Learning to Breathe

26 06 2014

The address arrived via text that afternoon. Although I probably could have biked, I decided to drive. I didn’t know what to expect, nor did I have any idea how long the session would last. I pulled up to the house, a small two story in a very modest neighborhood. I recognized no one on the porch or just inside the house as I walked to the front door, but they appeared to be expecting me.

Then my friend Melissa materialized, and I felt much more grounded. I was introduced to the others. At first, it wasn’t clear who were the practitioners and who the practice subjects (other than me). Our hosts were a warm and very welcoming couple, and I felt any lingering unease –  my usual discomfort in new situations rather than any concerns related to the purpose of the evening – dissipate.

I had intentionally avoided seeking more than the basic description Melissa had originally given me when she asked if I would be one of her practice subjects as she learned to facilitate something called Rebirthing Breathwork. For one, I wanted to enter the experience with an open mind – and my initial thoughts associated with the word “rebirthing” were anything but open. I’ve never really been a fan of the idea of “rebirthing”: healing the trauma experienced as part of our own births. Also, there was something about past-lives in the brief description I had received. While I scared myself with Bridey Murphy stories as an adolescent (and when I thought about my brother Jeff’s detailed vignettes about his life “inside mommy’s tummy”), I’m also not a big believer in the idea that we may be seeking healing from events which occurred in other lifetimes. Do we live multiple lives with the same soul, if not the same corporeal body? I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about this: my hands, my brain, and my emotions are full enough handling this one life I’m currently living.

After a brief introduction to Rebirthing Breathwork, Melissa and I got started. I laid down on my back on the floor, cushioned by a mat and pillow. And I began breathing. The breathing technique was neither difficult nor complicated. Conscious connected breaths consist of inhaling and exhaling without a pause between the two. At first, it just felt strange. Then, my body wanted to fight it, tensing instead of relaxing. I had to really focus on relaxing my muscles (particularly in my upper torso and jaw).

Eventually, I relaxed into the process. My mind occasionally strayed from my breathing, but when this happened Melissa was there to recall me to focus. The session began at 6:20 p.m. and ended after what felt to me like approximately 40 minutes – I was shocked to learn that 90 minutes had actually passed. It is difficult for me to describe exactly what I felt through the course of that 90 minutes, but here goes:

  • I began to feel a slight tingling sensation in my hands and feet, almost as if my limbs had fallen asleep. The difference was that this tingling spread into my whole body and became a deep, thrumming, energy – almost like electricity – that felt like it was ready to shoot out of the top of my head like a geyser. A geyser of bright, white energy.
  • While I was acutely aware of my body, thrumming with energy, I also had the sensation of my mind moving through space and time at a highly accelerated rate. I described it, later, as feeling like I existed on two planes at once (my body on one plane, my mind on another) with time moving at a different pace on each.
  • Because of the focus on my breathing, my thoughts were not wandering all over, or playing their usual “greatest hits”: what I’m not getting done, what I’m disappointed with, what I’m afraid of. I leaned into the sensation of being in what I can only describe as a non-ordinary reality.

When I was instructed to breathe normally and to take my time returning to the more usual reality of the front porch of a house in a neighborhood in Minneapolis, I took my time. The electrical energy coursing through my body began to dissipate, but it didn’t leave me entirely. In its wake, I felt light and almost giddy.  I didn’t want to open my eyes and let go of that feeling, so I kept them closed while I stretched every muscle in my body. When I did finally open my eyes, I looked at Melissa and giggled. I felt high, euphoric.

Melissa warned me before we started that everyone responds differently. For some people, conscious connected breathing will bring about connection to past trauma, resulting in a range of emotional responses. I connected with nothing but energy and light. The relaxed state I was in immediately following the session remained with me. Later, I slept soundly and throughout the night. Not once did I wake with anxious thoughts or worries – something that has, for me, become routine in recent months.

In the week prior to the breathwork session, I had told my friend Molly that I hadn’t felt “normal” since last fall. There was a weight sitting squarely on my chest – the weight of accumulated stress, anxiety, fear, loneliness that has accompanied my efforts to build a life here in Minneapolis. In the flush of bliss I felt after the breathwork session, I didn’t immediately recognize that this weight had lifted. Sometime the next morning, as I set about my daily tasks, I realized that it wasn’t there. I felt blessedly normal. For days, now, that weight has not returned. I no longer feel blissful or euphoric, but that is a small matter compared with the surcease of constant anxiety.

