Just Breathe Through It

18 Jul

Many of us have been in a yoga or exercise class where the teacher serenely says, “Just breathe through it,” while we’re swearing beneath our breath because they have us holding some ridiculous position or are asking us to do endless crunches that make our stomachs burn as if on fire. “I don’t want to breathe through it!” we often scream in our heads. “I just want this *&&^%$ pain to stop!” What do the teachers mean when they say, ‘Just breathe through it,’ like a bleeping mantra? What is the breath and why is it so powerful?

While breathing seems so simple, it’s actually something we resist when we are scared or in pain. For some reason, we’d rather not “breathe through it.” We’d prefer to avoid it – whatever that it is – and breathing makes us feel it.

The irony is that the feeling is there whether we surrender to it or not. If we hold our breath thinking we can by-pass pain, we’re actually deluding ourselves. It requires a considerable amount of energy to keep something down. In fact, pain magnifies when we suppress it. Like damning up a river, once the floodgates open, the feelings will flow forth in full force.

If we weren’t breathing, we’d be dead. Yet if we invite the breath in more consciously and more fully, we ease the process considerably.

Why is a woman in labor told to breathe, breathe, and breathe! Because she’s pushing new life into being. When she holds her breath, she makes things more difficult for herself and the baby. When she breathes, she can push more easily.

All of this sounds nice but when we’re going through excruciating times, we’re like the woman in labor who wants to tell everyone around her telling her to breathe to “f— off!” Transformation is brutal work and sometimes the labor is so long and tenuous it feels like we will die. When the healing needs are global how do we breathe through rape, violence, illness, betrayal and injustice? It’s hard to go all yoga-zen in these moments. How do we as humans endure?

On a practical level we need to actually breathe versus intellectually reflecting on it. We don’t have to engage in fancy complicated breathing exercises. We can simply imagine our breath coming in and out like an ocean wave – back and forth, back and forth. There is nothing to control, fix, stop or judge. There is nothing we have to “do.”

When we “breathe through it”, we can feel the breath’s power to cleanse, sustain and revitalize every aspect of our being. In fact, the words breath in Hebrew (ruach), in Greek (pneuma) and Sanskrit (prana) are synonymous with the words “spirit” or “wind.” This indicates a link between our breath, being, and the divine. Our breath is the life force that helps us fully embrace and enjoy the moment. It is also the conduit of transformation.

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Are We Our Stories?

13 Jul

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The other day I posted a narrative about my mother’s incarceration on my blog. It’s an old story. Many people in my life are familiar with it. And like that news story that airs too many times, the story can grow very old.

Why then do we tell our stories? What is the point? It is to our benefit or detriment? In the telling do we transcend our narratives or reinforce them?

These are fundamental questions in the world of psychotherapy. Narrative matters. It’s important to communicate and unburden traumas. It’s important to share and to be witnessed. In fact, the primary solace of narration often comes from having an audience. We no longer are fully alone in our stories that caused pain and made no sense.

Yet retelling a story over and over can paradoxically reinforce it.

It’s a super fine line. Some feel adamantly that we share until we no longer need to. Period. It’s no one’s business to tell us when we’re to be done. And it’s certainly no one’s business to tell us what we do or don’t feel because our stories are etched into the landscapes our psyches. Those traces remain.

Freud wrote of repetition compulsion where people keep enacting aspects of the trauma with the hopes of mastering it yet often don’t. However, in play therapy, repetition compulsion in children’s play usually gives way to new narratives. Kids eventually get bored with the old “play” and create something new.

Is it possible though to start identifying with the narrative to the point where it defines our lives and limits possibilities? Is it easier to keep telling the same old story because it’s familiar and has become our identity? Do we do this because it’s too terrifying to face the blank page and not know what the hell the story is? What if the new story is terribly boring? With nothing juicy or dramatic?

Who is the auteur of our lives and who decides the story’s end?

There needs to be a story arc and we get full creative license to shape it.

