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





Learning to Love Rain

18 04 2013
“She enjoys rain for its wetness, winter for its cold, summer for its heat. She loves rainbows as much for fading as for their brilliance. It is easy for her, she opens her heart and accepts everything.”
                          –Morgan Llewelyn

I used to be very selective about which seasons I enjoyed. Spring was too wet and muddy, summer too hot and humid. Fall was perfect and Winter was endurable. When I got active and lost weight, suddenly my experience of the seasons opened up. I began to love summer and winter, as well as autumn. I discovered that I love being outside, that my body can do a lot to regulate its internal temperature so I don’t need to be inside a climate controlled environment to feel comfortable anymore. Turns out, I don’t mind sweating that much, and braving the cold presents a challenge and a gift.

But Spring is still a difficult season, primarily because of that pesky weather condition known as RAIN. Springs in Iowa are characterized by one of two possibilities: no rain or too much rain. Last year was a spring with no rain. We moved from winter almost directly to summer, skipping the renewing season of spring. Springs with no rain are characterized by anxiety about crops (or gardens and lawns, if you live in town). And drought weighs heavily on the psyche of a state known primarily for its corn and soybean production. I remember feeling a dismay akin to loss when, on RAGBRAI last year, we rode on highways bordered on both sides by dead or stunted fields, parched and thirsty.

The dry weather continued, right through most of this winter, leading to drought forecasts for another year, with cities and counties rolling out their drought plans – water conservation being a less common concern in Iowa than in California or New Mexico, where my family have routinely practiced water austerity measures. In Iowa we are, sometimes shamefully, profligate with water.

And then the rain started. And now, instead of drought forecasts, we are listening to flood warnings (and believe me, since 2008, flood is the “F” word in these parts). In the past 24 hours, rain totals have been high, 3-5″ throughout eastern Iowa. Many people love thunderstorms, but last night when I calculated that it had been thundering and lightening for the better part of 18 hours, I was pretty much over it. As I listened to my house, dripping water from a leaky roof and down the chimney onto the hardwood floor in my living room, I couldn’t bring myself to have cheerful thoughts about the rain. I’m tired of gray skies, tired of the hemmed-in feeling of fog and clouds.

I share all of the above to make the point that, like most people, I experience weather at the practical (if selfish) level of “How does it affect me today?” I like days when the weather doesn’t adversely affect my plans. It has been a lovely gift that, in recent years, the number of days when weather doesn’t adversely affect my plans has been broadened because my tolerance has broadened. But in regard to this earth we inhabit, it is my goal to become like the woman described in the quote opening this post: “It is easy for her, she opens her heart and accepts everything.”

As another Earth Day approaches, I am taking stock of my openness to the natural world and finding pockets of resistance, like my aversion to spring and intolerance for more than incidental rain. This is important, because our cultural movement away from direct experience of the natural world, away from stewardship, has led us to a place which is dangerous for the earth itself. It is also dangerous for our spiritual survival, as well. When I set out to lose weight, I didn’t realize that what it would take was healing the emotional separations I had fostered – between my head and heart, between my body and my soul, between myself and others. And as I reflect on what it will take from me, personally, to participate in the healing of our planet, I realize that I have to heal this unnatural separation between myself and the planet we all call home.

I often go out and troll the internet for information or quotes to support the theme I’m writing about in a post. This morning, I thought I’d look for a Joanna Macy quote to end this post. Macy, an environmental activist and scholar, has been thinking deeply about these issues for a very long time. Serendipitously, I came across the paragraphs below on the first Macy-related page I clicked on. She says what I mean in a much more eloquent and complete way, and I’d like to close with her words (apologies to my friend, Martin, who hates it when I use long quotations):