Despite my purposeful decision not to read-up on Rebirthing Breathwork before my session, my curiosity to know more about how it works has been piqued, and I’ve been reading-up on it this week. I am not the most skeptical person I know, but I am my mother’s daughter – which is to say, I don’t swallow everything I read or am told hook-line-and-sinker. Some of what I’ve read triggers my inner skeptic in a powerful way; but I keep coming back to my experience of light and energy and gentle healing. There is a connection between breathwork as described by “rebirthers”, and that described by and used in yoga and meditation practices. Taken in that context, the accumulated information about the importance of breathing well is convincing. As is the observation that, in this age and culture, we have become a society of shallow breathers. This begs the question: Is there a connection between our poor breathing and the epidemic of anxiety we’re experiencing these days?

I don’t have the answer to that question. But I am sharing my experience – limited as it is – in order to suggest that there is something important here. Something worth paying attention to. Whether we engage in Rebirthing Breathwork, yoga, or meditation; whether we sit in prayer or silent contemplation – whatever we name our experience of reflection – learning to breathe is a vital, cleansing component.

Below are some links you might find useful if you’re interested in learning more.

 

http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/ART02039/the-art-and-science-of-breathing.html 

http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Mental_Health_Letter/2009/May/Take-a-deep-breath

http://www.rebirthingbreathwork.net





Just Ask

19 06 2014
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“The first step to a richer, happier, lovelier life is simple: Speak up! (from Oprah magazine, July 2014)

 

Several years ago I read an article in a women’s magazine by an older woman who took out a personal ad in which she, very directly, asked for sex partners. Her ad stated that she had not had either as much sex nor as many sexual partners as she had hoped in her life. As a woman in her 60s (if I remember correctly), she felt that these experiences were not forthcoming on their own. She hoped the ad might create more opportunities – which, according to the article, it did indeed.

Setting aside questions of morality or values or even those of health and safety (all of which could be amply debated here) what this woman did was, in my experience, unusual: she asked for what she wanted. Directly; unapologetically; without shame; without suggesting in the same breath that she probably didn’t deserve it anyway.

In her widely viewed Ted talk (titled “The Art of Asking”), alt-rock icon and crowd-sourcing pioneer Amanda Palmer discusses how others have repeatedly attempted to shame her for asking, as if asking for what she needs is lazy, exploitive, inappropriate somehow. But Palmer believes that real connection happens between two people when one asks and the other responds – whether what changes hands is a flower, a floor to crash on, or over a million dollars for a Kickstarter campaign.

What got me started on these musings was a conversation with my friend Kathe. It was a beautiful afternoon at Lake Calhoun, and we were enjoying both the sun and a little leisure time to catch up on recent hectic weeks. Kathe and I both moved to the city last year (Kathe from the suburbs and me from Iowa) and reset our lives. There’s no blueprint for recreating your life in your early 50s, so we’re both making this up as we go along. And we’re both learning a lot about our strengths and our shortcomings. Kathe’s new career in real estate requires her to continually reach out to others, expand her circle of connections, and ask them to consider her services. We had similar visceral reactions – clearly recoiling in distaste – to the idea of repeatedly asking others for what we need. I recommended Kathe watch Amanda Palmer’s Ted talk, thinking about the part where Palmer tells viewers to “ask without shame”.

Many well-known wise men and women have admonished us to ask. From Rumi to Jesus to Maya Angelou, we’ve been told that the first step toward getting or achieving what we really want is to ask for it. Whether we are asking a specific individual for a specific thing, we are putting an intention out into the universe, or we are making a supplication in prayer the act of asking – saying the words – is important. On an intellectual level, I get this – goals and desires stated aloud are more compelling than those kept quietly in our hearts; others cannot offer us the tangible support we need if we haven’t expressed our need. On an emotional level, the idea of asking tangles my gut in knots of fear and anxiety.

Author Elizabeth Gilbert, in a short gem of an article in Oprah magazine, suggests that this is a common experience for women. She says:

First of all, you must know what you really want, which can be hard if you were raised to please others. Secondly, you must believe that what you want is worthy – again, a tricky prospect for women long trained in the dark arts of self-deprecation. Thirdly, you must face the possibility of rejection. That’s the worst bit…and so, like trial lawyers, we often ask only questions to which we already know the answers. Which means: no risk. Which further means: no reward…

…I think men have always understood — that a glorious failure can sometimes be more life affirming than a cautious win. This is why men are constantly asking for stuff they night not even deserve or maybe aren’t totally qualified to handle…I wish more women would do the same. Because sometimes you get a yes, and even if you weren’t prepared for that yes, you rise to the occasion. You aren’t ready, and then you are. It’s irrational, but it’s magical.