We get to decide where plots are headed. Unlike with the original stories, we have so much more power and control than we realize. By deconstructing our narratives, we move into the imaginal realm and transcend ourselves. We get to become.

In fact, we are NOT our stories. We are not even the characters we play. These are all aspects of ourselves, which is why people so readily relate. They see parts of their experiences too. Yet as soon as I’m done writing a complete story, from beginning to end, or after playing a character, I have moved on. I’m looking for the next story.

Prison of Shame

12 Jul

When my mother was sentenced to a state penitentiary for a 5th felony DUI she was transferred from the local prison to Chowchilla, the women’s correctional facility in Central California. She was taken in a Sheriff’s bus. The vehicles are typically painted black and white like a zebra. It is rare to see one of these buses on the highway. When I do, I cringe. It is especially difficult if I notice prisoners’ faces at the windows. I have no idea whether my mom was handcuffed or if she talked to anyone during the ride.

My mother never talked about her experiences in jail. This was the one area of her life that was a closed book. Yet her silence spoke volumes.

When she was released from Chowchilla, she was given a Greyhound bus ticket to get from Central California to San Diego. She had asked me to take $200.00 from her accounts to purchase some items for her. Her instructions had been incredibly specific. Most important, she needed an outfit to wear on the bus so that she didn’t have to return home in orange prison attire. At the time, orange wasn’t the new black. She wanted a nice tracksuit and asked when I purchased this at Target that I try it on since we were the same size. She also wanted a bag of tortilla chips and a jar of bean dip. All of these items would have to pass inspection at the prison to ensure that drugs or weapons weren’t being smuggled in.

I drove to the mailbox store and quickly found out that packages sent to a state penitentiary required special paperwork. I fidgeted as the clerk asked me various questions related to the forms she was filling out. I remembered that even sending books from Amazon to the prison had been a challenge. I worried what the woman at the mailbox store thought of me because I was sending something to an inmate. As I paid the fifty bucks to have the package mailed, I realized both my mom and I were doing time in one way, shape, or form.

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Incarceration is like a death in the family. The person leaves and then suddenly resurrects upon release. I went through this process with my mother five times, until she actually died for real.

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Weird And Uncomfortable Are Invitations…

11 Jul

“Weird and uncomfortable are invitations; pain is a signal,” my yoga teacher said one evening in class. We were lying on our backs with blocks positioned under our rib cages and necks. This left the heart cavity rather open and exposed. We moderns have a tendency to hold the exact opposite posture. Sitting at desks hunched over our computers we often collapse our chests into concave positions. Furthermore, many of us unconsciously guard our hearts by wrapping our arms around our bodies self-consciously.

When we do something new it often feels weird. We can interpret that strangeness as an error. Yet my teacher suggested something entirely different. While pain is always a signal that something is wrong (and that we should stop doing whatever is inflicting it), different or uncomfortable often leads to something better.

Remember that first time you took a sip of coffee or had a bite of avocado or sushi? They might have seemed a little “off.” Well, I can’t speak for you but I worship avocados and sushi and can’t wake up without my morning coffee.

Why then do we resist the weird and uncomfortable? When these could be portals to the unknown, leading to something affirmative and good, what are we afraid of?

When we break patterns we become disoriented. What was once engrained and regular gets deconstructed and then reintegrated into a new form. This is the essence of transformation. It demands that we break outdated modes of being.

Observe children having their first experiences in water outside the womb. Infants being given their first baths often wince in distress while babies at swim lessons cling to whomever is holding them. Yet within moments they’re splashing, laughing and smiling. Suddenly the creatures in plastic diapers are now fish.

My cats used to sit in front of the screen door meowing with longing. They were desperate to chase the birds. Yet whenever I scooped one of them up in my arms and took them outside, my little tigers became terrified of the big wide world.

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All learning requires discombobulation. I remember a school teacher once saying, “Confusion is a sign of learning.” My little mind thought this was a complete contradiction. How could learning be confusing? It was supposed to be clarifying. But not always. On the road to mastery, we scramble our pre-existing knowledge base. We stretch our minds outside of their comfort zones. I once studied Greek and recall saying many times in frustration, “This is Greek to me!” Then suddenly Greek was Greek to me. I could read it. The hieroglyphics made sense.

