just breathe

Glitch in the Exhale

11:09 AM

On January 30th, I will turn 60; it's a big number. 

For my birthday, I have chosen to book a bit of time at a dear friend's mother-in-law apartment to enjoy some radical solitude, breathe and be still, and write. Sounds like fun to me.

So, I thought I'd share a bit about...wait for it....meditation and mortality. Super exciting topic, I know.

Talking about prayer and meditation is a dangerously boring and significantly subjective topic to throw out into the wide, wide Interweb expecting anyone to turn an ear in my direction. This isn't exactly the first time I've talked about these topics, but hey, it's my birthday. Humor me. This is a good year to ruminate about my mortality, and I've paid in decades for the right to do so. I'll make this quick.

I have heard it said that the process of dying uncovers the authentic self; in other words, the way we approach life in general is going to lay the groundwork for the way we will ultimately let go of life as we know it. If we tend to spend our days in a cranky or agitated state, this might color the last months of life. If you tend to face life's hurdles with a positive attitude, good on ya; this might make for a less bumpy exit. 

Mind you, this conversation isn't so much about training for a successful exit; it's more about considering the way I am running my race, or completing my life's quest, so to speak. After all, the means I use to achieve a certain end needs to match the end I seek. Agitated attempts at control may not lead me any closer to peace, if that's what I'm ultimately seeking. So, what am I here to learn?

At the threshold of this 7th decade, I'm wondering if the state in which I find myself when I'm still and quiet might not be indicative of who I am at my core and how I've evolved over time? In terms of the journey inward, my attention to the breath has been a significant guide.

The first time I was trained in meditation, I had a wise, extremely kind and patient teacher who helped my first experience to be so much more productive and mysterious than I imagined. I was encouraged to focus on the face of my trainer who challenged me to meet his gaze while becoming aware of other things within my periphery; the lesson was on maintaining a point of focus while continuing to practice awareness of the other things that existed in, and even beyond, the space within which I was sitting. 

I remember maintaining connection with his face while he guided me, suggesting I  "become aware" of the window frame while remaining focused on his eyes. His instruction continued for 45 minutes or an hour as I set my attention on one thing while allowing myself to become aware of others. The lesson: intentionally practice setting my attention on one thing while at the very same time allowing awareness of other elements to be present in my consciousness without getting too attached to them. 

Expansion.

Since then, I have worked with a variety of methods, like using a candle as a focal point; in this case, I can hold my attention on the candle while continuing to practice awareness of the things and places around me. I have also worked with guided meditations, body scans, and at times, I have even been able to just put my butt in a chair and sit. Silence. It's in this quiet state of mind that I experience peace and healing.

The greater part of the practice for the last few years, however, has been to focus on my breathing, and I still have a lot to learn about this. As is usually the case where I'm concerned, I learn by trial and error.

Here's what I've observed so far.

When I focus on my breath (or if I focus on anything, if I'm being honest), it's my nature to try to control it rather than observe it. Biofeedback or yoga are good vehicles for experimentation with deep,  self-directed breathing patterns, and they've both been really helpful to me, but not so much during meditation. Attempts at controlling the rhythm of my breath in meditation creates a tension between doing and being. Meditation is largely about sitting and NOT doing. It's about acceptance of, and surrender to, what the present moment is bringing, and breathing is a part of that surrender. My brain stem is fully capable of reminding my lungs what to do.

So, why do I often feel like my natural breathing rhythm during meditation...has a glitch? I notice that during the exhale, right when my breath has almost "emptied," there seems to be a pause at the "bottom" of the breath, like, it gets...stuck.

It feels like there's a glitch the exhale.

So, what's up with the irregular rhythm of my breathing...the break in the flow?  

As usual, I have a theory.

People who experience panic disorders or even garden-variety anxiety have a tendency to "freeze" physically, to tighten scrunched, elevated shoulders, and hold tension in the abdomen. I wonder if the glitch in my exhale is just another area of tension in my body that needs a reset? Truth is, in lieu of a panicked state that would justify an attempt at controlled breathing, there just isn't any persistent requirement that I attempt to choreograph my body's brain stem functions, and the compulsion to do so is indicative of my (slightly pathological) belief that I need to control everything. Again and always, for me, it comes back to letting go.


Incidentally, many months ago, I wrote a post called "Trust Me," about it:

"Second-guessing my intuition, a less-than-productive pattern that has hamstrung my ability to move through the process of making decisions, has plagued my capacity to move forward since I was small. A classic codependent, I learned the art of imagining how others may respond to any move I make, causing me to freeze even when action was acutely necessary. I can’t say this trait has been useful. Decisions, and the consequences that follow, are a powerfully organic force of life, and it’s torment to live at odds with our choices. What ifs burden my thinking, and it hasn’t gotten better as I age; it mostly ebbs and flows.


So, although these issues have stalked me all the way to my 59th year, I have declared my 60th year will be the year I shed the automatic anxiety I have carried all of my life, and learn what it really means to trust."

A lofty goal, but, a goal, non-the-less, and sitting here today, a week away from that significant benchmark, I believe that how I breathe when I am still and quiet is a meaningful marker, that learning from my observed glitch in the exhale might just move me closer to my target. 


So...here's how I am moving through the tendency to tighten during the breathing cycle.

I choose to let go of the need to make my breathing do something that feels right to me, allowing my body to draw deep or shallow breaths naturally. It is what it is; I can observe this life-affirming mechanism without manipulation. 

Looking at breath as a sustaining life force, it becomes an exercise in faith to allow my body to breathe without interference; in fact, it seems worthwhile (and helpful for me) to try instead to scan my body for tension, and practice deep relaxation. The more I am able to allow a "let down" in my body, and the natural flow of my breath, the more I seem to be at peace. This is what has helped the most.

I know. It seems a bit indulgent to to write an entire post about my pattern of breathing, so if you've made it this far, I consider it a personal favor. This one's for my birthday.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference. 


And, keep breathing. 

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