Breath: The anchor of life

by Maria Sirois, Ph.D., Copper Beech Institute master teacher

Whenever we see a friend in distress, the first words we utter are, “Okay, take a breath.” We know something about what begins to heal us without truly knowing it. Breath is the essence of life. We breathe to stay alive, to nourish the cells and organs of our body, and we breathe as a gesture of hope. It is the doorway to the next moment, and from that the next possible future. With each breath the tiniest amount of change has already begun. We find ourselves in a slightly new present and eventually, after perhaps 10 breaths or a hundred, we can begin to do a bit more, we can begin to choose.

In my twenties, depressed after a painful breakup, I self-medicated by sleeping all the time. I had married right out of college, a binding that lasted less than three years and, suddenly, at the age of 25, I had left a home for an apartment, a husband for an empty bed. Everything seemed unstable and uncertain. Had I known to choose breath instead of numbness, I would have been able to awaken, get out of bed, and see opportunities unfolding. My relationship to my suffering and to my very sense of self would have been different if I had understood what Thich Nhat Hanh said: “Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness.” I might have reached out more. I might have found a connection to another who also knew heartbreak. I would have been a bit more clear, instead stumbling like a three-legged homeless dog from scrap to scrap of affection.

With breath as our focus, we slow down, become aware, and then we can choose how to respond, rather than simply react.

Physically, the breath is rejuvenating, feeding the body with life-giving oxygen. Emotionally, breath provides us with micro experiences of calm. As we focus on breathing, we create tiny islands of respite from the intensity of emotion. Our cognitions begin to align themselves away from panic or shock and slowly useful thoughts or questions begin to emerge: “Who can I lean on?” “What has helped me in the past?” “What do I need to learn now?” Those would have been really handy that year.

With mindful breathing, too, we form a new relationship with ourselves. In shock or despair, the tendency is to become reactive, to take action that is historically familiar, whether or not it is helpful. With calming breath, we demonstrate self-care, and from that place we are more likely to move in a direction that is nourishing. Spiritually, with each inhale and exhale, we bring toward us a slight liberty, an openness to that which is and that which is larger than us. Mindful awareness of the breath indicates a “radical receptivity to life,” to quote Megan McDonough, and that moves us toward connection—with life, with ourselves, with those who have chosen the same in moments of anguish.

Life will come together, to paraphrase Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, and then it will fall apart. Breath is an anchor. With it, we can remain present long enough for the next choice in our journey to unfold. It is our first crucial choice after loss or trauma, connecting us to the lineage of those who have chosen life, and it is direct evidence of our life force itself becoming invigorated again—right here in the body, right here, exactly where we are. We need be nowhere else.

This post is excerpted with permission from Maria Sirois from her new book, “A Short Course in Happiness After Loss (And Other Dark, Difficult Times),” forthcoming in March 2016.

We invite you to learn more from Maria at her Copper Beech Institute weekend retreat, Mindful Authenticity: Giving Up All Other Lives Except the One That’s Yours, February 26-28, 2016.

Maria is a clinical psychologist and seminar leader of national renown, who has worked in the intersection of psychology and spirituality for more than twenty years. Trained at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and New England Deaconess Mind/Body Medicine Institute, her work has centered predominantly on support of children and adults facing terminal illness; offering them and the staff who care for them tools for resilience, stress management, and the creation of meaning in the presence of suffering. Her latest book, “A Short Course in Happiness After Loss (And Other Dark, Difficult Times)” will be released in March 2016.

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Wisdom Rings

by Miranda Chapman

One of the great boons of my mindfulness practice is the invitation to participate fully in my life. This full participation enables me to really see the choices around me and to have a robust sense of agency in all avenues of my life. What this disables, though, is the ability to claim: I have no choice. Because, at the end of the day, I always have a choice: to stay or go, to complain or accept, to distract or dig in. Excuses don’t work anymore.

