Love Yourself?

Last summer, while visiting my brother in Chicago, I insisted he stop the car so I could take a photo of a yoga studio. Not because it looked particularly different from any of the other store-fronts or even yoga studios we had already passed. I wanted to take a photo of its name: Self-Centered Yoga. I wondered what the focus of this particular yoga studio was: Centering the self? Centered on the self? Selfishly self-referenced? It struck me as funny, and I wondered if the owners were knowingly playing on the irony of the name – that to many people who don’t practice yoga, those who do are entirely too self-centered.

I share this story to illustrate my own ambivalence about the topic of loving oneself. Maybe being self-centered has gotten a bad rap? How and how much are we meant to love ourselves?

Even the bible presupposes self-love: the second of the greatest commandments (Mark 12:31) tells us to “love your neighbor as yourself”. We get ample instruction in loving our neighbors throughout our childhoods – share, be nice, “stupid” is a bad word…but very little information is forthcoming about exactly how we are to love ourselves.

A couple of months ago, a friend shared with me that she was responsible for chauffering a speaker for the day, and that he had been very inspiring. She sent a link to his Ted Talk, and I watched it. In telling his own inspiring story as a survivor of trauma, he shared that one of the most powerful things he’d done to bring about change in his own life was to love himself; to believe he is both loved and worthy of love. Looking himself in the eyes in a mirror, he tells himself he is loved.  (Here is the link to Sasha Joseph Neulinger’s powerful Ted talk: https://youtu.be/K_WL5iqvPlY)

A few weeks ago, someone I admire told a story about how using an affirmation of self-love has improved her energy, her relationship with her husband, and her ability to focus on her life goals. I admit, while I kept my skepticism to myself, I was doubtful. This story wasn’t about a healing response to trauma – it was about a young woman trying to live her best life. Hmmm.

I am currently reading a book which suggests ways we can make changes in our lives to live more in line with who and what we want to be. Every chapter ends with a list of “practical” steps or tools to take to accomplish this. Every list ends with “Love Yourself”. It took me several chapters to pick up on this, but then I went back and checked. Yep, every chapter ends with the exhortation. Love yourself.

And then last week I saw the video I shared at the top of this post. I was very moved, seeing this girl’s emotion upon realizing that the doll looks like her. She hugs it to her tightly and says, “I love you.” This simple phrase speaks volumes: you look like me and I love you; I need to believe AND express that I am loveable.

When the same message is repeated over and over again, and directed toward me (as opposed to being a repetitive cultural refrain or social media meme), I think it is important to pay attention. So, what am I supposed to be taking away from this particular thread in my life, popping up repeatedly and insistently over the last eight weeks?

Success coach and author, Jen Sincero (I’d like to take her name as my alter-ego!), says:

“We’re born knowing how to trust our instincts, how to breathe deeply, how to eat only when we’re hungry, how to not care about what anyone thinks of our singing voices, dance moves, or hair-dos, we know how to play, create, and love without holding back. Then, as we grow and learn from the people around us, we replace many of these primal understandings with negative false beliefs, fear, shame and self-doubt…And while there are countless ways that we rip ourselves off, there’s one way in particular that is, without a doubt, the most rampant and the most devastating of all: we invest everything we’ve got in believing that we’re not good enough. We arrive here as perfect little bundles of joy and then set about the task of learning to un-love ourselves!”   (from You Are A Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life)

Fear. Shame. Self-doubt. If I am honest with myself, I’ve invested significantly more of my personal capital in these three than in self love. It is undoubtedly true that this has been to my own detriment, as it keeps me from taking risks, from moving forward with confidence, etc. More important, what I am beginning to understand is that it has also been detrimental to the world I live in and am helping to co-create. Fear, shame and self-doubt cause me to respond to the world by closing in on myself, shielding myself from the prying eyes of criticism or ridicule for being the loser-failure I think I might be. And that closing in (those months of binge-watching “Castle” reruns, the 750+ games of “Monkey Wrench” word search, the daily hours of retweets about politics) keeps me focused on anything BUT impacting the world by sharing my unique gifts and best self. And if I am truthful, harshly judging myself leads me to be much more judgmental about other folks. I want to start labeling them: idiot, moron, baby, coward.

Frankly, I am not afraid of becoming a self-aggrandizing megalomaniac, trumpeting statements like “I have a great mind, one of the best minds”. I don’t have that in me. But “imagine,” says Jen Sincero, “how different your reality would be (and the reality of everyone surrounding you) if you woke up every morning certain of your own lovability and your critically important role on this planet.” That might be a reality very worth investing in.

 

Learning to Breathe

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