Imagine being 6 years old again. Recall any of the small conflicts and challenges you faced during the day, how they made you feel, and how you managed them.
Now imagine someone in your life sharing a secret with you, a new tool that gives you the power to see your experience in new ways. A tool that gives you the power to CHOOSE how you would feel and act in different situations.
Mindfulness meditation has gained incredible prominence in recent years with its glaring relevance to many (all) domains. It has even breached corporate training and development programs like Google's Search Inside Yourself.
We know we need this ability to self-manage, to choose, to change - why are we not giving it to the next generation early - before life gets harder and burdens become heavier?
It's the story of Chrissy, and her experience in a Shaolin Monastery, though I don't call that out by name within the story itself. Chrissy faces a couple of challenges while on her journey, challenges that shake her self-confidence and provide the opportunity for growth.
Master Shi, her mentor in the story doesn't tell Chrissy what to do or how to think. He gives her the space to feel and the opportunity to explore her thoughts. And at the most critical point of her journey, he teaches her to be present. Right here. Right now.
After decades of mind-body coaching I've come to find that this remarkably simple premise is one of the hardest things to teach adults. As a practitioner for decades, I too struggle with applying the foundational skill of mindfulness when it truly matters. And it ALWAYS matters.
We all carry so much baggage - pain, anger, fear - and we carry so much of it with us into this moment, often missing what's right in front of us.
Kids are different. Remarkably so.
In fact, I'd like to introduce you to one, as well as shed a little more light into what inspired this story.
A Boy and His Mom
This is Cayden. He’s awesome. He inspired this book.
So did his mom – my beautiful sister (pictured right).
I met Cayden almost six years ago, after his mother overcame months of medical challenges to bring him into this world, including in-utero surgery just one month prior to his birth.
That’s right, baby Cayden had back surgery one month BEFORE he was born - a display of true courage on my sister’s part to give her son a greater chance at a life without brain damage stemming from spina bifida – a disorder where the spine is exposed in the womb. The surgery was a success, though there are physical development issues that remain.
Cayden truly is a wonder child, and since I’ve known him, a boy full of smiles and light. Due to living on the other side of the world I only know his challenges from afar. But I feel them every day.
He’s not like other boys and it’s not reasonable to assume he will be. But he is and will be truly unique.
As someone who’s career frequently places me at that critical juncture of penetrating stress and personal growth, I’ve seen time and time again how the creatures we become are not defined by what the world hits us with, but in how we frame it.
Cayden – whose name in Gaelic can be translated as ‘fighter’ - can be the strongest of us all.
When I ask myself what I can do for him, given his unique challenges and our regrettable wide separation, the answer is always the same…
…he must learn to breathe.
The reason my sister – played by little Chrissy – is central to this story is because she will need to carry her heavy burdens as well, and to sustain that support of little Cayden and his big brother Jude her cup must be constantly refilled.
This is to remind her to breathe too. Love ya sis.
Several years ago I was invited by a friend in China, one with deep political connections, to visit the Shaolin Monastery. This magical temple deep within the Song Shan Mountains houses some of the last remaining authentic Shaolin warrior monks.
Master Shi, his devout followers, and a famous Swiss architect reconstructed the temple over the course of 20 years - to honor the dying wish of his Kung Fu teacher. He confided in us that if he had known how difficult it was going to be, it’s unlikely he’d have made the promise. For years Master Shi moved bedrock and carried 100kg bags of concrete up the never-ending stairs that ascend through the mist to the peak.
Shaolin Monestary is not open to the public, and requires explicit invitation. It truly is a hidden gem.
Despite Master Shi’s reputation as the rightful heir and abbot of the Shaolin Temple itself, he’s stayed away from politics and committed himself to the monastery where he has lived alone in a spartan cave for 30+ years.
Master Shi De Jian was the first of many warrior monks I’ve met during my travels who rekindled my dwindling faith in the old ways, which are often relegated to romantic legend and no longer lived in full. He is still up at 5 am every morning to pound concrete pillars with his arms and legs, eat a strict vegetarian diet, live as a celibate, and practice his martial forms on narrow rooftops that overlook precipitous and deadly ravine’s.
While I was there the head of tourism of Henan Province came to visit and asked Master Shi to stop training the way he does, because if he makes one misstep China will lose a heritage that only a handful of men in the world might be able to pass on.
Master Shi politely declined the request.
When I asked him why he trains as he does, he explained, “If I make a mistake, I die. This is the only way to learn real Kung Fu.”
Despite his legendary skills in martial arts his qigong skill and knowledge of herbology has spread far and wide. Most of the visitors to the monastery don't come to learn his martial secrets, but come instead for healing, traveling from around the world with hope he’ll lay his hands on them and provide an herbal elixir that cures.
I saw things that week that most people would find absurdly fantastical. But the setting of the story and the master therein were real, and were the stuff of real inspiration.
Time stood still on that mountain. Everything was in the right place, and in the right amount. They lived very simple lives. They ate only vegetarian from their self-cared garden. They practiced breathing and awareness ongoing, and practiced martial arts twice a day.
At any time of day you could look across the horizon at another portion of the temple and anyone/everyone who was walking the seemingly endless labyrinthian stairs - monks, chefs, gardeners and keepers – were taught by Master Shi to walk at a snails pace in specific conscientious fashion, shifting their weight from one leg to the other with an ever so slight rotation of the hips, coordinating their breaths with every mindful step. "We are always meditating," he told me.
They were there. Then. Breathing.
Here Now Breathe
We can call meditation by many names. But at the core of it all is our ability to connect – to be fully present, alive in the moment, and sensing. The breath is the conduit of that connectivity. Mindful awareness of the breath is awareness of self.
The ability to change – that is, the ability to pause and consciously choose a different action to a stimulus – requires presence. The ability to change is not much more than the conscious wherewithal to be still for a moment longer than usual, and to ask ourselves – is the way I feel right now, and the response I feel like giving – is this the only possible way to feel and act? Or is this my choice?
We can call meditation a lot of things, but at its core is deep awareness (mindfulness) of our emotional states, the triggers that excite them, and the ability to create the space needed to choose meaning over impulse. At its core is the ability to choose and to change.
Here Now Breathe is a reminder for you to breathe.
Epilogue: I received a text from my sister last week - who had an early proof copy of the book for a while now - that read: "Cayden was complaining about doing spelling homework and Jude said, 'Why don't you write down one word and take a breath, then write down another word and take a breath, just like Chrissy!"