Getting real. Getting real with myself.
That is what a year of ‘shit hits the fan’ will do to a person.
When the very thing that you have spent a lifetime working not to see or to feel stares you right in the eyes…. It gets real. Real quick.
What do I do with REAL?
Avoid? Distract? Numb? Feel?
Breathe. Just keep breathing.
When faced with the kind of fear or grief that feels like it is going to swallow you up… just keep breathing.
When the pain is so intense that you fear getting lost in it, never to be found again… just keep breathing.
Your breath not only sustains you physically, but it has the capacity to hold you mentally and emotionally. It binds you to yourself. It keeps you in the present moment and draws you into your body.
When we encounter strong emotions it is easy to run… even from ourselves. We run from the strong ‘feels’ of it all. We disembody. Our breath is that ever-present anchor that is there to be turned toward again and again, drawing us back into our body, into the moment at hand, and into our life.
I often remind my clients that their breath is right there, working for them, even when they lack the inertia to work for themselves….This solid, sustaining force that just keeps marching on, keeping them going, working on their behalf.
I have practiced ‘returning to my breath’ enough now that it is a lifeline for me when I am emotionally flailing. It is the place I race to with desperate fervor – ‘help me! help me! help me!’ – when I am struggling. The breath I first discover in these desperate moments is not a deep, slow, calming breath; it is a fast, shallow grasping breath. The key is that I discover this about my breath! And this discovery draws me closer to my body and closer to my feels and closer to myself. And I’ve learned not to get judgy with this shallow, fast breath, but to feel it and be grateful that it is there sustaining me… teaching me…. holding me.
If I stay quiet and still long enough, continuing to notice the quality of my breath, after a time the desperation of this breath gives way to something softer and easier… a breath that fills more fully, expanding my chest and abdomen, coursing sensation throughout the rest of me. This breath brings me home. It reminds me that I am more than my fear or grief or pain… that I am still alive. Freshly oxygenated blood flows through my body reminding me on a mental and energetic level that there is new hope and new opportunity with every breath. I’ve come to see my breath is the ever-present friend reminding me of this.
Moments that leave us beat-up, raw, and fragile are easy moments to consciously or sub-consciously start to check out… to numb… to distance ourselves from the feels of it all and ultimately from our own vulnerability. This response is primal and a gift from human evolution. However, we have opportunity in these moments to use the gift of our own consciousness to move beyond this evolutionary conditioning into our own personal evolution… one that leads us more fully into our wholeness. ‘Returning to our breath’ is a way to do this.
What does it look like to ‘return to your breath’? This awareness has a long history in meditation and shows up today in so many different practices. For me, what it looks like is this:
First, I start to shift my awareness to my breath as it comes and goes. Noticing… ‘What does my breath feel like? Am I breathing through my nose or my mouth? What is the pace of my breath? Is it easy or difficult? Does it get stuck anywhere in it’s journey in and out of my body?’ I work hard in these moments to just observe my breath and let it be exactly what it is. I catch myself when I am quick to try to change it in some way and come back again to the noticing.
After I have explored the feel of my breath in my body and asked curiosity questions about it, I then allow space to shift my breath in some way. Perhaps I deepen it. Perhaps I slow the rate. Perhaps I emphasize feeling it’s expansion deep into my abdomen, sweeping around the back of my body. Perhaps I breathe exclusively in and out of my nose. Perhaps I draw breath in through my nose and out through my mouth. Perhaps I imagine sending my breath to different parts of my body. I have read so many different articles advocating for the ‘best way to breathe’ that it becomes overwhelming. This doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me is that I show up and deepen my relationship with my breath.
Lastly, when my time has run out or I am ready to move on, I just offer a word of thanks to my breath… acknowledging its steadfastness and consistency in my life. Sometimes my heart is soft and tender in these moments, truly feeling connection with myself. Other times it is angsty and impatient, distracted by what is next. Either way, I take what is present in my heart and I offer it up to the moment shared with my friend, Breath, and I leave more whole.
Author: Erica McLaughlin is a mindbody therapist specializing in embodiment. She strongly believes in the healing power that comes when we provide ourselves a quiet space to connect the body and mind. In this space our true essence has a chance to emerge, offering the greatest gift of healing: self-acceptance.
Photo by withbeautiful on Flickr Creative Commons