When you were little, you did this, before there were window crayons, cling-ons or markers you stood carefully and took in as much air as you could then blew it over cold glass watching in delight at the frost that met your warm breath. Tentatively you began making patterns, knowing the heat coming from you, the same breath that caused the frost, would allow the cold to melt away.
In the first two parts of this series, I talked about the struggle we as people are having seeing and hearing one another. Both are needed for understanding to be achieved, and that is the path to the ultimate goal: to love. Without understanding, we don’t get to love and that would be such a huge loss for all of us. Once we begin to set aside whatever might be holding us back from seeing another’s struggle or hearing another’s story, we begin to quiet the anxiety that seems ever present in our day-to-day struggles. We begin to breathe deeply and live generously.
I am in the darkened room, standing facing her. My clothes are folded on a chair in the corner. I am aware of the old pair of underwear I have on that do not quite cover the soft unwieldy underbelly of three pregnancies that I am always straining to make smaller. I am more aware of the strap on my bra that keeps sliding down my left arm, the color is between nude and grey without the benefits of either. Jill, small and blonde, is regarding me carefully. “Breathe for me.” I close my eyes and try to do what she is asking. I can sense her coming closer and placing each of her hands around my rib cage. “Meet my hands with your breath.” I tense, and try again. “Okay,” she says. “Okay.” Jill steps back and looks at me. “What’s happening?”
“Well,” I say slowly, “I came here because I know my body can no longer carry the level of stress I have had for so many years. I saw your therapy profile and saw that you emphasize breathing.” I pause, my throat feels sticky, and my voice quiet from disuse, “I was hoping you could teach me?”
In a way, it is an absurdity. It should be intrinsic to us, to breathe, but somehow I don’t think so. When was the last time you took a deep breath, from deep down in your center? I am willing to bet that the last time you did was when you had a cold and went to see a doctor who listened to your chest with a stethoscope. I also think that it wasn’t easy. Not just because you were fighting the virus that had invaded your lungs battling for your air, but because you simply weren’t used to it.
As a young woman, I remember learning to hold my stomach in—the genetic insouciant part of me that refused any kind of taming into the ideal flat plane. When I became aware that it required a kind of training to hold breath in, I stopped breathing naturally. I do not remember the last time I breathed deeply and exhaled slowly. I feel that I’ve spent a lot of my adult life waiting to exhale. This isn’t unusual for women. I remember reading the beloved Little House books when Laura Ingalls Wilder reminisced about watching her aunt hold her breath tightly as corset strings were tightened, “They helped each other with their corsets. Aunt Docia pulled as hard as she could on Aunt Ruby’s corset strings, and then Aunt Docia hung on to the foot of the bed while Aunt Ruby pulled on hers.
‘Pull, Ruby, pull!’ Aunt Docia said, breathless. ‘Pull harder.’ So Aunt Ruby braced her feet and pulled harder. Aunt Docia kept measuring her waist with her hands, and at last she gasped, ‘I guess that’s the best you can do.’ She said, ‘Caroline says Charles could span her waist with his hands, when they were married.’” For Laura, who lived as fully as she wrote, corsets were torture, “Her corsets were a sad affliction to her…. ‘You should wear them all night,’ Ma said. Mary [Laura’s sister] did, but Laura could not bear at night the torment of the steels that did not allow her a deep breath.” But this is not about the vagaries of fashion that may or may not have harmed a woman’s health. It is just about the ways in which we’ve been restricting our own air, and in so doing, limiting our ability to give to ourselves or to each other.
Without oxygen, we die. It’s that simple. Our respiratory system is amazing; we intake air and expel carbon dioxide. But did you know that our brains require 20% of our oxygen intake? Without it, cells begin to die off and we risk permanent brain damage. While I was researching for this post, the question came to me time and time again:
Why are we denying ourselves the air we need to think clearly and behave in kind?
We hold our breath when we are afraid, we take a quick intake of air when we are nervous. We breathe shallow and quick in order to get through pain. We accept the lack of depth and breadth and relief we may receive as not ours for the taking. What do I say to my boy when he is so upset he cannot speak? “Take a deep breath. Let it out slowly. Begin again to tell me what’s wrong.”
