“He’s not breathing.” I was the first to notice when we opened our eyes after the pastor said, “Amen.” I’ve seen enough death to know what it looks like—dead is so dead. My dad was gone—a foreign body lay where he once breathed. It was undeniable, yet inconceivable. It still makes me hold my breath with a mixture of disbelief and grief. It’s been a several-year journey of watching his decline and it feels like I’ve been breathing cautiously for a very long time.
The news cycle is unrelenting. Every day brings a new story, some action or inaction, or a sound bite that remind me of our manmade capacity for fear and hate. Like all of us my brain has a negativity bias so I watch and read the news like a moth to the flame. Ironically, the limbic system was designed to save my ancient ancestors and me from danger. Sometimes called the paleomammalian brain, it is the oldest and most primitive part of our brains. It provides a critical function—it allows me to learn from my experience and avoid pain. At the first sign of danger it gets me ready; fight, flight, or freeze. This is all well and good when a tiger or a bear is chasing me through the woods but when the same limbic system is activated by the news, it does not always serve me. I move into survival and my breathing gets me ready to form fists, run like hell or try to be silent and invisible. When my limbic brain is activated, I lose contact with the parts of my brain that give rise to compassion, empathy, joy, and wonder. Perhaps even more disconcerting, as bell hooks, author, feminist and social activist, recently said, “The monsters around us remind us of the monster within.” I’m breathing too hard. I’m barely breathing.
And then there were the fires of Northern California. Two weeks ago the air was filled with smoke and ash and I stopped writing about breathing. In the margins of the draft I wrote, “This is NOT what I want to write.” Full stop. I couldn’t imagine how I could write about breathing when the very air I breathed was dangerous and a reminder of unbelievable suffering and loss. But when I re-read what I had written, I realized I had it all wrong. I should have said, “This is not what I want to feel!” There is a connection between breathing and feeling. When I started this essay I wanted to tell you, “breathing making everything better.” It doesn’t. Sometimes it feels worse. The present moment is not always a sweet place to land. Sometimes I don’t like what I breathe. Sometimes I don’t like what I feel. Sometimes I don’t want to be “woke”.
A good friend recently told me that he feels thin. I think many of us feel thin—we don’t have extra, we have limited capacity. Many of us are having difficulty breathing. Some of us are taking small, careful, rationed breaths. Some of us might even be ambivalent about breathing. Ironically, most of us do all of this breathing while ignoring our breath. What if we practiced breathing?
Sharon Salzburg, author, Buddhist meditation teach and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society, calls it "resilience training". Every breath is an invitation to begin again—continuous opportunities for do-overs. But here’s the deal—breathing requires taking it in. It takes courage these days to take it in. It runs completely against our limbic impulse to move away from pain. Let me tell you, this moving-towards does not wear rose-colored glasses. I don’t think pain is a gift. I prefer Sharon Salzburg’s reframe, “Don’t think of trauma as a gift but rather as a given.” Moving into a mindful relationship with the pain "that is” through conscious breathing creates the opportunity for the next part of breathing—letting go. Unfortunately, letting go ain’t easy either! I get attached to my stories of pain—they make sense of a world that is scary and crazy. Letting go requires something extra to follow my exhaling breath—forgiveness. This kind of forgiveness is not about judgment or shame. It’s generous and compassionate, first and foremost to my own sweet self. This forgiveness opens the space for the next breath. It makes room for something expansive and unexpected.The miracle of mindfulness is what happens after I exhale.
May my breath and your breath be our prayer.
Daily Bites and Blessings
Welcome to "Daily Bites and Blessings." Pull up a chair. I’ve set a place for you at the table. These edibles are sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet and often they are both. This is a come as you are party. I invite you to bring your compassion, courage, and curiosity as we dine together on life's bounty. May our time together give us more light and more love.