I woke up, again, at 3:30 in the morning. Outside in the Eucalyptus trees a pair of Great Horned Owls called across the chaparral. The stillness wrapped the world like a blanket. But inside my mind there was anything but stillness.
It’s not that I wasn’t exhausted—it’d been another tough week, and I was only halfway through it. Deadlines, challenges, and a thousand expectations loomed ahead in the darkness. How was little old me going to meet all those lofty goals? Was I even the right guy for the job? Who did I think I was anyway?
Hoo, hoo, hoo?
The Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes and teaches about the importance of mindful breathing. In his work he often focuses on the deceptively simple act of breathing in and breathing out, and turning that natural function into a focal point of meaningful transformation. Lying in my bed in the dark, I began to practice a version of his mindful breathing technique—three deep, intentional breaths, each with its own affirmation: letting go, being here, and opening up.
With the first breath, inhale, paying attention to the way your body instinctively draws in air. As you exhale, silently say the words “letting go,” allowing your exhalation to empty you out. Inhale again, noticing that this inhalation is a little longer, a little deeper than the first. As you exhale, silently say the words “being here,” coming out of your mind and into this present moment. Inhale a third time, feeling the way your body is enlivened by the vital breath the cosmos so willingly provides. Exhale in the consciousness of gratitude, silently saying the words “opening up,” allowing the doors and windows of your small sense of self to swing wide. Feel yourself becoming diaphanous, borderless, unified.
Letting go. Being here. Opening up. Feel the stillness spread throughout your mind-body system the way ink spreads in water. Witness yourself growing calm as the thoughts that plagued you dissipate like clouds in a clear desert sky. Emptiness. Spaciousness. Boundless awareness.
When you practice letting go, you are relinquishing the illusion of control. You simply drop the pretense that you’re in charge. You affirm the fact that everything is transitory, and that we don’t really own anything—it’s all borrowed, and we have to give it all back, sometimes suddenly and without warning. As we let go we shift from fear and covetousness to love and gratitude—gratitude that we even got to touch, enjoy, or experience any of it. As we let go, we feel a deep sense of freedom and joy welling up from within. We know that our being, our essence, is not defined or supported by outer forms—the things we own, our houses, our cars, or our job titles and reputations. Even the dear loved ones who fill our days and nights with love, laughter, creativity, and surprise don’t belong to us. We walk alongside each other for a while, then we part ways, one by one, until we stand alone again at the precipice. We’re born alone, and we die alone. These sweet lives we’ve been given are a fleeting gift of infinite value, but they are not our private possession. The great paradox: only when we let go do we truly receive. Grasping, clinging, craving, and attachment produce only
When we mindfully decide to be here now, a great transformation begins. Moving into present moment awareness is a simple shift, but it requires ongoing recommitment and affirmation, so tenacious is the old habit of living in the past or living in the future. One of the things we let go with the first breath was our story, that long and laborious narrative we drag around with us where all of our so-called disadvantages and all of the wounds inflicted on us are replayed ad nauseam. We think we need our story, because it is an archive where we store the evidence used to prove our unworthiness. All of the messages we ever received from harried, distracted teachers who didn’t notice us, emotionally distant parents whose self-absorption kept us at arm’s length, or the lovers who retaliated against us, not realizing that the pain they felt was self-inflicted—when we come into this now moment those old messages lose their meaning and power. We are free. And when we let go of fantasies of the future, whether worried anxiousness or utopian escapism, we put both feet in the here and now, the only place there really is.
The past doesn’t exist. What we call the past is a thought that occurs only in the present moment. The future is even less real than the past. There are no memories in the future to cling to, only imaginary projections. Like the past, all future-thoughts occur only in this present moment. Returning to the now moment of pure awareness, we feel a certain groundedness and immediacy, something you just can’t get in the thought-realm. The present moment isn’t a thought, it’s a vibrant, lived experience prior to thought. The present moment is the only place where you stand a chance of coming out of the ethereal world of the thought-stream and into the real world of experiential awareness. Only here can you experience real freedom, real love, and on your best days, glimpses of bliss.
When we let go and enter fully into the present moment we feel a great unfolding, an opening up. No longer girded like a warrior in battle, we show up vulnerable, full in our faith that the universe is a nurturing, supportive, abundant, and generative place. We are not strangers here—that was part of the illusion we released—we are part and parcel of the totality that arises from its own infinite intelligence. When we open up we commit the final act of absolution. We know that there is nothing left to seek, nothing left to defend, nothing apart from anything else. We are home right where we are, in this skin, in this house, in this town, in this beautiful, miraculous world. We are divested of all notions of hierarchy. We are humbled and proud all at the same time—paradox like that no longer has any hold on us. We see past duality and conflict to a spacious peacefulness and loving-kindness. We know that all work is service, and we show up earnest and cheerful and do the work that is ours
Three breaths. Letting go. Being here. Opening up. It’s a practice you can carry with you anywhere you go. It works at the office, in traffic, on the tarmac, at the awkward family gathering, or in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep. Wherever you are, take the opportunity to move into the freedom of your own essential nature. You don’t have to seek it, create it, or understand it; you have only to allow it. And breathe.
Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, spiritual teacher, singer-songwriter, and philosophy professor. Find him on Twitter, Facebook, or at www.peterbolland.com