“In the first movement, our infancy as a species, we felt no separation from the natural world around us. Trees, rocks, and plants surrounded us with a living presence as intimate and pulsing as our own bodies. In that primal intimacy, which anthropologists call “participation mystique,” we were as one with our world as a child in the mother’s womb.Then self-consciousness arose and gave us distance on our world. We needed that distance in order to make decisions and strategies, in order to measure, judge and to monitor our judgments. With the emergence of free-will, the fall out of the Garden of Eden, the second movement began — the lonely and heroic journey of the ego. Nowadays, yearning to reclaim a sense of wholeness, some of us tend to disparage that movement of separation from nature, but it brought us great gains for which we can be grateful. The distanced and observing eye brought us tools of science, and a priceless view of the vast, orderly intricacy of our world. The recognition of our individuality brought us trial by jury and the Bill of Rights.Now, harvesting these gains, we are ready to return. The third movement begins. Having gained distance and sophistication of perception, we can turn and recognize who we have been all along. Now it can dawn on us: we are our world knowing itself. We can relinquish our separateness. We can come home again — and participate in our world in a richer, more responsible and poignantly beautiful way than before, in our infancy.”





Peeling

4 10 2012
 
“The danger is not that the soul should doubt whether there is any bread but that, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry.” — Simone Weil
 

When I named my blog Jenion, I thought it was a clever play on words – a combination of my name (Jen) with onion. My tag line: peeling away the layers. Like the onion, I had physical layers that needed to be peeled away. The peeling of those layers has slowed considerably, but the process has uniformly felt good. Like pulling off the dead skin after a sunburn, this physical peeling (a.k.a. weight loss) revealed softer, healthier, more glowing layers beneath.

At the beginning, I didn’t fully grasp that there were psychic and emotional layers that also needed to be pulled back in order to reveal both the person I hoped to become and the life I wanted to live. In part, I didn’t understand this because I had denied my own hunger, to borrow Simone Weil’s metaphor from the quote above. After all, I had eaten my way to more than 350 pounds – how could I possibly be hungry?

The soul, my friends, can be a powerful liar and deceiver in the name of self-preservation.

Not understanding what that process would involve, I began pulling away at the top, papery layers of the onion that is my emotional self. Some of it was easy – self-revelations seemed to come with each pound shed. Occasionally, though, the peeling skin wasn’t completely ready to detach, and there was a wince of pain. But with the support of others and the motivation provided by ongoing success, I persevered. And I discovered happiness in my life. True friendship. Joy.

That would have been a nice, happy ending, eh?

However, there was a deeper truth about this process of peeling away the layers that I didn’t understand, in fact am only now beginning to grasp fully. This truth has three parts: the layers never end; once you begin peeling them away to uncover your soul’s hidden truths, you have embarked on a journey that calls for your continued commitment; the deeper the layers you uncover, the greater the emotional pain you feel upon peeling them away. The pain, the emotion, comes from exposing hidden places to air and light. And even though you know that is good for healing and the process of growth, it still results in discomfort.

There may be those who think I’m being either pessimistic or melodramatic here. Why should life, why should being happy, be so hard? they might ask. I don’t know the answer to that. Why are things that come easily to some, so elusive for me? Why are things that are obvious and clear to me so opaque for others? Why is the sky blue?!

I am particularly short on answers as I busy myself with the questions that my life asks me to consider. I do think those elusive answers are bound up in the aftermath of having lied to myself, of convincing myself that I wasn’t hungry, that I wasn’t angry, and that I had nothing to feel sad about nor any right to feel lonely. All that hunger, anger, sadness and loneliness were part of a life-giving river of emotion which my self-deception damned up, creating a huge reservoir. Now, each layer I peel away from my inner-onion, creates a chink in the damn. The emotions start to leak out, and threaten to become a torrent. Onions, I should have realized, call forth tears.

After all that, there is still a happy ending here. Happiness, true friendship, joy – all these are part of the same river of emotion I once damned up through self-deceit. Un-damned, the river flows with all of the emotions: the good, the difficult, and the life-affirming ones. With tears and laughter, anger and love, hunger and peace.

I keep peeling with that vision in mind.





Authentic Personas?

