Breath of Life

The next few posts will focus on essential skills and understanding so that we may live well.  These are skills and the foundation that are used every day.   They enable us to change our life, the lives of others and the world around us.  In a sense, they are the common gardening tools, such as a shovel, hoe, rake and bucket for watering or carrying stuff.

The first essential skill is breathing.  Years ago, I evaluated a young man in his early 20s who was in jail.  He was depressed and suicidal because he was looking at prison time for manslaughter.  He found himself in a situation, felt threatened and impulsively shot another person.  Essentially this young man’s difficulties stemmed from a series of impulsive reactive behaviors. He did not have any torrid or traumatic events in his childhood nor a history of depression.   However, he had never been taught or learned how to breathe and thereby give himself a moment to get his head and heart into the game.  And now he was scared to death and at risk for continued poor reactive behaviors.  So we spent a few minutes on learning how to breathe.  I explained how breathing would give him a moment for more astute perception and analysis to any situation and thereby giving him options to consider before merely impulsively reacting.  Granted this young man also needed to develop better executive functioning skills.  However, with only a very brief time to work with this young man, giving him an introduction about learning how to breathe was feasible.

Breathing is the first essential skill.  There is the yogic or meditative axiom of “if you can control your breath you can control your life.”  Breathing is life.  It is important to become aware of the difference between merely breathing and skillful breathing.  Different breathing patterns are associated with different states of feeling, thought and behavior.   Singers, athletes, sharpshooter snipers, speakers, welders, musicians are well aware of how breathing effects their performance.  Once we become aware of different breathing patterns and their associated different states, we can learn to control our breath to influence our feelings, thoughts and behaviors.  Breathing is an essential skill in life. 

Practice becoming aware of your breathing…any time and any place.

1.  Just notice your breath, where it is…in your chest or belly, is it fast or slow, even or irregular, warm or cool, halted or smooth and even…etc.

2.  Start to notice the more subtle flow…how it flows in, how it flows out, how it changes during the day, with different activities, emotions and thoughts.

3.  Where are the end points of the breath…the point between the in-breath and the out-breath; and between the out-breath and the in-breath.

Next time you find yourself feeling angry, upset, anxious, frustrated or irritable take notice of your breath.  Then take a few deep, slow and even breaths.  Bring your breath deep into your belly (diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing) and notice how your feelings and thoughts change.  After 2 or 3 deep breaths, notice that you are feeling more calm and thinking more rationally.  Diaphragmic breathing will change your feelings and thoughts in very short order.  It will also lower your pulse, blood pressure and sympathetic nervous system, i.e., physiological stress response.  Thus, when you are calmer, you are more able to engage your executive functioning, to recognize other options and make better strategic responses and decisions.

In the example above, simplistically it can be seen as stemming from conditions of stress and the reactive goal of survival. When a person operates out of fear, they are reacting out of an older part of our brain that is popularly referred to as the reptilian brain.  It works like this.  When there is a (perceived/interpreted) threat to our existence, the reptilian brain responds as if there is in immediate and imminent threat of death.  Popularly knowing as the five F’s.  The five F’s are:  Fighting, fleeing, freezing, feeding and fornication.  Fighting, fleeing and freezing are the reactions to immediate danger. While feeding and fornication are typical when there is more of a general pervasive but non-imminent sense of threat.  When there is perceived immediate danger our sympathetic nervous system jumps to a state of hyper alertness.  However, a few deep breaths can over-ride this reactive fear response and allow a person to more realistically evaluate the threat, become aware of other options besides the five F's and execute a better or more strategic response.

Attention on your breath can also be used as a tool to help develop the skill to focus.  As noted above just become aware of the subtleties of your breath.  Your thoughts and feelings will start to drift to other things.  When you become aware that your thoughts or feelings have wondered off and are not attending to your breath.  Gently bring your attention back to your breath; notice the subtleties of your breath.  After you gain some ability to maintain your focused attention on your breath and become aware of the different mental and emotional states associated with different breathing patterns.  Then you begin to have insight and skills to control your thoughts, emotions and behaviors by controlling your breath.

*** There is a vast amount of eastern knowledge in the study of breathing called Pranayama from the Indian yogic traditions.

The ability to focus on our breathing helps us to have more conscious interaction with our behavior, feelings and thoughts.  Breathing well equates with living well.

Peace, Love and Light!

Tim