Sunday, March 23, 2014

Breathe


I’m not breathing. I can’t breathe. My big brother just did something funny, and I laughed so hard I swallowed the hard candy in my mouth. Except I didn’t swallow it, it lodged in my throat. I tried hard to inhale. Nothing. I tried hard to exhale. Nothing. My three older siblings were there, still laughing. They didn’t realize I was choking. Panicking, I started running down the hall, running away from them, trying to run away from danger and fear, running in fear, running without breath.

Then as suddenly as my breath was taken, it returned. The candy slid down my throat and air filled my lungs. I could breathe again. I sucked it in, deep in, past my aching throat and into my lungs. Blessed air. Blessed breath.

I was ten.



In junior high I joined the cross country running team, and in it found an athletic activity that suited me. For reasons I cannot remember, I tried out for the cheer leading squad. The try-outs were the epitome of a popularity contest: we performed our routine in front of the entire student body in the auditorium, after which they voted. Why I thought I had even a remote chance of winning a popularity contest, I cannot imagine. I’m not sure if it was great chutzpah, or greater denial that prompted me to try.

Of course I was not selected. As I was changing into my running gear, the chatter in the girls’ locker room turned to the cheer leader tryouts. My disappointment and feelings of failure welled up in me and threatened to spill out in the form of tears. I raced out of the locker room onto the field, and started running its perimeter. As my heart started pumping faster, and my breathing became more deliberate, the heart-ache and pain of not feeling included rose up, and were expelled on an out-breath. Again and again the sadness came up, and again and again I breathed it out. I don’t recall my specific thoughts, but after several laps I felt calm and resolute. This thing I had wanted had not happened for me, and I was sad, but I was ready to carry on.



The New Age group I belonged to as a young adult employed a technique known as rebirthing. I see rebirthing as similar to meditation: it is a time of great stillness where you minimize distractions so that whatever is in your subconscious can express itself and be heard. Rebirthing was believed to be a shorter path than meditation to reaching a state of higher consciousness, or peace, or knowingness. The technique itself involves lying down and breathing very rapidly, almost like hyper ventilating. Sometimes a practitioner guides you through this, particularly if painful memories start to surface. The term rebirthing comes from the belief that through this practice, a person can release all of their past traumas through the breath, all the way back to their own birth.

Not long after becoming a single mom I went to one of their weekend-long trainings in Seattle. A male participant took a liking to me. Unfortunately, something about his appearance reminded me of my ex-husband. Rather than appealing to me, he frightened me. I did my best to avoid him, but as we returned from a break he managed to sit right next to me. And oh lucky me, the topic for this section was “sex.” I felt self-conscious and increasingly uncomfortable as our presenters spoke frankly about sex and our common misgivings about it. My breathing became more and more shallow, as I wished myself away. At one point we were invited to share thoughts that came up for us about sex. I stopped breathing. The fellow next to me shared with glee, “hot and sweaty.”

I bolted to the back of the room, behind the rows of seats, and sat down with my back against the wall. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out.



On the cusp of launching into my personal adventure over a decade ago, I spent four months living at a Zen Buddhist hermitage in northwest California. My brother, a Buddhist monk, ran the hermitage for a few years. It was part of a much larger Buddhist community spanning several states and parts of England as well. The hermitage was surrounded by national forest. The buildings were dark and dank, and electricity was only used for a few hours each evening.

Every day started and ended with 45 minutes of meditation. At first I found this excruciating, to sit still for forty-five minutes. I was dismayed to discover that my mind’s chatter was constant, and often very critical. My body would itch, and cramp, and stiffen. My thoughts would create one urgency after another. I would categorize all of the wrongs ever committed against me, all the irritations I’d ever experienced, all the things I could hardly wait to start just as soon as the bell marked the end of meditation…

It was unbelievable how difficult the task of maintaining focus on one thing: my breath coming in and going out. How many hundreds, thousands of times did I have to bring my attention back to my breath, reminding myself that my thoughts had my attention most of the time; for these forty-five minutes they needed to take a break.

I wondered how it was to be a monk, to meditate even more than this, to live a life that was a walking meditation, a living meditation.