27 09 2012

I read this piece on The Living Notebook blog about artists creating personas in their work. He discusses a number of reasons artists might work with a persona – from exploring a new voice to gaining some distance from their subject matter. We all know of famous, successful, uses of personas in literature, art and music (John Berryman’s Henry in The Dream Songs, or Nicki Minaj’s Roman Zolansky). There have been a few quite public backfires: Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines? Anyone?

Reading the article made me wonder: have I ever used a persona in work I’ve created or on this blog? Since I am on a quest for authenticity in my life, one part of me says a resounding no to this idea. If I speak in the voice of a created character, how can I also be authentic?

Then another part of me remembers picking Flo Rida’s “Club Can’t Handle Me” as my 50th year theme song. The reason I loved that song was that it allowed me to express a side of myself that usually doesn’t see the light of day – audacious, self-confident, desirable. I would generally not be able to express these qualities in my own voice as I would be both too self-conscious and too doubtful of their reality. But when I sang along with Flo Rida, I became the part of myself that felt those things. I wasn’t Flo (or is it Rida?) – I was me.

Just for fun, I’ve been thinking about the various personas it might be possible for me to explore while remaining authentically true to myself – not overlaying an imaginary person on my frame, but drawing forth a piece of my personality not usually expressed openly. Below, I’ve dreamed up three candidates for my own persona, along with a little of what they might have to say…

____________________

“Cheeks”: an athletic and geared-up woman. Outdoorsy. Her enthusiasm for life results in those who listen to her speak imagining lots of exclamation points and air quotes.

Dude! I woke up to the worst leg cramps EVER! I’ve been sore before but nothing like this! My first official endurance trail race totally took everything I had and then some!!! I can only say “WOW‘! My new motto: “If something doesn’t hurt, you’re not giving it enough!” I just didn’t expect “everything” to hurt this much. I thought I understood “discipline” and “hard work” before, right?! But now I know I’m capable of so much more. Man! I have to hold myself to even more stringent standards to reach my “athletic potential”. As for actually competing – Holy crap – what a rush!!!!!

____________________

Sasquatch: Imposingly tall and muscled, S. is clad only in long, matted hair. She makes little to no eye contact when speaking. Her voice and demeanor are both disconcertingly soft and gentle.

I am here today to share my real-life experience of being a yeti among humans.

The first thing you need to know to understand the yeti experience in common society is this: yeti’s like people, but you scare us. We will do anything to maintain the safety of our solitude and to stay separate from those around us. We hide out. We keep to the shadows. Why? Because you people have great potential to hurt us. You get close and then you blab about us, exploit our vulnerability. And yetis do not like being hurt. We strike out in response – and we are powerful enough to really hurt you in return, which frightens us immensely. Hurt or be hurt – its a terrible choice. So, for the sake of all, let’s just stay apart, keep a safe distance between us. Let’s preserve our aloneness and separateness.

____________________

Shirley: A middle-aged woman with salt-and-pepper hair. She speaks only after taking a sip from the cup of black coffee seemingly welded to her hand.

I know what you’re thinking. I have the same name as Jenion’s mother. Well, too bad for me – that’s life. In case you’re wondering, it doesn’t really matter what I say, I will end up being blamed for everything anyway. See? Life isn’t fair.

____________________

Hmmm. Perhaps it takes a more skilled writer than me to actually pull off this persona thing. Jenion/Cheeks does not equal Hemingway/Nick Adams! On the other hand, as I said last week (here), we need to reclaim the parts of ourselves we’ve rejected, the parts we’ve disowned. That includes both the parts we are happy to reclaim (an idea of ourselves as capable of things we didn’t realize, a la Cheeks) and the darker parts we don’t like looking closely at (the inner yeti whose fear and shame makes us want to hide from others). Imagining these pieces of ourselves as various personas, we can learn so much about who/what they are. Who and what we are. My inner Shirley may be a bit cantankerous at times, but she is also realistic and practical – two qualities I’ve tended to shun in favor of projecting a more creative and airy self-image. Is that a trade-off I want to continue making?