Gilbert’s article closes with her assurance that there are many ways to ask, and that you may need to employ a variety of styles and tactics, but the bottom line is this: “Just freaking ask.”

My experience bears out Gilbert’s suggestion of gender differences in the approach to asking for what we want. When I am with male friends or relatives, I am sometimes astounded by their capacity for asking – for everything from free stuff  (t-shirts, bags, tickets) to people’s contact information to whether their organizations may have any positions opening in the near future. Usually, I am in awe – not only of the ask, but also of the end results. Often, a yes is forthcoming, but a no doesn’t incapacitate anyone.

Which leads me to the this: If I only ask for things I’ve pinned my hopes of success on, a no will be devastating. The hesitation to ask unless it is Something Very Important holds us back, and is part of what Gilbert refers to as “the dark arts of self-deprecation”. I don’t want to bother anyone, it’s not that important – that’s how the thinking goes. What it means is: I’m not that important, so what I want isn’t important either. Believe me, I’m not thrilled to discover that I am still thinking this way at my age. Not thrilled to discover the ways I’m holding myself back at a time when pushing forward is so critical to establishing the life I hope for. But I am willing to work on it.

What about you? We can either continue on the path of fear, small-thinking, and self-negation or we can change. And here’s the thing – we already know what all those wise people have tried to say. We already know that asking precedes receiving. We already know that true connection with others is achieved through the process of asking, giving, accepting – a river that flows in both directions. We invest ourselves in saying yes to those who ask for our support, for whatever we can uniquely contribute to their wholeness and success. Why can’t we allow others to invest in us? Isn’t it time, as Elizabeth Gilbert says, to just freaking ask?

What I point out to people is that it’s silly to be afraid that you’re not going to get what you want if you ask. Because you are already not getting what you want. They always laugh about that because they realize it’s so true. Without asking you already have failed, you already have nothing. What are you afraid of? You’re afraid of getting what you already have! It’s ridiculous! Who cares if you don’t get it when you ask for it, because, before you ask for it, you don’t have it anyway. So there’s really nothing to be afraid of.   — Marcia Martin

 

 

 





The Pregnant Pause

12 06 2014

On a summer evening, after a long day of sunshine and blue skies, you watch storm clouds gather in the west. You feel the humidity skyrocket as the air grows more still. On the edges of the storm clouds you see lightening flash, too far away for concern. A bit later you finally hear it, in the far distance, a rumbling of thunder. In that pause before the storm arrives, it seems the whole world is holding its breath, waiting.

Which do you feel: anticipation or dread?

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A dear friend of mine is pregnant, expecting her first child. Last night she texted, with relief, that she has a doctor’s appointment today. She explained her relief this way:

First you find out you’re pregnant at home. You call the doctor’s office, and they say, “ok, we’ll see you in a month”, because they won’t see you until you’re like nine weeks. And then you finally see the baby, and you’re like “Thank God”. Then you get sick, which is actually the most reassuring thing ever because at least you know its in there doing something to make you feel sick. And then you’re waiting four weeks before the next appointment. And while you wait into weeks 10/11/12/13, your sickness gets better which means you can’t tell if anything else is going on. You just have to hope it is. And so I go in tomorrow, and they won’t do a picture but they will do a heart beat and I’ll feel better. And then I’ll wait four more weeks. You can’t feel it move or anything right now, so it’s all just a bunch of hope. Hope that someday at the end it’s a happy human.

After our conversation, it occurred to me that the process she had just described was familiar in some ways, despite the fact that I’ve never been pregnant. A year ago this past week (June 6, 2013) I packed my car and left Cedar Rapids to create a new life. The first month, I was vacationing in New Mexico – enjoying my family and the natural beauty of the area. I alternated between relaxing into the moment and wishing to move time forward more quickly, to jump ahead to the process of settling into my new home in Minnesota. Like my friend waiting for her first pregnancy appointment, I wanted the confirmation of sight – the city, my apartment (rented from a distance) – wanted to know it was real and not still a “someday” dream.

In the process of creating a new life pregnancy-style, there are markers. Your monthly exams, books that compare your growing child to various foods (a peanut, a grape) so you can visualize the growth inside you. A wealth of information, a nearly day-by-day road map of what to expect. My friend will eventually have a sonogram and be told the baby’s gender. She’ll feel the baby’s first kick, feel her body expanding and conforming to the little person inside it. And with all that, there is still the unknown, the waiting that my friend describes.