A while back I was standing in my aunt’s kitchen and decided, on a whim, to tell her about the pain I felt in my chest. Similar to pregnancy breast pain, sometimes the discomfort was bad enough to have to take something for it. I’d lived with it long enough to be resigned to it, deciding I was getting older and that this was a part of it. Nowhere was there a lump, no doctor’s imagery detected anything abnormal. “But it isn’t normal, you know that don’t you?” she said. I must have looked at her blankly because she turned from chopping onions and said, “your chest feels that way because the tissue is struggling for oxygen. You aren’t able to get enough air to breathe, so it is pulling your tissue to try.” I wasn’t getting enough air. I wasn’t able to breathe fully. And I had dismissed this as nothing?
Somewhere between running and jumping, blowing out candles on cakes and diving into the deep end, I stopped breathing and just held on and waited. I decided at some point along the line of my life that breathing deeply and exhaling slowly was something I had no time for and wasn’t privileged enough to claim.
Why is it so difficult to breathe generously?
The importance of it is well documented. There is not a single emotional condition that does not benefit from breathing deeply. It can reduce stress, pain (both emotional and physical), it can calm anxiety, offer focus, and give you energy. To breathe deeply is to feel, to engage and to listen to our bodies, and in so doing, allow us to give generously to others by being as present as we can be. (This correlation isn’t so strange; trust me? Stay with me.)
If we are focused and calm, if breathing deeply and well offers us this ability consider then how things around us would change? We would see ourselves differently and in doing so be able to view others gently. We would have the room, the lung capacity to value another’s pain with compassion and generosity. We will not be fighting for air; we will not be fighting at all.
God breathed life into me (Genesis 2:7), why wouldn't I want to use it as fully as he intended? To fuel the good of which I am capable? The calmer I feel, the more centered my breath, I can look at the picture of struggle for my son without the irritation that he cannot understand despite the fifth time of telling. I can breathe and tell him that it will be okay. That he will get it. Instead of being undone at the discourtesy shown me by my children’s principal, I can consider the motivation behind it and respond with thought and care. And because of that self-care, because of that focus on keeping my brain alert and receptive, I can look beyond to find points where I can for/give.
When I heard the word generosity I used to think of two things: “guilt” and “money”. The former I have in spades, the latter not so much. Because of those meanings though, it becomes difficult to think of giving in any other way. Time is as tight these days as money is for most. So generosity almost becomes something that we begin to resist. The pressure to be generous to hundreds of thousands of worthwhile causes known to us begin a cycle of anxiety and stress that I, at least, began to buckle under. Once I began to understand though, that my very breath could help me focus, get my mind clear enough to see and hear what I needed to see and hear, generosity ceased being a burden and became a necessary means of connection. For me it manifested in so many different ways:
Generosity is the moment I didn't decline the call and spend the next fifteen minutes reconnecting with my friend.
It’s the time I picked up the phone dropped by the woman who spoke to me abruptly and treated me rudely in the parking garage and give it back without a word.
It was offering a compliment for no other reason than sensing another's need for it.
It was identifying the need to reply as defensiveness rather than engagement.
It was stepping up to volunteer when no one else would.
It was offering more at church that I spent on coffee in a week.
It is avoiding that which will do me harm in thought, in speech and in action.
It is choosing to spend the time in the quiet to listen, really listen to what is happening around me and inside me.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
In our family, the acted impulse to generosity has had a ripple effect. One compliment has afforded more. Encouragement is offered, consideration given—not all the time, but anything worth it takes work. After the boys come home from school, we stretch a bit, and breathe. After that, we pray—I hear their worries from school, what they were thankful for, and what they need help with. Then we break and dive in to the variety of things we have to do. What I’ve discovered is that as they watch and begin to listen, take the time to consider and reflect, generosity then can become as easy a state as breathing ought to be.
