Cultivating a Practice of Mindful Breathing – Breath, An Active Partner (2 of 3)
Whether within or outside of our awareness, at any given time, our breath relates to us as an active partner.
It does its part, and like a good partner, it ever invites us to work together, as a team, to optimally nourish our own health and well-being.
In Part 1, we explored how vital a practice of mindful breathing is to our physical and emotional well-being, and some of its proven benefits.
In this post we look at three ways our breath invites us to be an active presence in creating a fulfilling life and consciously connected, healthy and wise self.
First, let’s consider:
- Why do we often ignore the invitations?
How is it we so casually turn down an invite to open up space for our life and being in the present moment?
Perhaps one reason is that, unlike in Eastern cultures, we don’t learn early on as children to use our breath, as a resource that connects us to our inner world, for solutions to life’s everyday problems.
For centuries, cultural institutions in the West to include modern science have emphatically taught us:
- To mistrust our inner world of meanings as unreliable sources.
- To discount the value of our own thinking.
- To dismiss the significance of our feelings, and avoid the painful ones.
As a byproduct of this toxic thinking, we more easily ‘see’ the value of staying busy to get things done than the value of staying connected to our breath. This also teaches us to relate to our self and one another, first and foremost, like human doings, and to think about our inner life in ways that scare us out of connecting.
Not surprisingly, therefore, our brain routs any invitations to breathe, vital as they are, to a ‘junk folder’ in cellular memory.
We’ve learned to mistrust our human nature, to avoid and numb pain any painful emotions or signs of vulnerability, and instead to trust expert authorities, and wait for idols and superheroes to rescue us from our problems.
This type of thinking is the cause of much suffering, emotional and relationship issues, i.e., addictions, phobia, relationship problems. Even worse, it spawns quick-fix solutions that exacerbate the suffering.
In the words of Albert Einstein, an activist for social change, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
Make no mistake, we have a lot to proud of in our Western culture. It is the toxic thinking that we need to consciously sift through, tossing out what does not serve personal health, growth or society as a whole.
- In the beginning, there was breath.
Breath is life itself. Yet, we rarely ponder or talk about this way.
All other things being equal, what is the main difference between a live body and a freshly dead one? Breath.
- Ancient civilizations well understood breath as an energy equated to life itself.
- The Sanskrit word for breath, for example, is “prana” means “life force.”
- Greek word for “breath” is “psyche” which means “spirit” or “soul,” for example.
- The Latin word is “spiritus.”
Our breath is beautifully designed to partner with us, as a resource for our own healing that, essentially, helps us attune to, understand and regulate our emotions.
As an active partner, the breath supports us to optimize our health and well being in at least three of the following ways:
1. The breath acts as an ambassador for life.
As the breath is always with us, like an ambassador, it represents our mind-and-body self as a voice for what we most need for breath to vibrantly flow through our body as a healing energy; and what may be blocking the flow.
The word ambassador is defined, according to several sources, as:
- The highest ranking spokesperson
- An officially appointed representative
- A messenger on a special mission with specific duties
- An advocate who acts as interpreter and voice
As an ambassador, what does the breath advocate?
The quality of our breath tells us, at any time, where we are in relation to where we inwardly yearn to be. It reminds us that we are wired with inborn drives, a hardwired value system, that compels us to seek to matter, to meaningfully connect, to find value in our contributions in life.
From the first to the last, our breath invites us to know and understand our self and our life and others, more and more, by better understanding our nature, that:
- We are born scientists, curious and wired to learn throughout life.
- Wired for an inner-driven life of rich connections – purpose driven to empathically connect, meaningfully contribute.
- We are endowed with a capacity (a beautiful responsibility?) to manage the energies of our body (love-seeking vs fear-avoiding) to keep fear or anger at levels that enhance rather than diminish our performance potential.
Naturally, other parts of the body also tell us what we most need and what is blocking the inner flow inside.
It is the breath, however, that is uniquely situated in a pivotal position to be the spokesperson, representing our body and life, on a special mission dedicated to helping us know who we are and what we are capable of realizing with the inner resources we have.
2. The breath as a barometer.
As our emotions affect the quality of our breath, the breath is also a barometer. It provides a moment by moment account of how safe we feel in relation to life in and around us.
- The body never lies.
The question is, are we present to listen and understand what it’s telling us? Like a biofeedback device, our breath reflects what is presently going on inside, i.e., our thoughts, feelings, yearnings, etc.
Perhaps more importantly, it voices how we feel about (perceive, interpret, etc.) what is going on inside. When we do not feel safe, for whatever reason, the part of the mind that runs the body, the subconscious mind, blocks communication between the mind and body.