In the process of creating a new life for oneself, there are no road maps. No handy “What to Expect When You’re Taking a Blind Leap of Faith” books parsing the days for you. No trimesters to mark off on the calendar. But there are check-ups and check-ins along the way, like my friend’s monthly doctor’s visits. Moments that confirm you’re on the right track. Moments that make it clear a course-correction is needed. Moments of extreme joy and of fear and of quiet acceptance. Moments when you can’t wait for what is to come and moments when you dread what may be next.

We all know it takes nine months to give birth to another human – no matter how often we witness it, we are still spellbound by the miracle of it.

How long does it take to give birth to a new self, a new lifestyle? That gestation period is trickier because it is different for each of us who takes on the journey. A year into it, I’m still not sure how far along I am. So far, each set-back has been met with a reprieve. Each moment of despair with one of joy. I didn’t know ahead of time that I’d slip downward on Maslow’s hierarchy to the bottom rungs; didn’t realize how hard that would be or what I’d learn about myself when it happened. I’m finally beginning to trust that my basic needs will be met – now, I’m squarely focused on satisfying the need for belonging and love, setting my sights on “esteem”.

When I decided to transform my life, I thought it would be a relatively smooth transition upward to “self-actualization” – even though I ought to have known better: there are no guarantees of achieving the highest levels of actualization – just the desire to keep climbing in that direction. Life cycles back around to the hard parts even if you don’t take drastic steps toward change, so why not take the chance to create something bigger?

In the midst of change, no matter how long it takes, there will be times when you see the path ahead and times when you can’t. Times when you must move forward with just the hope that someday, at the end, you’re a happy human.

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Whether you waited with anticipation or dread, the storm arrived.

The next day dawned. And it was spectacularly beautiful. Clean, fresh, cool air. Pink skies giving way to cerulean blue.

Which begs the question: if you can choose, why not choose anticipation? The next day dawns no matter what. Why spend your energy dreading it when there is so much more power in anticipating, in looking forward?

 





Stop Weighing Yourself

5 06 2014

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“Stop weighing yourself.”

Three little words that showed up in my Twitter feed last week. I have no idea whether they were a reaction or a challenge, a frustrated admonition or a supportive suggestion. Were they directed at a specific individual or open advice for all?

Whatever their original intent, these three words have continued turning over and around in my head since I read them. They have been speaking to me about the many ways we weigh ourselves and find ourselves wanting. And they suggest – no, demand – that we stop doing this. Self-reflection is an important tool for growth. But when self-recrimination replaces balanced self-assessment, we can find ourselves engaging in a vicious self-talk that is completely lacking in constructive energy. Suddenly, our internal dialogue has us contending with the biggest bully of our lives – our own inner critic. Below, I’ve compiled a partial list of ways we need to stop weighing ourselves because they almost inevitably lead to self-bullying. Feel free to add yours in the comments!

Stop comparing yourself to arbitrary measures

As a culture, we are obsessed with measuring things. We know how much we “should” weigh based on our height and age; we know how many servings of each type of food we ought to eat; we have credit scores which determine whether we are a good or bad financial risk; and now we even have Klout scores measuring how influential we are. One of the problems with these measures is that they are based on huge data sets, not on individual people. The data set incorporates individual difference but we forget that when we find the point that “represents” us – especially if we don’t land right on that point (if our weight or our education or how often we clean our bathroom doesn’t conform to the average).

Another difficulty with these arbitrary measures is that, as human beings, we tend to apply meaning to them beyond the use for which the measure was originally intended. We take internet quizzes and suddenly find ourselves judging our tendency toward introversion/extroversion or our similarity to certain characters from Downton Abbey. We look at our credit score or the scale and instead of thinking, “This is only one way of seeing my situation” we think, “I’m a loser” or “I’m a fat slob.” Isn’t it time to stop taking these impersonal measures and applying them to ourselves in deeply personal – and often hurtful – ways?

Stop comparing yourself to others 

It is incredibly difficult to avoid finding yourself wanting by comparison to others. One reason is that we generally only see what others are choosing to let us see – and we all try to appear in the best light publicly. Another reason is that we are almost always more charitable toward others than we are toward ourselves. HER curves look sensuous, MINE look dumpy. HIS old clothes look “classic” or “vintage,” MINE are hopelessly out-of-date. We do this when the other person’s self or things are similar to us/ours. How much more so do we assign negative attributes to ourselves when there is disparity between us and another person? When I attend Bike School (the Thursday night twitter group found at #bikeschool) I am often jealous of the number and kind of bikes the other attendees own. As soon as I begin to feel sorry for myself as the owner of one measly old Trek hybrid, I begin a downward spiral that leaves me, by the end of the evening, feeling like an unemployed loser with little to offer the world – all because I can’t afford to own a road bike?!

