We’ve all experienced that ahhhhh, that peaceful feeling after working out, connecting with a close friend, having great sex, or finishing up work for the day.
It feels like a switch has been flipped deep inside, resetting our stress level to zero, at least for a few hours.
What if I told you there’s a way to flip the switch at any moment, regardless of the conditions?
When I’m feeling stuck and stressed out, I take a break and meditate. As soon as I can, I find a quiet room or park bench and sit for 10 or 15 minutes. Sometimes I even just sit in my car in a parking lot.
But if I don’t have time or can’t find a quiet place that feels safe, I turn to a quick practice called “soft belly meditation.” Here’s how the late meditation teacher Stephen Levine described it:
“Taking a few deep breaths, feel the body you breathe in. Feel the body expanding and contracting with each breath. Focus on the rising and falling of the abdomen. Soften the belly to receive the breath, to receive sensation, to experience life in the body.”
Just 30 seconds to a minute. That’s all you need. You can do it when you’re driving, sitting at your desk, walking down the street…almost anywhere, at any time.
Even if you forget the specifics, try to take in and remember the concept: your body, especially your stomach, is a shortcut back to the present moment.
If you’re like me, someone who tries to think my way out of all my problems, you often forget that you have a body. Right now, as you read this, you probably don’t feel your shoulders tensing up or your feet on the floor or your back on the chair.
Bringing attention to the body reverse-engineers our minds into being “mindful.” It pulls us out of our tendency to think about the past or worry about the future — the mind’s “virtual reality,” meditation teacher Tara Brach calls it.
As self-help guru Tony Robbins says, if you’re in your head, you’re dead. Dead, as in, not tuned in to what’s alive right here, right now. As 10% Happier author Dan Harris says, you’re reacting instead of responding.
Now, don’t expect meditation to solve all of your problems. Deep trauma, which we all carry, requires working with someone who you can trust enough to make you feel safe enough to unpack it.
As I’ll keep saying over and over again, meditation is not therapy. Or politics, for that matter. It won’t give you a magical power to communicate in a healthy way with your boyfriend, or change how powerful people in society keep us divided, like racism.
But soft belly meditation can help with everyday ups and downs. Your manager calls you in for another shift. Someone cuts you off on the way home from work. You get the flu.
The next time you feel stuck — which will likely happen sometime today — try breathing into your stomach. Or at least ask yourself the question: “What does my body feel like right now?”
Training yourself to ask this question in the midst of stress is a massive first step towards living the life you want to live — that is, one in which you’re actually, truly alive.
As Levine wrote in his book A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as if it Were Your Last, “Soft-belly is the practice that accompanies us throughout the day and finds us at day’s end still alive and well.”
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