This happens to me on more days than most: I am in a meeting, or working against a deadline, and it occurs to me that I am barely breathing. I'm not holding my breath, but my breathing is shallow, my chest and diaphragm tight and withholding, like I'm conserving air; it's a little like panting, a little like I've just discovered I'm under water.
If you can breathe, you can meditate, says Sharon Salzberg, both in her dharma talks and her recent book, "Real Happiness." But what if you've forgotten how to breathe?
A year ago, after eight glorious, touch-and-go, actually-less-glorious-than-I-remember-them years as a freelance writer, I took a full-time job. It's the kind of full-time job that is pretty much wholly contrary to the freelancer's lifestyle. I went from being fairly isolated (ah, those long, solitary days and nights at the computer, writing by the light of a single taper) to being constantly surrounded by dozens of fast-talking, fast-moving, always-breathless people, each one in possession of his own quirks, opinions and personality. I went from having wide open, scheduleless days to a schedule chockablock with meetings, brainstorms, "touch-bases" and conference calls.
Over the course of my shapeless, free-form years, I also became quite a dedicated practitioner of mindfulness meditation. I'd actually been inspired to meditate by a talk I'd heard Sharon give at a yoga studio in New York. She made meditating seem so necessary, so illuminating, and, most of all, so easy. When I went back to working full-time, I would say each morning, as I sat down for my 30 minutes of meditation, "I need this more than ever now."
I needed it, but my practice quickly fell by the wayside (along with the gym, going out on "school nights" and returning telephone calls). The exigencies of the job quickly took priority over the meditation practice that had, to some extent, given me the clarity to decide to take the job in the first place. I bustled through my days, acutely aware of the fact that I wasn't meditating regularly, that I wasn't breathing. At exactly one month before my year anniversary at the job, I started the 28-day meditation challenge outlined in "Real Happiness" and got back on the cushion.
Just the concept of "taking a breath" can be enormously helpful in a stressful job. Before a meeting, or before speaking or even checking an e-mail, one deep, meditative breath can settle your mind. I've had the experience of being in a meeting where people are jockeying to get their opinions heard, and I get that familiar surge of adrenaline that tells me to get in the fray, to sound off. Meditation helps me to accept what is happening, to listen and observe what's going on in the room, to exist without having to bark my opinion and to suspend my compulsive need to change a situation.
A co-worker and fellow Buddhist told me that sometimes she will sit in a brainstorm, exhausted and listless, and look around the room and just silently offer lovingkindness to each person at the table: May you be happy. There is room for compassion in the busiest work settings. I've found space for breathing in departure lounges, at my desk and on the subway. 10 mindful breaths (thinking in, out, as I did when I first learned to meditate), and I'm not suddenly fully serene and unflappable, but I'm in the moment again. I'm back in my hyper-caffeinated body, I'm back to the breath.
A word to the wise: I would like to advise those who work in busy office places and who are trying hard to meditate every day that sitting on the floor of a tiny conference room whose door has no lock with you iPhone Zen timer set for 30 minutes is a stressful way to spend a lunch hour, and a recipe for frustrating meditation. Your colleagues will indeed open the door and find you cross-legged in the corner, and either close the door befuddled or ask if you're okay. Those who have private offices will probably fare better with the midday meditation.