Why is it so difficult to celebrate our own unique selves, living in our own unique circumstances? Because we assign value to the wrong things when we compare ourselves to others. I learned an important lesson about this by associating with distance runners when I worked with college student athletes. Runners race. Races, by definition, pit you against others in a comparison of skill determined by speed. But distance runners are often more focused on their personal record (PR) – comparing their own previous performance to their current performance. Imagine if we did this in daily life. I can’t help but think we’d all be a lot happier focusing on our progress rather than our shortfalls.

Stop thinking you are not enough

I recently bought The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo. A few pages in, I came upon this, “…worthless feelings arise when we believe, however briefly, that who we are is not enough.” The passage goes on to ask that we sit and “quietly feel the fact that who you are is enough.” I couldn’t do it. In that moment, the first thought that occurred to me was, “Obviously, I’m not enough.” Because if I were enough, I’d have a better job. If I were enough, someone would be in love with me. If I were enough…well, let’s just say the list of ways I could immediately identify myself as ‘not enough’ was very long.

Even in the midst of that emotional moment of wallowing in my own inadequacy, I knew I was indulging in the worst form of self-pity. When I weigh myself and find that I am “not enough”, it absolves me of responsibility. Its not my fault that my life isn’t what I want it to be – I’m not enough. It is beyond my ability to change – I’m not enough. When I think of myself as not enough, I cannot be an agent of change, I can only be a bit of flotsam tossed about by the currents of life. Thinking I am not enough is an abdication of my personal power.

Stop participating in your own shaming

Samuel Johnson said, “Adversity is the state in which a man most easily becomes acquainted with himself, being especially free from admirers then.” To a certain extent, this is true – and adversity can be a great teacher. However, it also happens to be the state in which we are most susceptible to our own inner critics. In our good moments, this results in positive self-talk and an optimistic viewpoint. In our lesser moments, the result is that we allow our inner voices to say nasty things to us – things we would never put up with from someone else. Words have the power to hurt – whether they originate with others or within ourselves. Learn to speak kinder words in a more respectful tone inside your own head. You may never completely eradicate shame from your life, but you don’t need to participate in its proliferation.

Stop focusing on the “wrong” things and start focusing on the “right” things

Last time I weighed myself and put the number up on this blog, the scale read 176 pounds. Exactly half of my starting weight of 352. This is a wonderful thing. I’ve worked hard and taken a slow path to get here. I’m not sure what I said to a friend when we were discussing this, but his response was, “When you look at yourself do you seriously NOT see how much you’ve physically changed in just the time since you moved here?” My response was, “Not really.” Because recently I haven’t felt good about my life in general, so when I look in the mirror what I see is sagging skin, wrinkles, the weight I still have to lose.

The problem with focusing on the wrong things is that we tend to move toward what we are focused on. This is true when we’re driving a car and accidentally veer toward the field full of baby lambs we were looking at and it is true in our daily lives. If my focus is on the ways I fall short, I continue to move toward my weaknesses, instead of moving toward my strengths.

Stop letting your last decision or choice define you

We give the other people in our lives lots of chances and opportunities, often many more than they may objectively deserve. We understand that people are flawed, and that even good people make bad decisions or choices that we disagree with. We continue to love and support them anyway. In fact, that may be how many of us define love and/or friendship: offering ongoing love and support despite these things.

We rarely cut ourselves that same slack.

One thing I’ve learned from my efforts to live a balanced and healthy lifestyle, including management of my relationship with food, is that every bite is an opportunity to make a new choice. It doesn’t matter that the last choice I made was to dump a pile of cheese crackers on my plate – wish I hadn’t, but its over and done. The next choice can be a better one. The point isn’t to make perfect choices every time – and berate yourself when you fall short of this ideal. The point is to make more good choices, in the aggregate, than bad ones. By “good” I mean “that lead toward what you want” and by bad I mean “that don’t lead toward what you want.” Removing the shame, guilt, and deficit-thinking that keep us mired in weighing ourselves and finding ourselves wanting, is the goal.

 

Stop. Weighing. Yourself. When my friend tweeted those three little words he likely had no idea who they would touch or how they would be taken! He tweeted them into the ethernet anyway, rather than being bogged down with self-doubt and self-criticism. I think there’s something important each of us can take from his admonition! What do you think?