit on a cushion, as still as possible, with nothing but your mind and body, there is no way to escape that low-level pain. It surfaces quickly because you’re not distracting yourself with other things. A lot of don’t want to examine that pain because we’re so used to coping with it by ignoring it. So we tell ourselves that meditation isn’t for us. It’s too boring or we don’t seem to get anything from it. I did that for a long time until the undercurrent was no longer bearable. I needed to find some kind of solution. So I sat down and started breathing.

The difference between 1 and 2

Writing about meditation is comes with a few difficulties because ultimately it shouldn’t be theoretical, it’s experiential. With that in mind, it might be useful to take a moment and do a short exercise in breathing.

Pay attention to your breath right now. If it helps, count each inhalation all the way up to 10. Then start again. This often allows you to focus more intently on each breath as it arrives. When you count the first breath, the idea is to be that number 1. To feel what that first breath is like as the air fills your lungs. How does the chest expand? Does the right side feel fuller than the left? What about the abdomen, how does that push your belly out slightly as the lungs expand? Then exhale. Focus on the feeling the whole time. Count 2 as you bring in the next breath and see how, this time, the experience is different. No inhalation will feel the same and no number will be a similar experience. Between 1 and 2 there is a world of difference. Now exhale and count to 3 and you breathe in again. Do this all the way to 10 then come back and continue reading…

This is the basic exercise of many meditation traditions. Vipassana, Zazen, or modern mindfulness practices ask you to sit down and follow the breath as a starting point. If you’ve ever tried it, you’ll know it’s not as easy as it sounds. When you start, the mind wanders and keeping your attention in the moment is as much a challenge as counting up to 10 without losing your place. Which is crazy – we all feel like we can count to 10, but the moment you try to slow down and it becomes difficult. Even when you’ve been meditating for a long time, the mind wanders. Trying to focus on your breath, the most immediate sensation of the present moment that you can dial in to, can feel like an impossible task.

Joy is learning to breath

Think of a situation where you’ve had nothing to do. For example, you arrive at the dentist early and have to sit for 10 minutes in an empty waiting room. Or you’re alone on a train during your commute. What do you do in these moments? If you’re anything like me, the natural thing to do is to reach for something to entertain yourself. A magazine, or podcast or phone which you can scroll through. Just sitting there and being is generally out of the question. We don’t entertain it as a possibility. To sit there aimlessly and wait seems like the height of boredom.

We all have these moments in some form or another. They happen every day to some degree. When I began meditating, I noticed that these were the moments when my low-level pain would flare up if I didn’t do something. So I decided to try and do nothing, just to see what would happen. Of course, nothing happens. You just sit there with these sensations and then, eventually, the moment passes and the dentist calls your name or you arrive at your destination. The more I meditated, the more these moments became a chance to sit with my restlessness. To experience it. And the longer I was able to just be, the more at ease I became with these sensations. The perpetual disappointment with the present moment I experienced in my 20s was a product of my expectations – that this feeling of happiness should last longer than it does, or that this sense of discomfort will be here forever. Restlessness, boredom, unease – these things don’t last, despite how intense they feel at times. They are, like all sensations, fundamentally interesting. When you take the time to examine them, they can tell you a lot about yourself.

Each breath feels different from the one which came before. Each moment has a different quality than any that you’ve experienced before. By meditating I begin to see that this difference makes each moment, or each breath, worth experiencing in its own right. And so I began to answer my question – when will this be over? The answer is now and never. Each moment is unique, but the moment will keeping coming, like waves at the shore. Our gift is the chance to sit and listen to the never-ending tide.

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Live better by learning to garden

Outside there is a tree as big as our house. It sits in the garden behind us and through the seasons it changes: in spring it begins to sprout leaves, in summer it is covered in green and is a home to lots of birds, in autumn it becomes a palette of earthy tones and in winter it stands barren. Like many of the seasonal changes, it is slow and steady. To notice it, you need to pay attention on a regular basis. But change it does. There is always something new to look at in the tree.

