Remember to breathe, you always have a choice

Recently, I was talking with a friend of mine, who also meditates and listens to dharma talks. She described how workplace drama still takes up so much space in her head. I reminded her that meditation trains us to push those thoughts away. She replied, “I know… the thing is: when you are in the heat of the moment, how can you differ your mind from it?”

At a meditation retreat this summer at Bhavana Society, I picked up a business card of one of the monks. A monk with a business card? Well, this is quite an inspiring monk. What’s on the business card of a Buddhist monk? His contact information, of course. And, when you turn the card over, the phrase: “Remember to breathe, you always have a choice”.

During meditation, we always have thoughts that appear from nowhere. At a meditation retreat last week, I had the hardest time settling my mind because I kept thinking about work. During meditation all sorts of thoughts come to mind. Rather than getting too drawn into those and falling into the rabbit hole of angst, I bring my mind back to my breath and remember that those thoughts are just that: thoughts.

We can choose whether to dwell on all sorts of things or choose to breathe and put our efforts on productive matters. Meditation never clicked with me until I realized that meditation is a practice, a way of training my mind for responding to the complexities of living.

3 deep breaths

Three deep breaths, while visualizing the breath at the base of my nose. For me, that’s transformative and can be done silently while sitting in a meeting.


If focusing on three deep breaths doesn’t clear my mind, then Tara Brach’s RAIN approach provides a method of self-compassion:

R: recognize what is happening
A: allow the experience to be there, just as it is
I: investigate with interest and care
N: nurture with self-compassion

Self-care is an important part of our daily living. The 4 questions posed by Byron Katie also prove instructive when battling negative emotions, when trying to push away those thoughts that might drive us to make wrong decisions or to do negative actions.

(By this point, some people may think there’s way too much woo hoo self-improvement, fake spirituality going on. That’s your choice to think that, and my choice not to worry that you think that.)

The 4 questions

Katie Byron’s 4 questions are particularly useful when dealing with my own thoughts about other people and situations. I might think I fully understand something, but these questions force a deeper reflection that reveals my thoughts may simply be a story that I’m imagining, speculative thoughts that are unraveling and potentially impacting my attitude and behavior.

Think about a specific situation that was stressful. (Not very hard, is it.) Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is it true? (Yes or no? If no, move to question 3.)
  2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true? (Yes or no.)
  3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
  4. Who or what would you be without that thought?

Most often, I don’t actually know the real truth of a stressful situation. I know my emotional perception, but is that based in reality or formed through a lot of emotional baggage that’s coloring my interpretation of events. Or, maybe the emotional perceptions of my colleagues are impacting my own understanding. Seldom, can we absolutely know that a conflict in an organization is absolutely true since we seldom (if ever) have full insights into the emotional dynamics of our colleagues.

Taking some deep breaths and stepping back to think about the situation is so simply powerful.

Man’s search for meaning

If I still feel stressed about a situation, I resort back to Viktor Frankl’s experience as a prisoner in Auschwitz and how he survived the NAZI concentration camp:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Remember to breathe, you always have a choice.