I will never forget the one time my thoughts fell silent. In my head, in my body, for a few moments there was complete stillness. I can best describe it as standing on a bluff at night, looking up at a vast sky, with a cleansing wind blowing through my hair, my body, my mind. But there was no bluff, no sky, no wind. Just stillness. Silence. Void.

I was overjoyed and relieved to finally experience the silence sought by meditating. It was incredible to actually experience a moment without any thought, any impulse, anything. That happened over ten years ago, and I have yet to re-experience it. Ever since, my meditations are again crowded by competing thoughts and body spasms and impulses.



While I was attending the parks law enforcement academy, I found myself challenged to my limits. I was struggling mightily with some of the required components, and I started to doubt myself. Some personal issues from my past intruded into my present and I felt overwhelmed. I worried that I would psyche myself out and not make it through academy, which would bring an end to my ranger career: the stakes were high. I sought out a therapist to help me with staying calm and confident to get through this challenging time. She taught me a technique to combat unwanted thoughts and feelings with deliberate breathing. My past would intrude, and I would expel it from my thoughts by forcing air out of my lungs quickly and fully. Self-doubt would intrude, and I would push it out with my breath. I imagined all these unwanted thoughts and feelings being expelled forcefully on my outbreath. For the final weeks of academy, I blew out a lot of negativity!



Breathing is so vital to life, our bodies do it unconsciously. Purposeful breathing grounds us in our bodies, grounds us in the present moment. Breath is Life.



I have been told that trauma is not about the actual event. It is about getting stuck in that experience, unable to move through it. Our bodies somehow never leave the traumatizing event. Our breath gets caught, and the traumatic event is trapped inside us.

My therapist keeps encouraging me to develop a mindfulness practice. But “practice” is synonymous with routine, regimen, commitment. These are things that take vast amounts of effort now. In fact there are only two commitments I’ve been able to keep somewhat consistently over the past couple years: getting myself to work if at all possible, and staying away from alcohol. That is my practice: going to work and staying sober. Everything else is just suggestions.

But on occasion I will read a few pages in a book on mindfulness, or listen to one of my tapes. And by mindfulness, they mean to be absolutely here in the present moment. And the way to learn to do that is to focus on the breathing. Like meditation. To fully experience being present in this body we are living in, kept alive by the air coursing through us.

Sometimes I’ll tell my therapist that a particular voice on a particular tape really irritates me; or the plodding pace of another makes me want to smash the disk. And she’ll encourage me to try something else until I find a voice, a pace, a style, that works for me.

I have had the most success with Deirdre Fay, http://dfay.com/. Her program called Safely Embodied takes me through guided processes where I learn to tune in to my breath, to my body, and learn to control my body’s responses. In time this is intended to help me manage anxiety, panic, and other symptoms of trauma.

During a visit from my son and his girlfriend, I asked for their recommendations on help with sleeping as I’d been experiencing increased insomnia and nightmares. Chris and Selena have a wealth of knowledge about natural remedies, both the ones that are ingested and behavioral, and their generation isn’t bogged down by decades of obsolete advice. They suggested that in preparation for sleep I turn off all electronics, because those objects actually interfere with the body relaxing. They suggested a cool shower to help slow things down. I tried this one night, then sat cross-legged on my bed listening to a Deirdre Fay tape; when it was time I fell asleep almost instantly.

I have since developed a routine around bedtime, encouraged by the enormous and immediate benefits of that first experience. At least an hour before bedtime I turn off my computer. It is hard to turn it off and walk away, but I do it. I shower, trying to remember to turn the temperature down at the end. It always seems like it will be awful, but the cool water actually feels very soothing. Then I light a couple candles in my bedroom, lightly spritz the air with some lavender, and turn off the electric lights. I turn on one of my mindfulness tapes and spend 15 to 20 minutes of guided, focused breathing.

This has been my solitary successful attempt at incorporating healthy habits into my daily life. Plans to walk, stretch, do yoga, meditate, jog, bike ride, avoid sugar and caffeine, socialize more, get out of my head more, have so far been fruitless. But my little ritual above has led to feeling relaxed as I quickly fall off to sleep, and thus encourages me to keep it up. I do believe that by nurturing this ritual, I will slowly move towards incorporating other healthful habits into my life.





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