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Don't Forget to Breathe:

Meditation and the Art of Unplugging

In late October of 1988, a kind, red-headed English woman called Joanna introduced herself to me at a party in Kyoto, as ex-pats from the globe connected over sushi, sake, and colorful seaweed snacks. My first impression was her sense of centeredness and calm way of talking about the challenges of being a gaigin living in one of the most densely populated, polluted, and stressed-out countries on Earth. At the end of the evening, she invited me to an old meditation house south of Osaka where she lived, and she asked if I’d be interested in maybe joining a weekly meditation session on a Sunday evening as well. I had been introduced to meditation practice at university via a class on movement for actors, but had never actually meditated before. Of course, I said yes. Over three decades later, I thank my lucky stars and universal serendipity to have met this lovely woman from the UK.

As I prepared for my first immersive experience, my passive interest in mindfulness and learning to control my thoughts became active in a moment of saying Yes. 


This first encounter was a home retreat with Joanna, a Canadian friend of hers, and myself in a 200-year-old house south of Osaka where Joanna lived. As well, weekly meditation sessions with a group of Theravada Buddhists took place there. Joanna practiced Tibetan Buddhism because she liked that it's focused more on meditation practice and less on the conservative traditions common in Theravada philosophy. The house was owned by a wealthy Japanese Theravada Buddhist family who lived across the street and donated the house for gaijin meditators. Factoid: the owner's back garden is registered as a National Treasure, a breathtakingly beautiful space. Did you know that traditional Japanese gardeners plan for full fruition several hundred years after the garden is planted? Talk about intentional patience!

For our retreat, a standard ten-day schedule was set up that's commonly practiced at centers around the world. The daily routine included waking up at 4am and going to bed at 9pm, with 10 hours of a simple sitting meditation called anapanasati, each session lasting one hour. Breakfast and lunch consisted of nutrient-rich, plant-based meals, and because I was a meditation rookie, it's also customary to offer newbies a light meal in the late afternoon. Between sessions, I rested flat out on my back in a private room with tatami mats and fluffy futons for 30 minutes each break, trying (and failing) to get my restless mind ready for the next session. In the evenings, we listened to recorded one-hour talks from their Burmese teacher on subjects ranging from the four nobles truths and eightfold path to society and love. 


No eye contact, talking, or interaction happened between us, as strict introspection positively contributes to getting the most out of this extraordinary experience.


Since then, I’ve done different meditation retreats at centers in Thailand, Japan, and California slightly similar to my first retreat, but among dozens of other people which made the sitting meditation sessions much easier. Also, I’ve completed about ten home retreats with just myself. Over the years, my home retreats have been between three days and one month, with some modifications to the usual schedule described above. I add two hours in the afternoon of reading, writing, or watching an inspirational film, along with a 90-minute walk outside (making sure I wear dark sunglasses and a hoodie to avoid contact with people on the street)! I also take advantage of this precious time out and focus on a mixture of mild fasting and detoxing. During the Covid-19 lockdown in April 2020, I did a home retreat for 30 days. During one meditation session, the idea for Cookhouse Hero came crashing into my imagination. Cool. 


My first retreat in Osaka was the most profound because during a morning break on day six, I experienced a slightly frightening yet enlightening ten minutes. 

I clearly saw details of my entire life move before my minds-eye like a 1920’s flicker film, but in technicolor. I remembered arguments, celebrations, conversations, glances, and voices, all in a symphony of sounds, sights, smells, and sensations. At first, I thought I was tripping somehow, but having experimented with mushrooms, I recognized this was a rather different kind of awareness. When it was over, I sobbed from sadness and regret, as well as forgiveness and light-hearted release. This experience inspired an erudite feeling of loving kindness and compassionate understanding towards myself and others, and I haven't been the same person since. The cliché we're all one hit home. I've since learned that this cliché is molecularly true (thank you quantum physics). 

I remember two vivid moments immediately after coming out of my first ten-day retreat. One was hearing my voice again for the first time after ten days of silence. My co-meditators kept asking me to speak up because the volume in my head was so loud, I thought I was shouting. Turns out, I was speaking barely above a whisper! The other was a kind of culture shock as I boarded the first of three trains to get me back home to Kyoto. I will never forget: 


  • smelling a fashionable Japanese woman’s expensive perfume, which hit my stomach hard and turned it over like a manure-filled compost pile. 

  • hearing roars of train announcements and high-pitched school girls screaming at each other and anyone in earshot.

  • watching fast-focused locals navigate crazy dense crowds while frantically sprinting and shuffling their ways to overly pressurized, powder-keg lives. 


My sense of calm and focus lasted a week, and I re-joined the faster pace of my Japanese life. However, I've somehow managed to continue the practice of mindful meditation regularly since then. At the very least, I slowly breathe in four breaths and breathe out five breaths through my nose during the day, every day. I've also developed a habit of doing this every morning before getting out of bed for about two minutes. Bonus: the mellow, parasympathetic system kicks in. 

In addition, the art of unplugging has many canvases. From washing dishes alone and cooking in silence to taking a walk in nature and listening to music while doing... nothing else! Making a conscious choice to unplug from electronic devices including cell phones, TV, social media, gaming, and computers can work wonders for our ability to live with more grace, patience, and kindness. Focusing one’s mind and unplugging allow us to see life’s chaos float by like gray-white clouds on a windy November morning. Buddhists often talk about attachment, impermanence, and aversion as ways to understand how suffering is primarily caused by going against the big floating river of life, against What Is So. 

A favorite Zen proverb is on one of my fridge magnets: let go or be dragged. 


Going with the flow is easier when we remember to breathe deeply on a regular basis. When we grasp that we're stressed out and not getting enough oxygen to our brain and muscles due to a lack of exercise and not breathing deeply... our overall wellness can transform. There are more and more meditators from all walks of life and belief systems, breathing in and breathing out every day, allowing themselves to be kinder, gentler, and more forgiving and empathetic souls. Meditation, mindfulness, and unplugging are available 24-7-365 for the rest of our lives. Another bonus: like music and dance and sports and food and love, focused breathing could help unite a divided planet. Did I mention it's free?

Cookhouse Hero asks you to consider... taking two minutes today to breathe in four breaths and breathe out five breaths, and see your life through rosier-colored glasses. The next time you want to cut someone off on the motorway or shout at your demanding kids, don’t forget to breathe (Mel Robbins calls this the "5-second rule"). Like cool breezes and perpetual ocean waves gently lapping on warm sand, take advantage of how effortless it is for our lungs to deeply breathe in and out, in and out, in and out. Let us be patient and kind in this world. And... please don't forget to breathe.

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