I’ve been singing for over 20 years. Since I was a pop punk-loving, skateboard-riding high schooler. But only recently have I started liking my voice.
That’s because of meditation teacher Stephen Levine. His “soft belly” practice is refining my singing voice. It’s also helping me during hard, uncomfortable conversations. It’s even helping me relax on dates.
“When the belly is hard there is holding,” Levine wrote in his book “Guided Meditations, Explorations and Healings.” “Some degree of fighting or posturing is resisting and hardening to the moment, attempting to control.”
Maybe where you tense up the most isn’t your stomach. Maybe it’s your shoulders, chest, or forehead.
But Levine’s point is that letting go — over and over again — is the key to living life to the fullest.
In fact, some 80 percent of information that travels between the mind and body goes from the body to the mind. Relaxing the body relaxes the mind far more than the other way around.
(There’s a reason so many of us tense up our midsections, though. This society pressures us to have flat stomachs. Fat shaming is American as apple pie and racism.)
At 15, I wanted to be a rock star on MTV. I wanted to sound like Mark Hoppus from Blink 182. I wanted to impress the girls at my band’s shows.
In college, I wanted to sound like Jim Morrison and appear a tortured, madman poet like Bob Dylan.
At this point, I want to be plain old, boring me. Inspired by Levine, I’ve been relaxing my ab muscles as I sing. Before, I was squeezing my throat, narrowing myself down to sound a certain way.
Now, I breathe deep and let my body do the singing, whatever comes out. And I’ve been digging my voice. It’s… me.
If singing isn’t your thing, when do you feel vulnerable? Public speaking. Talking to your boss. Having sex. When do you put on an act?
Whatever it is. Except for, maybe, Pilates. Softening your stomach will help.
Levine’s “soft belly” is a practice. “You may have to come back to soft belly dozens of times an hour,” he wrote. “The belly needs to be reminded that it has unconsciously tightened to that which we wish to remain unconscious of.”
I’ve realized that my stomach is a thermometer for my closed-offness. When it’s tense, I know I’m armoring myself by trying to come off a certain way. Trying to manufacture a certain outcome. Trying to get people to like me. Trying to avoid discomfort.
The irony is, trying to avoid discomfort is uncomfortable. It’s exhausting trying to be someone I’m not. It keeps the boat from rocking, sure. But it’s so damn unfulfilling.
“Don’t you want to be all used up when you die?” Natalie Goldberg, the writer and Zen meditation teacher, once asked at a retreat I attended.
“Yes!” I thought.
Living with a soft belly — whether singing or talking or loving — is using myself up. Which is why it’s scary. It’s taking the armor off. Living fully this limited vessel that is my one and only life.
It’s so fucking hard to let go of the outcome. To just be. To just be myself. As flawed and broken as I am. Knowing, somehow, that I’m also beautiful.
Levine, who often counseled people who were dying, once wrote:
Most fight death as they fought life, struggling for a foothold, for some control over the incessant flow of change that exemplifies this plane of existence. Few die in wholeness.
Don’t you want to be all used up when you die? I know I do.
“Soft belly” is my cheat code for doing it.
I’m a writer, meditation teacher, and host of the Meditation for the 99% podcast. My weekly emails will help you bring mindfulness to work, relationships, and politics. Subscribe here.