This power of choice is remarkably present to me as I fully absorb the choice my husband and I recently made to move out of the comforts of a house into a thirty-one foot trailer on the land where we are building our own home. Pulled from the luxuries of running water, reliable electricity and heat, wi-fi and technology, we have launched ourselves into pioneer living during the coldest season.

I noticed myself complaining about the adjustments I have had to make and the requisite challenges that come from living off the grid. Then, I stopped myself; all of this, I chose. No one made me buy this trailer, no one made me move out there; I, of sound mind and body, consciously chose. And that is the crux of this great practice at times: it’s not always easy. It’s not always sweet solace to fully live our decisions when things become challenging. But, if I am open, wisdom arises and reminds that full participation means being in it, owning my decisions, exercising my power to be present even in the coldest of passages.

In each moment, I have a choice to the see the gifts and the grittiness of real life; I have a choice to disempower my agency through complaining and wishing things different; I have a choice to show up, fully, in each moment and attend to what is really there. And, if the need arises, I make a different choice. But, in this moment, I am committed to living my choice and with stalwart intention learning everything I possibly can from the place I am occupying; and wool, lots and lots of wool.

For more wisdom from Miranda, we invite you to the retreats she is leading at Copper Beech Institute this winter: Connecting to Your Light and Winter Day of Mindfulness.

Miranda Chapman is the founding Program Director and Senior Faculty at Copper Beech Institute, the nation’s newest retreat center for mindfulness and contemplative practice. Copper Beech Institute offers more than 40 transformational retreats and courses, as well as mindfulness practice and mindfulness at work offerings to help you awaken to the beauty of your life. Miranda will be co-leading the New Year retreat, Connecting to Your Light, January 22 – 24, 2016 as well as leading a winter day of mindfulness on February 6th . Both retreats are opportunities to journey within and with Miranda. 

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A New Year Retreat

“Come just as you are.” In each breath, I can feel the fear and joy and excitement all mix together. I want this year to be one of intention, of choosing what I want to have in my life, letting go of what I don’t, and surrendering to what needs to stay. I want to reconnect my breath, my movements, and my thoughts, remembering how good it feels to be filled with possibility. I need space and time for this renewal, to move past the past and to explore what I think I need in the year ahead. This is why I am choosing to attend the workshop, “Connecting to Your Light: A New Year Retreat” with Miranda Chapman, Nancy Murray, & Terri Laggis.

The common thread woven among these master teachers is that each has walked though her own darkness and stumbled upon ways to let in the light. Now, each is intentional in how she creates this light and holds up a mirror to let others find their shine. I have been blessed to be able to experience both Miranda and Nancy’s amazing gift of leading meditations and yoga classes. I was reminded how often I think I know someone’s story, only to discover that I really had no idea. We often don’t know how the person before us has arrived at this very moment or what it took for them to get there. I also enjoyed hearing Terri’s story for the first time, who was described to me as a holistic nurse with a radiant light. Each of their unique stories gives them the insight and compassion to be present for others.

Nancy Murray, credits yoga for saving her after her mother passed away. It was how she found her way out of the darkness. From this experience, she began a new career as a Kripalu trained yoga teacher. Her life barely resembles the one she had before as a certified public accountant. I have the pleasure of calling Nancy my first yoga teacher and the person who introduced me to the concept of radical self-care through retreats. Nancy still wears her business hat as an original board member at Copper Beech Institute. In September, she will lead a group on a spiritual journey through Spain by walking the final 69 miles of El Camino, the ancient pilgrimage path from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela.

Terri Laggis began her career as a pediatric oncology nurse. Becoming frustrated with the offerings of traditional medicine, she began to explore the offerings of integrative practices. This journey has led her to study a wide variety of integrative therapies including massage therapy, holistic stress management, auricular acupuncture and biofeedback to name a few.  “Self care is such an integral part of wellbeing, yet it is often missing from a person’s overall health plan.” Terri is currently studying to be a nurse practitioner in the field of psychiatric/mental health with a focus on behavioral health and lifestyle medicine. Meeting people where they are in their journey of health and wellbeing and helping them to find the balance between traditional and integrative practices is where her passion is, providing support to help them achieve their goals and optimal health.

