He had been quiet for most of the morning, thoughtfully taking part in the meditations and discussions; not withdrawn, but not very talkative either. Compared to the other carers, who had stress etched deep into their faces and bodies, he appeared quite calm. Recently, he and his wife had taken their first holiday in eighteen years. She’d been suffering from a serious mental illness for twenty-five years, and he had been there to care for her, as well as building a new life for them after emigrating from Czechoslovakia. I could only imagine how difficult his life must often have been.
Just before lunchtime, I guided the group through a meditation on the breath. Afterwards, he said,
‘I thought my breath would be deep and even, but I noticed how shallow and tight it was’.
He said he realised for the first time how stressed he was, the toll his caring role had taken on him. Tuning into his breath, sitting still in meditation, he was able to get a glimpse into the reality of his life. At the end of the mindfulness workshop, he asked the mental health worker present to link him into some counselling.
It’s not always easy to be with ‘life as it is’. In fact, quite often, escapism seems a far more attractive option! But as the great Zen master Dogen wrote,
‘If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?’
By taking the time to stop and notice his breath, the man who had cared for his wife all those years was able to get in touch with his own needs, and ask for support. It was a very simple practice, but, because the man was open to being present with his life, he was able to use the mindfulness of breath meditation in a way which would benefit both him and his wife. Rather than him becoming more and more exhausted, hopefully the counselling will assist him to continue his caring role while also looking after himself.
When we are feeling under pressure, the last thing we may feel like doing is to stop and take an honest look at the effect the stress is having on us. However, the simple act of stopping from time to time is a very powerful antidote to the cumulative impact of stress in our lives.
Weekly practice idea:
Every now and then, tune into your breath, without trying to change it. Where in your body can you feel the movement of the breath? The chest, the abdomen? With gentle, caring attention, take a few minutes to notice the movement of the breath in your body.
– Anja Tanhane