The seeds of mindfulness were planted in my when I was young. My parents hadn’t ever even heard the word mindfulness, but there were many activities, particularly in nature and in the summer that I look back fondly as introducing me to mindfulness. I can remember walking as quietly as possible in the woods and trying not to make a sound (try it, it require tremendous focus and attention), and then sitting and listening to all the sounds of the forest in the “silence.”
And then the first breath practice I ever learned was a gift from my father.
One day, when I was probably about six or seven years old, we were floating on a rubber raft in a pond, gazing up at the blue summer sky. Far above us we watched as massive white cumulus clouds slowly morphed into new forms and then gradually un-formed. My dad looked over at me and said, “Hey, want to see a magic trick?” Of course I did, what kid doesn’t want to see his father perform magic? “I’m going to make a cloud disappear with my mind.” “No way!” I responded. “Sure, I’ll do it. In fact, we can do it together. First, we need to pick a cloud, and since this is your first, let’s start with a small one to practice.”
I picked a smallish looking puffy white cloud just visible above the jagged green line of trees ringing the pond. “Now, all you have to do is focus on that cloud and just breathe in.” I slowly inhaled the summer air, taking in the smells of pond and suntan lotion as my belly filled up. “And now, with each breath out, notice the cloud moving and changing and getting just a little bit smaller.” Sure enough, with each breath out, the cloud seemed to fade ever so slightly.
We lay there together for a few minutes, drifting in the sun and looking hard at that cloud, breathing together. I squirmed, and the rubber raft creaked underneath me. “Keep focusing on that cloud,” my father instructed. “Bring your mind back if it wanders; keep your mind focused on it or it won’t disappear.” We continued breathing, focusing, and sending our will toward that cloud as it faded itself away over the course of the next few minutes. It was the best magic trick I’d ever seen.
We lay there together for a few minutes, drifting in the sun and looking hard at that cloud, breathing together.
Of course, I look back now and understand that clouds will form and un-form in the sky regardless of my intention, willpower or desire. But still, at that moment, my breath and my mind seemed like the most powerful force in the world. Second only, maybe, to my Dad.
Years later, I still look up at clouds on a summer’s day, and remember that afternoon and the power of my breath. When the clouds of my own mood darken around me, I can breathe through the storms of grief, anger, illness, or self-doubt. When storms of fear gather around the world, or the news headlines seem to cast a long shadow on the future, I know that as I keep breathing, they too will pass. And I know that the air I breathe connects all living beings, and how I breathe will affect me and all of those around me. And in a few years time, I look forward to finding that perfect summer day to pass on these lessons to my own children.
In honor of Father’s Day, here is a practice you you can do with your children (or your dad or husband).
Clouds In The Sky Practice
- Take a moment to find a comfortable posture; you can stand, sit, or lie down. When you feel comfortable, allow your eyes to close.
- Imagine yourself in a beautiful place—perhaps the beach, a wide open field, or somewhere in the mountains. Maybe this is a place you know, or one that exists in a movie or book, or one that exists in your imagination.
- Looking up, you can see a wide blue sky, with just a few puffy white clouds drifting past.
- Notice thoughts going past in your mind. As you notice each thought, see if you can visualize it shrinking, and then place it on a passing cloud as it oats by.
- You might notice that some clouds get stuck or move slowly, others sail by more quickly on the air currents, and some change their shape or size. But all of them eventually pass and drift away in the sky. If they get stuck, you can even try breathing out to gently push the clouds onward.
- Take time to just notice your thoughts and feelings, placing them on a cloud and letting them drift away on your breath.
- You may find yourself caught in the clouds from time to time, floating with the thoughts, caught up in the clouds themselves. If this happens, just notice which thought pulled you in, bring yourself back to that beautiful place with the view, breathe the clouds away, and return to watching again.
- Take time to watch your thoughts and feelings, big and small, happy and sad, as they rest on the clouds and eventually oat away.
- As you finish, remember that all your thoughts and feelings will eventually pass. Allow your eyes to open.