In our pantry is our own food donation area. When we go to the store, the boys noticed I’d buy canned goods or other items on sale and place them in the cart. We store them for regular trips to the food pantry. At this time of year, when Thanksgiving plans are beginning, many churches and community outreach organizations get incredible donations of both food and time for the hungry. But they are in need all year round. So this is an easy way to buy a little extra, (when you have the little extra in your grocery budget) for someone else. (Lists are available for what items to store for donation. Or you can contact a local food pantry and ask.) We have a donation bank in the kitchen and everyone contributes. We take a look in a few months and decide which organization could use it, it makes us more aware of the need around us (and sometimes that need comes within our own family).
Homeless shelters also need donations that can be purchased and kept in a similar way. The children help by looking at grocery deals and have done some mental math to figure out how much can be purchased.
I do a lot of online shopping, and with it, I get samples of perfumes, cosmetics, lotions and shampoos that I most likely will never use. Instead of sitting in a drawer, all of these can be collected and donated to local women’s shelters. Similar donations can be sent overseas to our armed servicemen and women. These are just some ideas of how we could better serve one another once I was able to really breathe and center, focus and forgive. And it all started when I was truthful about what was holding me back from engaging fully with my own life—when I was honest that I was holding my breath and began to exhale.
When I think of need there is so much. I have been overwhelmed with my own: my children, marriage, father, and friends. Stepping one ring out of that center into either television or the paper, social media or the radio: need is extraordinary and overwhelming. The result of war, natural disasters, local violence and national rhetoric. All of these pieces, like so many vines, dangle in my mind.
Many experts recommend 10 minutes of active breathing practice/meditation/prayer daily. When I started, I could barely make it to two. I’m almost up to five. It’s not easy to quiet my monkey mind from swinging from vine to vine. As I mentally fly faster through dinner, commitments, homework, housework, work, what I have read, what I have thought of, what others may think, repairs that need to be made—my breathing is no longer long and steady but short and shallow. It becomes a struggle, a struggle to take in air.
|©Yoga Journal |
Click here for guided video on pranayama (yogic breathing).
When I first started yoga I was nervous, it was disastrous the last time I had taken it. Prenatal yoga left me tottering from point to point like a very large egg. I never wanted to go back. But when I finally did, when the strain of my life demanded a response, yoga seemed to be an answer. There seems to be no medical condition that cannot benefit from it. And my teacher (and friend) Carolyn made it accessible to me. But she started with breathing. It was the core of the practice. It made sense, because so much of yoga is about the core, the center, the heart that breathing would be essential to it. Somehow, someway I lost it though. And the only time I practiced it, thoughtfully, was in her class. So now I was with Jill, starting over since I could not even begin on the mat. “Think of your connective tissue like a tightly twisted towel,” she said, “you need to focus on unwinding those ridges.”
A wound towel. Tightly twisted ridges. Expectations, hopes, frustrations, disappointments, anger, fear—each one leaves its mark on us. Each flick of the wrist leaves us with less time to recover, less space in which to consider or reflect before we come upon the next ridge to climb. Exhaustion, resignation sets in and the thought of being generous with anyone, much less ourselves is out of the question.
Our world is fast. Information is coming to us and at us from all sides. Our hearts are broken and inflamed constantly. But we can mend. And no matter what happens in the next few weeks, we will need to heal. Heal our hearts, our minds, forgive, try to understand another’s fear, and begin again to try to come together. Frederick Buechner wrote, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.... Like any other gift the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.” Remember and know that God breathed life into you, and he gave you that life to live abundantly.
Breathe in deeply, thinking of all the broken spaces that can be filled with hope and air, breathe out the hurt and disappointment that is holding you so tightly in its grasp. Breathe in healing and kindness and out the negativity that you see reinforced all around you. Breathe in light, breathe out the darkness. Breathe in grace—breathe out generosity.
You can do this. We can do this. Breath by conscious breath we can put everyone back together again.
I’m saying to you now that I see you, I do hear you, so please, take a deep breath and tell me what is wrong? Tell me what is holding you back from being well and whole? In the telling will be the key to all of it, when we focus our energy and release what is holding us back from each other we come clean. And that’s the last piece of this series, the last chamber of the heart of it all. Thanks for staying with me.