Breathing heals; time doesn’t.
It’s a myth to say that time can heal. Time cannot heal. Breathing and mindfulness can. [Long after a traumatic event happens to you,] a sight, a sound, a smell, a taste, a touch can trigger the complete stress response as though it’s happening all over again. What saved me was the mindfulness of breathing. Sometimes I would lie down to breathe and put my hands on my belly to slow it down and anchor my body. Through breathing, you learn to slow the stress response, the fight-flight-or-freeze response. If you can do that when going through a very intense experience, the next time you recall that trauma, you will do so with more peace, mindfulness, and clarity.
You can cultivate joy even when you’re hurting.
It’s been 14 years since John died. I still miss him every day, but I have learned to cultivate joy and peace in each breath, even though I feel that pain. You have to do them both at the same time. It’s like a garden: You have to take care of the weeds, but you also have to plant flowers. If you only weed, you’ll be exhausted and lose hope. And if you plant enough flowers, eventually there will be less room for all the weeds. (Get more ideas on how to find joy everyday.)
“Applied Buddhism” means mindfulness happens all day.
We’re not saying you have to set out 1 hour a day to sit on a cushion. We’re not saying quit your job and go live in the mountains. We’re just saying if you eat, don’t eat your projects. Don’t eat your sadness. Don’t eat the argument you just had. Just eat. If you walk, just walk. If you drive, drive. We have to choose again and again to be in the present moment. The moment you realize you are not being mindful, that’s the moment you are mindful. And you come back to it again and again. It’s a mental training.
You can keep the dead alive.
When a person dies and you lose all your joy, then it is like you are making sure that person is as dead as possible. But you can learn to call on the spirit of that person for help and learn to see him or her around you. When I see a purple flower, I remember that John loved purple flowers, and I smile. That flower, in that moment, becomes him.
Mindfulness is powerful medicine.
Mindfulness is the most effective preventive medicine there is, because it teaches you to care for yourself. Because you learn not to cause harm to yourself or others, physically, mentally, psychologically. I learned in medicine that so many of our illnesses are from lifestyle, and the biggest factor of our lifestyle is stress. Stress will bring on any illness. Diabetes runs in my family. My mother had it; my uncle had it. My brother, who is 4 years younger than I am, developed it in his mid-30s. I’m in my mid-40s now and I still don’t have it. We can have a genetic predisposition, but our lifestyle can determine when an illness will manifest, if it will ever manifest.
Kind actions matter.
In the Buddhist teaching, we talk about karma. Karma means actions, thoughts, speech. So really everything we do in life matters. You think, Oh, it doesn’t mean anything to bend down and pick up a nickel and give it to the person who dropped it. You think, Oh, it doesn’t mean anything to open the door for somebody. But you know what? Everything you do means everything. Every word you say to somebody or to yourself accumulates. Mindfulness allows us to make [more thoughtful choices in the moment]. And so we are more likely to have more positive and wholesome seeds in us to save us in daily life and very difficult moments.
Real medicine means being present.
If a doctor learns to practice mindfulness, if she learns to do a walking meditation as she’s going to the patient’s room—gathering herself, truly present—and she walks in quietly, peacefully, that’s already medicine. She’s calm. She’s not outside of her own body. The patient feels that attention, that tenderness, that care, that true presence. The patient is already soothed.