I vaguely remember one time when I was a kid, getting all worked up during a fight with one of my siblings. I don’t remember well what it was all about. What I do remember is my mum taking me by the hand and leading me into the lounge room, seating me in the recliner and helping me to calm myself simply by focussing on my breath. A wise woman, my mum.
That was back in the eighties, decades prior to the current mindfulness movement. It was one experience that started to teach me the power of using the breath. Later, as a young adult and prior to kids, I enjoyed beginning most mornings with a session of gentle, deep breathing and meditation. That twenty or thirty minutes of focussed attention and deep breathing would leave me feeling alert and calm.
As a wake up ritual it was better than coffee.
The details are hazy, but somewhere in the midst of having kids and wanting to be a fully hands-on dad, I stopped.
Now, I’m learning to breathe all over again.
Tonight, bedtime for my eight-year-old has been challenging. He’s overtired, tremendously fractious and has chipped away at my patience. His manner is loud and argumentative, but underneath all that he’s just tired. He’s feeling emotions of an intensity he’s still learning to manage and express appropriately. He is sensitive in personality and feels emotions strongly. I wouldn’t change that about him for the world.
Yet tonight he just won’t settle and I feel incredibly tense from our wrangling. If my wife was home we’d normally tag-team to change the dynamic, but I’m on my own tonight as she is out. I think about calling her to come home.
I retreat to the kitchen to regroup, stand there with eyes closed as I slowly draw in a breath. I count as I inhale 1-2-3-4, hold 1-2, exhale 1-2-3-4-5-6. Repeat. I continue for five to ten minutes, focused solely on my breath, and feel myself begin to relax.
I return to the bedroom and my son. He’s a little calmer too and accepts my offer to place my hands soothingly on him as I guide him through a calming relaxation of his own. It’s a ritual we’ve adopted when he can’t sleep. I guide him through deep, gentle breaths, feeling his soft pillow, the snuggly blankets, imagining his body relaxing and sinking into the mattress. I don’t get very far – he’s fast asleep in two minutes flat.
I wander back to the living room and sink onto the couch. I’m tired – close to, but not entirely, spent. Another small victory, not over my son but over the anxiety that has plagued me these past months. Within half an hour I’m at the computer in the flow of writing this post. This is progress.
These days I’m back to starting my days with twenty minutes of mindfulness meditation, longer on weekends and when I can. Anecdotally, I know this breathing-based practice is helping. I’m calmer and cope better with incidents like tonight’s bedtime challenges. I feel more in control of my emotions and my body’s physiological reactions. I’m not entirely there yet. I still have moments where I’m caught by surprise, where I feel overwhelmed, unable right then to keep my mind and emotions in check. But those times are getting less frequent. I know the meditation and the breathing exercises are helping.
It’s not an inherently spiritual practice, despite its potential to allow a quiet space within me for the spiritual. To connect spiritually or lean into God’s presence, I pray. The meditation is all about training my brain.
I call it “practice” because that’s exactly what I am doing. I’m strengthening my ability to focus my attention as well as to observe circumstances and even thoughts and emotions in a more detached way. Daily meditation is like reps at the gym to build up muscles.
Recent neuroimaging research indicates that meditation can help people become better at focusing attention, for longer and with less effort. It has been demonstrated to reduce the size and influence of the amygdala, the “fear centre” of the brain which is often overactive in people with anxiety. Not only does it appear to be very helpful where anxiety is already present, but its influence on the brain also has a protective quality.
Back to my focus on simply breathing, and less structured exercises like my moment in the kitchen tonight are effective too. Breathing is one of the few bodily processes that operates under dual control. By taking over conscious control of breathing – making it slow and rhythmic – it’s possible to reverse the body’s stress response. We react less emotionally while the rational, thinking part of the brain stays in control.
That’s the plan, anyway, but it seems to be working for me – sometimes. Of course, that’s why they call it practice.
My mum was onto something when she sat me down in that chair and told me to breathe. The breath is an always-there healing and stress management resource. I’m tapping into it daily and bit by bit, rediscovering the calm I once took for granted.
When was the last time you were conscious and intentional about your breath?