Miranda Chapman, who I rarely see without a smile on her face, beams contentment and joy. It truly surprised me when she shared how she has grappled with depression from a very early age due to chronic pain. “I needed to dim my own light to hold these things. I was hiding in my own darkness, living a very different life on the inside than the one everyone could see on the outside.” She now leads from this place of connection when she visits the jails weekly to teach boundless self-compassion. Miranda is young and small in stature but her presence and love fill each room, encouraging everyone’s energy to grow.

These three master teachers will be present for each session of the workshop, creating a safe and warm space. Angela Martin, CBI’s director of communications, described having these three teachers together is “like being given a giant hug from the Universe!” The general requirement to attend is to “come as you are” with a willingness and curiosity. I hope you are able to come experience each of their unique gifts to help awaken and connect to your own light in the new year ahead!

Kimberlea Chabot is the founder of a hyper-local resource for holistic living called LuckyPennyFound. Please visit www.luckypennyfound.com for more information. Kimberlea lives in West Hartford, Connecticut and considers her husband of 18 years and their three children to be both her greatest blessings – and her greatest challenge to living mindfully. Kimberlea is a regular contributor to the Copper Beech Institute blog, Awaken Everyday.

Copper Beech Institute is the nation’s newest retreat center for mindfulness and contemplative practice located in West Hartford, Connecticut. We offer more than 40 transformational retreats and courses, as well as mindfulness practice and mindfulness at work offerings to help you find the calm, compassion and true happiness you seek.

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So Play

by Brandon Nappi, founder and executive director of Copper Beech Institute

With heart thumping and hands shaking, I gazed into the guitar store from the safety of my car with equal parts longing and panic. After several years of playing, I was shopping for a new guitar. Something primordial stirred within me reminiscent of the ancient gym class horror of being the last person to be picked for the dodgeball team. I feel like a phony amateur and am convinced that upon entering this temple of rock and roll, I would be instantly exposed for the loser guitarist that I was. Even after years of practice, I was no closer to a shredding guitar solo than the day I began. Even playing chords was cumbersome and awkward.

I conjured my best game face—the way I imagined a guitar god would. I mustered a brisk walk through the front door with an artificial mix of confidence and apathy. I was all business. Several tattooed long-haired dudes and the lone girl with heavy eye make-up and bolts emerging from her cheeks all ignored me. I took a deep breath as I entered the holiest of holies—a back room with special humidity and temperature controls to keep the guitars happy. Phew! I was alone. I could play in peace.

I looked around to find a room wallpapered with incalculable fine guitars to play with. A rush of excitement and awe flood my body. I lock eyes with Spanish treasure, a $5000 Ramirez comically beyond my budget. This hand carved cedar and rosewood sculpture smells something like beeswax, woodshop and a cathedral. The strings are tied off at the bottom with an elegant double twist. The sides slope and curve with proportions that reflect some ancient perfection. I hold it to my chest and press my fingers into the ebony. A broad E chord leaps from the cedar and the deep vibrations resound through my gut. The chord is both completely familiar and strangely new as if some kind of sonic information had been recovered from a wiser alien race. Before the last note disappears into my ribs, another customer enters the holiest of holies. He’s half my age and twice as good—I can just tell.

I try to ignore him and play a familiar and simple classical piece that I learned in the first year of my playing. I’ve played the piece a thousand times with my eyes closed, but this time, my hands begin to shake. The six strings suddenly seem like six dozen and my fingers are lost in a tangle. Suddenly I’m sweating out my fingertips at the mere presence of another person hearing my playing. Notes buzz and sour in a train wreck of self-consciousness. Yet another customer enters the guitar sanctuary and I imagine their eyes and ears upon me with hot lasers of judgment. Suddenly, I am like Cinderella at one minute past midnight. I’m unravelling quickly. I return the Ramirez and abandon ship leaving the store feeling like I had committed a crime.