I am like this tree, but it’s taken me many years to understand this. My being also goes through cycles and seasons that are as visible as the sprouting of leaves through to the bareness of branches at winter. And just like the tree, unless you’re paying attention it’s not always easy to spot this process. It’s an idea that was germinating for a while before I read a passage from the book Finite and Infinite Games:

“Gardening is not outcome-oriented. A successful harvest is not the end of a gardener’s existence, but only a phase of it. As any gardener knows, the vitality of a garden does not end with a harvest. It simply takes another form. Gardens do not ‘die’ in the winter but quietly prepare for another season.” ― James P. Carse

This isn’t just a way to look at change, it’s a way to look at life and how we live it. Many of us tend to view life through the goal orientated outcomes. We aim for big goals and expect that when we reach them, we’ll feel satisfied. We’re off planning for things to happen in a particular way and at specific moments. But more often than not, big goals don’t satisfy us. Because our dreams are always shinier than reality. Every time I’ve come to a big moment that I felt should give me that final release I was looking for, I walked away feeling disappointed.

This way of living is limiting because life can be uncertain and the goals we set are often not as fulfilling as we imagine. When we shift to a process orientated view of life then we have far more flexibility in our outlook. As James P. Cause describes, the harvest is just one season and the winter is a vital part of the year.

In the past, I would often get anxious about periods in when I would feel depressed, lost or demotivated. This anxiety could be crippling and the spiral of darkness seemed to tighten as a result. But what I’ve learnt is that these are moments not of despair but of change. For example, if life is a process or series of seasons, then a dark period is not something to be avoided or quickly overcome, but rather something we should appreciate as part of a larger cycle. Often they signal the need to regenerate or refocus my efforts. I can often perform highly for a week or two at work before I need a week where the tempo is dialled back. Each step is a part of the larger process and is as vital as any other. Knowing this allows me to adjust my decisions accordingly and ultimately find peace in the bigger picture.

People are just an unfolding process

I struggled with imposter syndrome for a long time when I started working professionally. Because no one was ever able to turn around and say to me – you are this now, you have achieved the perfect ideal of the professional that you have in your mind’s eye. No one could tell me that because it was never true. I was, and still am, on the journey toward being that person. We don’t ever truly become anything – a lawyer or a doctor is always practising at being a lawyer or a doctor. But to think that there is a moment when we become the complete version of anything is to miss the point.

When did my daughter become who she is? Was it when her cells first divided in the womb? Or when they began to first look like the outline of a human? Or when she was born? And when will she stop being that person? Will it be when she takes her last breath? Or when her body no longer exists in human form? It’s impossible to say because she, just like you, is not a static thing. She’s an ever-evolving and continually changing array of thoughts, ideas, emotions and reactions. The tree at the back of our house is the same. Once it was a seed, now it appears as a large tree and one day it will be logs. At any moment, it might appear to be just one of these things, but all of them are one thing that is happening over time – the seed, the tree and the log are all the process of a ‘treeing’ just as my daughter is a process of ‘humaning’.

Why is this a useful way to look at the world, I hear you mutter?

It gives us the chance to look at the world in a particular way. Many of the successful entrepreneurs I’ve met do not focus on big milestone events. They understand that milestones are good signposts, but they don’t confuse them for the end goal, because there is no end goal. There are only a series of cycles, which they use to continually test and learn. It’s an empowering way to operate because you begin to look at each moment of your life as a phase. A phase is a component in a larger movement. So by viewing your life in this way, you are always contextualising an action in a bigger picture.

When we take this approach and apply it to our own lives it allows us to justify a much broader scope of activities. You can try stuff because it’s an experiment. It’s part of the process of learning. There’s less pressure to hit static goals because they are no longer critical to your sense of fulfilment. You begin to see the value of downtime. The highs become as necessary as the lows. The aim is no longer to win, it’s to keep growing.

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