Weird and uncomfortable are invitations. Pain is a signal.

 

Wrestling with Waiting

6 Jul

Most of us have done a fair amount of waiting. It’s a part of life. Yet there are times when waiting starts to feel like we’re living in a &^%$# production of “Waiting For Godot.”

There are so many ways in which we wait. “Your time will come,” people will say while one waits for a job, or a meal, a paycheck, or a diagnosis. We wait for good or bad news, for the traffic to lift, for the storm to clear, or for that lucky break. We wait for others to change or for love to finally arrive.

Waiting becomes harder for us in today’s instant gratification culture. We can no longer tolerate standing in line at a store without checking our phones or making calls. When we arrive at the counter, we nod to that checker as if he or she were a mere servant inconveniencing us and then we promptly ignore him or her.

The most excruciating period of waiting I ever had was the seven days in-between receiving a suicide note from my mom and the news that she was dead. July 11th – July 18th, 8 years ago.

How do we wait and is there any benefit in the process? Is there a way out of existential angst or are we relegated to it like a form of purgatory? Can we sex, drugs, and alcohol our way out, or do we chin up like a little tin soldier? Do we collapse and fall apart or scale the mountain to greatness?

In yoga, the space between the breaths is viewed as quite significant. It is the transition point. The point were inhalation gives way to exhalation and then gives rise to inhalation again. That is the practice. Learning how to sit through the transitions of felt sensate experience without repressing or collapsing. It is its own Gethsemane. We typically endure alone while the disciples sleep. We die and are reborn in each impasse if we allow ourselves to breathe through it. It is the road to Spirit and to Grace.

It’s not fun to feel. But it is this arc, this wave that gives rise to desire, to momentum, to action, and to transformation. It is what ultimately brings joy. Without it, there is no art. No creation. No change. And no intersection.

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The Power of Blue

4 Jul

There is nothing like staring at waves.

They are breath, they are desire, they are perhaps God.

Initially just subtle movements on the horizon, they slowly build.

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Sometimes the energy peters out dissipating almost to stillness.

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Barely perceptible to the eye, the blue keeps moving though. A quiet persistent heartbeat.

Until….

Momentum builds again crashing into shore.

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I’d forgotten the power of blue.

If there is a God, I believe this might be it.

Mighty, eternal, surging, and gentle. Always there, mysterious, strong and beautiful.

Yes, this is the power of Blue.

If I Wanted Your Unsolicited Advice, I’d Ask For It

27 Jun

We’ve all been there. At that baby shower or office function or social gathering where someone feels compelled to give us unsolicited advice. Not that we were asking for it. Yet that never seems to stop someone from telling us what we should do with our careers, our relationships, our hairstyles, or our investment portfolios while we’re holding a cocktail enjoying ourselves.

The meta messages here are “something is wrong with you” and “you’re not working hard enough.” Because if you were doing it right, life would be different.

Whenever someone starts pontificating about how if you just did x, y, and z, then your life would be just like his or hers, be on alert. Instead quietly say to yourself, “Dear people, there is nothing wrong with me. I repeat, there is nothing wrong with me.” Then get back to enjoying your life and listening to your own inner wisdom.

Now don’t get me wrong. Getting feedback from others can be very helpful. When we ask for it or when individuals ask if we’d like to hear their thoughts. We can then take or leave what we hear accordingly, but being pummeled with unwanted feedback is like being hit with a bull dozer.

Yesterday I was talking with an individual whom I’d only just met that morning. That didn’t stop her from giving me her two cents on what she thought I should be doing with my life. She’d known me for less than a half hour, yet made a number of personal recommendations. I wasn’t aware that my life needed fixing but apparently it does.

I then gathered my belongings and headed straight to the golf course where I’d planned to have lunch. Later that evening I had my neighbors over for drinks. Because there is nothing wrong with me.

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And there is nothing wrong with you!

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