When we’re exhausted, overwhelmed, and frustrated, our sympathetic nervous system is peaked – we go into fight-flight-freeze mode. Our embodied self is embattled. Our focus is narrowed, and aggressive-defensive tendencies are intensified. All of this is self-protective. We only wish to be safe from threat.
Somewhere along the way, someone told us “just count to 10.” It was simple advice, but if it came from the right person, in the right tone, and with heart-felt sincerity it may have registered as gentle, caring advice. In the moment, we may have even felt a little safer, like we may have some cover.
Knowing that the advice was born of empathy for our experience and kind intentions, we may have later tried using it. And in the act of counting, perhaps we felt ourselves calming (parasympathetic response). The threat was not gone, but we found ourselves in a safe harbor, the urgencies to act relieved.
Yes, counting to 10 works. It’s both transitional and transformative. It moves us to a sheltered place, out the rough seas. But it also relaxes our reactive tendencies. The change in place allows more space to breathe, and as our breathing slows even more space is available to recognize our “suffering.”
That’s right, suffering. I place the word in quotation marks to signify a distinct meaning. For some, suffering may evoke touchy-feely connotations of vulnerability they're not comfortable with: “That's a state of pathetic helplessness… not me, I don’t like drama.”
The suffering I have in mind is existential. It's part of the human condition, and to recognize it requires courage. Let me clarify my meaning and then bring us back to the titled theme of counting and the power of breathing.
The Meaning of Suffering
All suffering points to the essential impermanence of life. What causes suffering is our tendency to cling to desired or wished-for outcomes. Paradoxically, the end of suffering is found in seeing the truth of our suffering; that is, in facing it, understanding it, letting it stand before us and speak for itself.
We must let go of the suffering to see it. We can only see it when we do let go, as we did above by counting to 10. We can only let go by having faith that the letting-go itself is the pathway to insight about the nature of our suffering, by believing it will reveal pathways to the end of suffering - this moment of suffering and the next.
As the expression goes, “Shit happens!” We do not, and never will have total control over our lives or the events in our surrounding environment, at home, at work, or anywhere. Life unfolds breath by breath, moment by moment. We must let go of the past to enter the present.
Does that imply no goals, no future-focused purpose in life? No, but our goals and purposes must be flexible. Their point of origin (here and now) is constantly changing. This in turn may imply change to the goal state and the trajectory that takes us there. The only constants are change and the breath.
When we count to 10, we are taking a time-out, we’re letting go. The counting occupies us. It changes the pace and depth of our breathing, and the contents of our mind in the now-moment. We enter a non-clinging state of mind. We let go of constrictive desperation.
Counting is a technique. It’s vital effects work through the breath. And we can only breath in the present. The present expands with the fullness of the breath. Perspective-taking and feelings of equanimity increase in this breathing space. Mind expands, we see things more clearly and accurately.
Having Faith Generates Confidence & Resilience
Cultivating this practice, whether by counting to 10 or by developing a mindfulness meditation practice builds faith in our capacity to face our suffering and to end our suffering. It is a faith grounded in the truth that so long as we are human, we will experience suffering. Recognizing and facing it is not drama, it's courage.
Based on truth and proven through practice, this faith breeds confidence. Not a cocky, swaggering kind of confidence, but a wise confidence. It also looks like courage to others. It's the courage to be mortal, to face what life brings to our door, and the resilience to recover from setbacks.
As we cultivate this capacity for living in the present, we acquire a readiness to learn and adaptively reshape our plans and goals. And, by example, we promote the faith, confidence, and resilience of those we lead and those we love. We are meant to live together, to be resource to one another. It’s the cornerstone of our sustainability.