By Thomas McConkie, adapted from an episode of the Mindfulness+ podcast.
At the end of 2016, I decided to do a seven-day silent retreat. But instead of going away to a retreat center as I’d done before, I did this retreat in my home. Seven days of silence, sitting long hours, cooking meals, getting some good walking in, a little bit of exercise. It was a gorgeous week.
Throughout the week, I dedicated about ten minutes a day on heart-opening exercises. Physically, this entailed movements that spread my chest, allowing it to expand while holding an upright posture. I also did some Feldenkrais movement, which consists of slow, focused, and deliberate motion.
What I noticed is that by day five, something really struck me: it felt like my heart and my chest were wide open. It felt like my heart was an open nerve. It was an amazing thing. I felt really tender. The world felt really delicate and beautiful to me.
As I reflected on it, I realized that this feeling was really just the result of a one degree shift in posture. I don't even know that you could tell by looking at my posture whether there was any difference, whether there was any detectable shift. But internally something opened up in me.
I want to talk about this principle. This one degree shift.
I've noticed that since this meditation retreat my heart feels more available. It feels more tender. It's easier for me to let go of things that are bothersome, things that are spinning around in my mind and clogging up my heart. In this sense, the practice was like a waterfall, like a feeling of rushing water moving through me. If that sounds amazing, it's because it is. It's amazing and it's also really ordinary.
It started with just a little bit of an intention to spend around ten minutes a day shifting my posture by one degree. My physical posture changed almost imperceptibly to the naked eye. But it changed my internal experience dramatically.
Mindfulness practice is like this. A one-degree shift in awareness can make a dramatic difference.
You can experience it directly. In this very moment, you can just notice what you're noticing. Notice what you're aware of. Notice the content of your day. What's on you mind today? What are you working with in terms of tasks, things that need to get done? What are the greater challenges in life that are showing up today?
Maybe the challenges seem unbearable. Maybe they're overwhelming to you. In any event, I just invite you to shift your awareness one degree. And as you shift your awareness one degree, notice what you notice.
Instead of fixating on a problem like we're so wired to do, what if we shift our attention one degree and pay attention to everything that isn't a problem? Not in a cheesy way because we're optimists and we want to be sun-shiny, but because we're realists and we realize that we have this habit of just zooming in on a challenge so much so that a sense of oppression can totally dominate our awareness.
Allow yourself to turn one degree. If you feel like you're in a big hurry and there's not enough time, open your awareness up. Shift your attention one degree to the infinite amount of time, the countless seasons that the mountains have weathered and witnessed. Consider most of the things you think have to be done today. Maybe the space-time continuum won't unravel completely if they get done tomorrow instead.
This reminder to shift one degree is to recognize that our awareness tends to fixate. We tend to get caught in our ideas, caught in our perspectives, and in a given moment, we can just shift our perspective. We can turn our attention one degree and see and enjoy everything else we've been missing as we're wearing our blinders through life.
Let’s practice this directly.
Start by taking a couple of big, deep breaths, just to settle into the moment. Let yourself breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. Take a big audible sigh if you're comfortable doing that. And notice that just giving yourself space to take a couple of deep breaths has shifted your awareness one degree.
Notice the physical body. See if there's an opportunity somewhere to shift the body one degree. If you're sitting, see if you can sit in a way that allows even more ease. Even less effort. If you're standing, if you're lying down, whatever you're doing, bring your awareness to the body and see if there's a way you can invite even more freedom in to this experience in this moment, through the body. That might just be relaxing the face, moving the face. Maybe giving the jaw a little side to side wiggle, letting go of tension through the head. Maybe just letting go of the stomach. We hold on to our stomach so much: sucking it in, keeping it tight. Maybe you can just let that round out and let go.
And once you've made any micro adjustments to the posture, any one degree shifts to invite more wakefulness, more ease, take a moment to just do nothing and enjoy it. Deeply receive the experience of this moment. Without trying to earn it, without striving for an even better moment, you can just deeply take in the very moment this is.
And finally I'll invite you to bring your awareness to a challenge in your life at this time, something that has been occupying your awareness, maybe dominating it. You find yourself coming back to it again, and again, and again. I'll invite you again to shift your awareness one degree so that you notice that this challenge is actually held in awareness. Your life isn't just this problem, just this challenge. This challenge is another ripple on the ocean of your being, your vastness, your awareness. And because you're so big, because you're so expansive, because you're so resilient and creative and compassionate, you can absolutely hold this challenge in your embrace. When you shift one degree, you shift from being totally dominated by this challenge to experiencing yourself as something much bigger, much further reaching.
Give yourself a moment to just linger for a moment, staying soft, staying open.
Remember that when you get into trouble in life — and we all get into trouble — we can shift our attention one degree. We can take a new perspective, giving rise to a totally new experience, a new moment, a new life.