Nature has many secrets, but she also hides plenty in plain sight. Looked at a certain way, the wind is one. What it is, you may ask? A mass movement of air, mostly a combination of nitrogen and oxygen, a scientist may reply. Around the Sun or on another planet in the solar system, this same movement persists, carrying different gasses, in different ways.
The wind has no specific role, but it is versatile enough to take on many different ones. In the animal kingdom, seeds and birds use it as transportation. We, Homo sapiens, use it as a power source, whether that be to light up our dwellings or to fire up a hot-air balloon. Nature, herself, relies on the wind: It shapes landmasses in important ways, for example, allowing fertile soils to spout up. The core quality that allows all of this is that it has a certain flow, and that flow can be harnessed in various ways to fulfill needs.
Meditation is an ancient practice used around the world for the purposes of self-realization. It is a way to understand oneself to better be oneself. And there are, of course, a near-infinite variety of techniques that can be used for those purposes and different traditions around the world have their own spin on them. But one of the simplest is mindfulness meditation. It is also one of the most common in many Eastern traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism. And the typical way it is practiced is by paying attention to this same power of the wind that nature makes so abundant.
When we engage in mindfulness, we obverse this natural flow coming in and going out of our own body. We sit in a quiet place, we close our eyes, and we simply watch ourselves breathe. First, we go in, and then we go out. The chest rises, and then it falls. The nostrils inflate, and then they deflate. That’s it. We sit. We observe. There is no point other than to just be. And over time, we start to harmonize with this flow, this flow of nature that is captured in the movement patterns of a wind, big or small, fast or slow, heavy or light.
In older Buddhist texts, mindfulness techniques are refereed to as dhyāna (Sanskrit) or jhāna (Pali). They are an attempt to slowly train the mind away from certain automatic bodily responses. When you learn to better harmonize with the breath, the flow of nature, you are no longer at the whims of your fleeting thoughts, emotions, desires, and fears. As you sit, you become more and more aware of what is going on inside your mind because you aren’t identifying with anything. And when you don’t identify with anything, you simply feel it, whether it be pleasant or unpleasant. And what you eventually end up realizing is that all of these thoughts and emotions pass, and then you are simply left with whatever is, as it is.
Over the last few years, there has been a huge uptick in people from Western countries engaging with Eastern traditions of mindfulness meditation. It has been posited as a path towards everything good in life, from general satisfaction to increased productivity to better relationships. And while many today rarely understand the full implications of what they are trying to do when they sit down on a cushion to be in silence with themselves, the effects are often tangible — a low-cost solution to high-impact problems. But if meditation was seen for what it actually is, as a kind of training for life, then perhaps these benefits would be even higher than they already are.
The 17th-century Japanese samurai Miyamoto Musashi never lost a sword fight in his life. By the time of his death, he was at 61 undefeated duels. It’s an unmatched feat. In his later years, discussing his philosophy and his strategy on the written page — much of which was inspired by similar Eastern traditions of being — he spoke about the “ground” as what held all of his approach together. And the “ground” is this: It is all of the unspoken hours of preparation that he put into his craft to be ready for his challenges. Most of the fighting wasn’t done in those 61 duels; it was done in anticipation for them. The reason he never lost was that he had taken care of all of the things that could possibly get in his way before they ever did.
If sword practice is the “ground” for dueling in the Samurai era, then mindfulness meditation is the “ground” for facing life’s fears and challenges in the most harmonized way possible. Mushashi spent more time analyzing his opponents’ every potential move and strategy in his free time than he did actually facing any of them in real life. The same approach can be applied to a mindfulness practice that puts us face to face with the uncomfortable feelings that hide behind the veneer of the self. By harmonizing with our breath, feeling the fears and desires brewing in our mind, we prepare ourselves for any surprises that life throws our way before we get there.
People often think that the purpose of mindfulness practice is not to think anything at all, and then they get frustrated when they can’t stop themselves from doing so. But that’s not the actual point. The real point is to let whatever comes up, come up — whether that be a unpleasant thought or a pleasant feeling — and just sit with it, without identifying with it, without trying to change it. And eventually, the mind will bring up all sorts of uncomfortable things hiding in the subconscious that make us fearful in real life. But the beauty is that once we face them in our mind, they mostly lose their power over us in real life, allowing optimal action.
Being mere mortals means that we are programmed to fear. It’s one of the most primal survival drives we have. Without the feeling of fear, we would be bad at evaluating threats and thus bad at creating offspring that can carry our genetic code far beyond the container of our body. But humans live in a very different world today than when these drives evolved. We still feel that survival fear but generally for non-survival related reasons. Often, we extend that fear into a perpetual state of worry.
A feeling of fear as an immediate signal to take action is one thing. But as soon as we have time to think about that fear, we tend to use the imagination to abstract it into something else entirely. What started off a minor thought that perhaps that our collective relationship with the environment isn’t what it should be right now or that your child is falling a little behind at school ends up spiraling into thoughts about how the world is going to end, and it’s going to end before you are going to be able to do anything about it.
One of the big reasons that many people fail to reach their potential or fail to show up successfully in important matters in their life is that they have certain deep-seated limiting beliefs about themselves and the world that block them from taking productive action when it matters — beliefs based in fear. Rather than seeing it as a useful signal, they instead experience it as a permanent chain, tying them down, stopping them from doing what they ought to do.
Meditation as training is an antidote to these kinds of psychological fears. When used to dig into the discomforts that are brought up from the subconscious mind, it can allow us to unchain ourselves. When a “ground” of harmony and strength is built in moments of peace and stillness, we can then use it to catch ourselves from falling down in moments of actual distress and chaos. Given that the inner battle, the real fight, has already been won before we face the opponents of the world, those opponents have a much harder time causing us any tangible harm.
Everybody is different, and everybody has a heart-rate that beats a personal tempo, dictated by their unique body’s history. That tempo has to be managed according to whatever tools best fit it because, naturally, not all of them do. That said, there is a flow in nature, a pace, that interconnects many different moving parts — from the being of a tree to the being of the ocean to the being of a self-reflective animal with the capacity of foresight. And that flow is directly connected to our breath — it’s what gives us life, and it’s what gives us the power to control how we manage our body.
Life is fundamentally a game of action, and beyond some general moments of reasonable doubt, what holds us back from engaging in meaningful action are the mental fears obstructing our movements. And the key to unlocking the flow of those movements lies precisely where those fears lie: in our mind.
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