When fear sets off the body’s survival response, known as the sympathetic nervous system, like a dictator, the subconscious mind usurps most of the flow of oxygen and re-directs it to systems that prepare our body to ‘fight or flee’ for our survival.
- More often, the first sign that we feel anxious or depressed, for example, is that our breath becomes shallow.
Shallow breathing means the higher thinking part of the brain is not getting enough oxygen, and as a result, it’s not fully functioning. In survival mode, our ability for creative or reflective thought is limited. This explains why when we lose our temper, for example, we say things we normally would not.
- The breath, in a sense, reflects our truest felt experience of life at any given moment.
It is also the case, however, that how safe we feel is more indicative of how we interpret a situation, than the situation itself.
The fear response is as a natural protective feature of our body. When this becomes a reactive pattern of behavior, however, it often means that limiting beliefs are unnecessarily activating our survival system, and putting us at risk of emotional, mental and physical harm.
We can partner with our breath at any moment to understand what’s going on inside. If we make changes to our perceptions, our breath and body will respond accordingly.
Calming thoughts activate emotions of safety and love; worries about the future or ruminating on past mistakes activate emotions of fear.
3. The breath as an action signal.
Our actions reflect our perceived sense of safety, and in turn this directly affects our breath. It also works the other way around as well, however.
A third way in which our breath supports us to optimize our well-being is as an action signal. As such, it lets us know when we need to take action to calm our mind and body so that our body’s survival system does not activate.
A top concern of our mind and body is how secure we feel in relation to life around us. The brain is always in either ‘learning mode’ or ‘protection mode,’ and this roughly equates to emotions of love and fear, respectively. In fear mode, the breath acts like a wall to block learning; in learning mode, the breath acts like a bridge that connects the mind and body.
- To our body, love is a safe harbor and fear is a treacherous reef.
Like a bogus treasure map, limiting beliefs and toxic thinking cause us to look for the treasure of safety and love in places where it cannot be found.
Our breath is there to partner with us, as a vital resource that supports us to stay present in moments when we need to safely navigate through upsetting emotions without getting triggered. Mindful breathing keeps us in the present moment, when it counts the most, to make informed choices on life issues.
That’s good news. It means we don’t have to wait for a situation to change before we feel safe and calm. Once we assess whether a situation poses an actual threat, or merely a perceived one, we can then take action accordingly.
- We can respond by either calming our body, or allowing our survival response to activate by default.
To calm our mind and body, we need to be aware and engaged with our breath and body. Breath work enhances our ability to grow our awareness of inner thoughts and feelings, to regulate our emotions, and to make healthy disciplined choices.
As thoughts and beliefs are perception filters that the mind of the body uses to determine how safe we are, a conscious regulation of breath allows us to directly control the energies of our mind and body, through conscious shifts in our thoughts, presence and feelings.
A practice of mindful breathing allows us to calm our body and mind, consciously. When we do, in effect, we are letting our subconscious know that we do not need to be rescued, and that we can handle the situation.
- Wired to learn to relate, communicate and partner.
A practice of mindful breathing can be an essential step to building awareness, getting to know our self, and living a rich inner life.
Our mental, emotional and physical health are all about the quality of oxygen flow in the body.
The wiring of our brain makes our body a sophisticated communication system. Emotions are the electrochemical molecules that the systems of the body use to communicate with one another. Emotions show up as changes in our breath.
Our breath is the primary way our body gets our attention, and invites us to partner in three ways. The breath is a spokesperson for our life, advocating for our deepest yearnings. It is also a barometer that lets us know, in any moment, how we feel inside about what is going on around us. And finally it is an action signal that prompts to take action to close the gap between where we are in relation to where we want to be.
At every step of our growth and transformation, the flow of breath in our body is there to support us.
No one, regardless how wonderful, can do for us what is our task alone to complete.
Whatever the situation, mindful breathing helps us access more clarity in our thinking and the energy we need to successfully take action to deal with the daily challenges of life.
It is our choice to breathe in and connect to our life from the inside where a healing energy flows.
Mindful breathing is an art that well deserves our devotion. Why not give the practice of being present to our breath as a gift of conscious love?
In the next post, Part 3, we explore three principles that sustain and integrate deep breathing into all areas of our life.
Staik, A. (2011). Cultivating a Practice of Mindful Breathing – Breath, An Active Partner (2 of 3). Psych Central. Retrieved on September 3, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/relationships/2011/10/cultivating-a-practice-of-mindful-breathing-breath-an-active-partner-2-of-3/