I have been learning to breathe again.
I’ve been practicing breathing for a few months now. You know, the kind of breathing that requires a concentrated effort to simply listen to the sound, the sound of your breath.
No thoughts allowed. Just create a small wind tunnel in your throat and focus on that sound for twenty minutes. It’s supposed to be healing; a meditative exercise in calming the brain and body.
‘How does one not think thoughts?’ I wonder in my head as I try to listen to my breath. The sound reminds me of ocean waves on the beach in some small town along the Gulf of Mexico, and I picture myself on the sand, and, oh, I could use a week at the beach and–oops, there I go thinking thoughts again!
Letting Go of Tension
When I do this practice, I usually lie on my back on the floor with my knees up on a chair. This creates a release for my lower spine and gives me the best chance to not use a single muscle. Except for my breathing muscles.
I hold a lot of tension in my body, even when lying in this completely relaxed position. My neck is tight and my feet and hands slightly clenched. Honestly, when I roll out of bed every morning, I have more tension in my hips and back than when I rolled into bed. How does that happen? Do my muscles ever loosen their grip? If not in sleep, then when?
That’s why I am re-learning how to breathe, how to tell my brain that all is well. Then maybe my brain will give my muscles a vacation. Take a few days off, go to the beach, ahh the beach, the ocean, oh my thoughts are running off again and I was supposed to be just breathing, just listening…
Learning to Die
Have you noticed how an exhalation makes your torso collapse a bit? The rib cage shuffles down and the shoulders drop as the diaphragm forces the lungs to let go of their air. If I push all of the air out of my lungs, my entire body drops more deeply and more heavily toward the floor. Pausing between that full exhale and the next breath in, I lie in stillness like a corpse.
This place between breaths feels like a kind of death. When I empty myself of the breath of life and hesitate before the next inhalation, I am in liminal space. Between rooms, I pause on the threshold and take the time to examine where I’ve been, before moving on to God-only-knows-where.
As I understand it, the autonomic nervous system is divided into two parts: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. When I inhale, I engage the sympathetic so that my body is ready for flight or fight. My heart rate increases and my bladder is more than willing to empty itself.
When I exhale, my heart rate should drop as the parasympathetic system kicks in for calming and relaxing my body. In this state, I should be able to digest food and lose some anxiety. The bladder holds on and the bowels loosen up.
Not so much for me.
One Breath at a Time
My sympathetic system seems stuck on hold. Hyper-vigilance might be a good word: ready for anything all the time. It’s as if my body is saying, “no way, José, I’m not letting you die!”
Maybe I learned hyper-vigilance as a child, lying in my bed at night hoping Dad would come home so Mom could relax. Perhaps it was later when we were hoping he wouldn’t show up drunk to wake us up in the middle of the night. Possibly, I learned to be on high alert because of my personality, hyper-sensitive or something.
Let’s face it, the unpredictability of life presents a case for staying on the watchtower, no matter how safe your castle may seem.
What I want to know is: how do I let go and live now? Forget the past; who knows the future?
This very moment is what’s happening!
So, back to the breath.
Learning to Live
When I practice my twenty minutes of doing nothing but breathing and listening, I am learning to live in the moment I’m in. Trust the present being, let the doing take care of itself.
I’m not supposed to be thinking but here’s what I’m thinking:
- The very first breath we take as humans is at birth. Our life in the womb suddenly opens up to the flow of air through mouth, throat, and lungs.
- Then comes our first exhalation–a tiny death as life immediately shakes our bodies and creates fear and insecurity. We feel untethered. No wonder most babies start out with a good cry.
- The next breath in is a tiny resurrection: Oh, I’m still here and I’ve been here before. I’m alive.
Something in Me Just Takes Over
And so it goes. Every breath a birth, death, and resurrection.
If it weren’t a mystery, we’d have stopped thinking, talking, and writing about it by now. But Life is wild. The daily-ness of each day, the normalcy of each creature, the magnitude of every morning. Why shouldn’t every breath we take be as astounding?
As I lie here learning to breathe, my shoulders settle for a better situation. A connective tissue clicks loose in my spine. An electric tingle sizzles on the tips of my fingers and toes. Small signs of change and movement towards release. I’ll take them.
I’m alive, I’m dying, I’m alive again. My soul longs for eternal life even as my flesh lies encumbered by the tension of suffering and death. With all of that to think about, I’m glad I don’t forget to breathe.
(Oh, and here’s a song about breathing: Love, Like Breathing)