Allowing these inner selves  to speak can be a very powerful means of working towards authenticity and congruence – a way of bringing the scattered parts of ourselves back together so that we see their gifts as well as whatever liabilities caused us to disown them in the first place.

For now, though, I think I’ll stick to a strictly internal dialogue with my personas!

P.S. Thanks for being a good sport, Mom!




The Top of Our Lungs

20 09 2012
 
 
“…We want access to the top of our lungs, where the shouts and the holy hosannahs are, the whoops and wails and hullabaloos — not just the bottom of our lungs, which is reserved for whispers and polite conversation, for things said under the breath.”–Gregg Levoy Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life
  Read the rest of this entry »




Flashback Friday – Nice Ride, Brother!

6 01 2012

It was 1970-something. Back row: Dave, Debbie Ross, Stephanie Beller, Marla St. Clair; Front Row: Jeff Hanson, Susannah Ross, me.

The car belonged to my friend and youth-group leader, Dave Finnegan. From the first night we met, at a Tuesday night Inter-Church Youth (ICY) meeting, I thought he was awesome. Gentle of spirit, kind, and incredibly smart. Not a bad volleyball player. Or too shabby with that guitar.

In the ensuing 35 or so years since we met, Dave has been an important influence on my life AND a member of my family – he and my sister Chris were married a couple of years after this photo. They raised two amazing sons, my nephews Ben and Tim, together. And they have weathered more than their share of serious illness – Dave faced several bouts of cancer, culminating in a Stage IV diagnosis and a grueling experimental treatment program at M.D. Anderson in Houston (he has been cancer free since then, approximately twenty years). My sister, Chris, will have surgery on Tuesday for her second round with breast cancer.

What I want to say about Dave in this Flashback is that I couldn’t have chosen anyone better for my sister’s life companion. You know how it is with in-laws: they marry into a family like ours (big, loud, opinionated) and can spend years figuring out how not to be chewed up and spit out. Dave maintains his calm, faithful and principled presence – occasionally making us groan at his terrible puns. In the coming weeks, he will be the gentle rock upon which my sister will lean – and by virtue of his presence where we can’t be, we will all lean on him to an extent (poor guy). After more than three decades, I can  say with complete trust that he’s up to the task. I thank God, and my brother Dave, for that!





too late

18 08 2011

Last Saturday, I knew I was about to head into a stressful few weeks, so I planned to take it easy in the morning: a pot of coffee and some magazines while I enjoyed the cool temperature on my patio. Seemed like a perfect idea. Have you ever had a moment when you were happily moving through your day and suddenly, WHAM! you slam up against something that, unexpectedly, takes you to a place you never intended?

As I read an article recommending summer reading, and offering reviews of a variety of books to fit different summer moods or locales, it happened. The book being reviewed was You Are Free by Danzy Senna, a collection of eight stories, each of which “…surveys the dangerous fault line between parenthood and remaining childless.” The reviewer goes on to quote Livy, one story’s protagonist:

“And sooner or later all women know this,” says Livy. “You won’t know what it was you gave up until it is too late to recover.”

As soon as I read that line, it was too late for me to recover my emotional equilibrium. My mind was suddenly full of things I gave up and realized, too late, that I wanted. That beaded mask I made; certain relationships; my sense of self as an adventurer. Gave away. Gave up. Gave up on.

So, there I was on a lovely Saturday morning, on my patio in my pajamas, crying into my coffee.

Then I remembered something important: I am not my past.

I’ve watched too many movies about the perils of time travel, and the chaos that would result from even the tiniest change, to attempt to go back. And revisiting past choices with regret is like picking at a scab – viscerally satisfying in that moment, perhaps, but not good for the healing process in the long run. So, I do know what Livy says all women eventually know. But I also know this:  if it is too late to recover, it is definitely too late to cry about it. Especially on a beautiful, tranquil Saturday morning.