Learning to Be Real: How I Train My Mind
by bryan maynard
When I was six years old I got into a macho-contest with a fellow first grader who stole my girl. “Jack” was a good looking kid who had recently moved to our city from Jackson, Mississippi, and when he talked, he sounded like Bluegrass music set to the speed of a slow drawl. I remember him always wearing a dark-patterned plaid shirt with a cow lick in his hair that only added to his charm. He was an instant novelty with everyone and ‘my girl’ left me in the dust as she ran off to drink from the cup of “Jack” (no pun intended!).
While the teacher was out of the classroom one morning, I announced to the whole class that “Jack” and I were going to have a contest to see who could hold his breath the longest. All eyes upon us, Jimmy counted us down and the contest began. The next thing I remember was an unconscious blackness slowly dawning into an awareness of light coming from the room. As I opened my eyes there was the growing realization that I was lying on the ground, staring face-up at the fluorescent school lights on the ceiling. It took a few seconds before I could move. Weird! I thought. How did I end up on the floor on my back?! I was a little freaked out.
I gradually stood to my feet and picked up the chair I had just fallen out of and the first thing out of my mouth was Who won?! But in the confusion over my blacking out, the teacher was standing next to me and she had a look of compassionate concern that took the focus off my competitive ego. I didn’t know what had just happened, I explained to her. She walked me out of the room and led me into the office of the school nurse who began ruling out all the usual, serious medical possibilities. My teacher eventually returned to the classroom and immediately asked my fellow students what had been happening while she was out of the room. A picture began to emerge. She reported to the nurse our little mono-et-mono macho contest and by the time my mother reached the school, I was sitting in the nurses office feeling fine and the nurse was looking at me with a funny look while she spoke to my mother. (Which I didn’t know what to make of).
After a few minutes of speaking to the nurse and of asking me about how I was feeling, my mother asked, What were you doing when the teacher left the room?
We were in a contest to see who could hold our breath the longest I told her. And everybody said I won! I don’t know if they actually said that, but that is how I choose to remember it! Either way, I had held my breath in a contest…until I passed out. All over a dark-haired girl and my wounded pride. It was all about: He stole my girl…shit just got real.
To this day, we all chuckle about that incident and about how intense I was even at six year old.
I know about the games that a mind and a strong personality can play with the body and with one’s life. Over the years, I learned to use my intense nature to win me lots of accolades as an athlete and as a ‘community-minded’ person in adulthood. But beneath all that intensity was a driving fear that was never identified and I literally overdeveloped in the areas of self that kept me feeling safe and secure from harmful people and circumstances. The intensity I used to grow and develop was blocking me from being my true self and from experiencing the moments of my life.
Learning to be a whole, peaceful person has not come easy, but I am learning (through hard knocks) about the way to live more authentically out of a true self that can live in the awareness of my experiences in the present moment. Historically, fear and anxiety locked me in the past or in the future at the expense of being real in the real present.
HOW I TRAIN MY MIND TO BE REAL
1. I train my mind to notice one thing in my experience and to show curiosity about that one thing.
When I began my journey toward unlearning intensity and becoming a real person who could be present to my experiences, I started with my breath. Here’s how my teachers helped me train my mind to be real:
Breathing in slowly, notice the sensation of your lungs and chest filling with air. You might notice, for example, the feeling of your chest as it expands and rises up toward your shoulders. Notice the feeling of the chest expanding, what that feels like. Then, as you reach the maximum point of your in-breath, notice the pause. Can you notice that brief moment when the chest and lungs stop expanding and rising? Movement ceases and feels very different from a moment ago. And notice the feeling of the fulness of the chest cavity. How interesting that feels! Next, staying with your breath as you exhale slowly, feel the lungs and chest begin to lower. Notice that feeling of the pressure inside your chest cavity as it deflates. Let your attention be on any sensation as your chest lowers. You might feel the heart beat in the chest as the pressure lowers. And then, the pause at the bottom of the exhale. Once again, there is no movement, all the action ceases. Notice the difference between a lowering chest and a chest at rest, no movement, no breathing.
2. What I do when my mind wanders.
The mind is always moving, searching, comparing, analyzing, judging. It WILL wander off. No worries, though. When my mind wanders from the one thing I am focusing my attention on-the training of the mind goes like this:
With being real, we only are concerned with being aware of ANY experience that arises, including the experience of recognizing that our mind is thinking of other things than we intended to focus upon. When this happens, there is no judging: “Ah, I messed up. Can’t focus at all.” No, no. To be real means we simply become aware that our attention on the breath shifted to a field of thinking. Noticing this, we say in our mind, “Oh, thinking. Thinking” and we redirect our attention to the breath.
3. When I notice boredom or fear or anxiety or depression, I use my awareness of these feelings to explore where they come from.
I am a man familiar with suffering that comes from deeper-level fears and anxieties. When fear arises, for example, I no longer try to push it away before I allow myself to experience what fear feels like. I’m not passive, taking the approach that I can do nothing or should do nothing to alleviate my fears. No, no. There is a difference between having an experience of fear in the moment-feeling it, knowing it intimately-and trying to push it away through avoidance of the feelings of fear. In the beginning of this practice, all kinds of intense feelings arose for me and the impulse to rush away from these feelings led me to ‘get busy doing something productive’ or by medicating the fear with something that took the fear away. But acting in this manner only divided me from my real self even more. When fear or anxiety arises, here is what training the mind looks like:
Ah, here is my old friend, anxiety. What does anxiety feel like? In my body, where do I feel this anxiety? Ah, there it is. In my chest. In my stomach. It feels like hot liquid that surges like adrenaline and makes me breath faster, more shallow. Breath. Notice that sensation there…ah, and there.
Where is this anxiety coming from? (With this deeper exploration, there is an organic blend between feeling the anxiety and letting it lead to the deeper truth of some part of my real self that is somehow far from my conscious awareness).
Notice that your fear is coming from a deeper feeling of being unsafe. Notice that raw feeling of vulnerability. (This deeper awareness is closing the gap between the real me and the false me that I usually project onto the world. Going beneath the feelings to the real self brings my true self closer to being present in my experiences. I feel more authentic, more alive, more peaceful than I did before this deeper awareness).
But most of us are trained by environment to distrust this type of training of the mind. It feels ‘wasteful’ of time and productivity. We are trained to push away negative or unpleasant experiences by manipulating ourselves and our experiences to always be pleasant and positive and productive (whatever our environment defines these to mean).
In my next post, I will share a personal example of how I used all three of these training practices to be present to some very unpleasant physical and emotional experiences and how awareness of these experiences led me to a surprising insight into my true self (and this deeper awareness of my true self allowed me the choice to remain in these unpleasant physical and emotional experiences).
Peace of mind and body to you, friend!!