As I reflect on this episode from my past, I am thankful that this memory has become my teacher. I now realize that the entire scene was imagined. While the fear and anxiety pulsing through my body was quite real, the projected judgment and ridicule from my fellow guitarists was purely a fiction of my own creation. The mind manufactures drama weaving stories from the threads of habituated assumptions, familiar illusions and common insecurities. This fiction passes as reality and we suffer.

What I forgot that day was that playing the guitar is first and foremost play. Play is something you do purely for the sake of doing it. The sheer delight of the activity is itself the reason for the activity. For each of us, there are countless expressions of play that bring joy simply by engaging in the activity: signing in the shower, doodling, skipping stones, petting a cat, hugging a loved one or memorizing a Led Zeppelin guitar lick, just to name a few personal favorites. Sadly, play is something we relegate to childhood. At some point in our twenties, activity that supports a simple child-like joy becomes a childish luxury we cannot afford in our mad pursuit of happiness and stuff.

I walked in to the guitar store that day as an amateur in the truest sense of the word. Amateur derives from the Latin word amare which means to love. To be an amateur at something means to do it, not because you are getting paid to do it, nor because you are extraordinarily skilled, but because you love to do it. Why was I so apologetic for being an amateur, someone who was in love with playing the guitar? Because in that moment with other guitarists around, I was no longer playing for the sake of loving to play, but to achieve a certain result. I was playing to impress. In truth, I was playing to not make a fool of myself.

The ego defines the self through performance and achieving an imagined ideal. It strives to protect a fragile self-image attempting to look smart, good and right. What I wish I could pass along to that younger terrified guitarist is one single word that has the power to dissolve the illusion and drama. Two letters are potent enough to cut right to the heart of the matter and awaken the dreamer from his nightmare.

So.

They might think I am a terrible guitarist. So. They might think I shouldn’t be playing a $5,000 Ramirez. So. There are 12 year olds who play better than I do. So. What others think and how they evaluate us is completely beyond our control. It simply doesn’t matter.

This ‘so’ is not the ‘so’ of indifference or aloofness. This is not the path of self-indulgence. It is simply the acknowledgment that life is not served when we are lost in the trap of what we think others think. It’s a courageous admission that the constant evaluation of how our actions might look or appear to others does not serve us or them. This ‘so’ is the liberating declaration that we do not need to protect or defend ourselves. This is the ‘so’ of mindful non-attachment. Perhaps others are judging us or perhaps they are not. Perhaps others revile us or perhaps they celebrate us. Praise and blame, it’s all the same, as the saying goes. With valuable energy diverted from constant editing, we have newly available resources to channel our lives toward authenticity and compassion. What healing balm can we bring to this wounded reflex to protect and defend the ego? What practice could support our showing up to live with honesty, courage and authenticity?

Play.

In play we rediscover the sense of doing something for the sake of doing it where the field of possibility becomes unencumbered by projection and commentary. As we begin a new year, let’s practice playing. You might want to even make a list of the ways in which you want to play this year–throw a snowball, go ice skating, paint, sing, make a paper airplane, throw a football, throw a party, dance, try something new. Give yourself permission to do something without attachment to results.

It’s been many years since this day in the guitar store, but I make it a practice to pop in whenever I can and play guitars far beyond my budget. If I’m honest, I still get a bit nervous before heading into the temple of rock and roll with its pantheon of tattooed and pierced music gods. Occasionally, for a moment I’ll think to myself, “Maybe they think I’m foolish playing this silly song that I learned in my first year of guitar studies.” And then, like a shredding Hendrix solo announcing a new moment in the history of humanity, I hear the word that radiates possibility and freedom:

So.

Dr. Brandon Nappi is founder and executive director of Copper Beech Institute, the nation’s newest retreat center for mindfulness and contemplative practice. Copper Beech Institute offers more than 40 transformational programs to foster peace, resilience, authenticity and compassion in everyday life. Brandon and his wife Susan will lead the retreat, “Walking the Path Together: Mindfulness Weekend for Couples,” May 6-7, 2016. All couples are welcome.

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