“If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.”
It sounds so simple, childlike even, to say “just breathe.” You would think in the territory of suffering that our first best move might be something extraordinary, a momentous act, like “dial this number to directly reach the appropriate divine being,” or “go immediately to a sanctuary where you will be bathed in lavender and fed smooth foods until you can think clearly.”
And yet consider this: whenever we see a friend in distress or a child heaving with the pain of something having broken, the first words we utter are, “Okay, take a breath.” We know something about what begins to heal us without truly knowing it. Breath is the essence of life. We breathe to stay alive, to nourish the cells and organs of our body, and we breathe as a gesture of hope. It is the doorway to the next moment, and from that the next possible future. With each breath the tiniest amount of change has already begun. We find ourselves in a slightly new present and eventually, after perhaps ten breaths or a hundred, or after 17 hours of breathing through the shock and the pain, we can begin to do a bit more, we can begin to choose.
In my twenties, depressed after a painful breakup, all I wanted to do was self-medicate by sleeping all the time. I had been married right out of college, a binding that lasted less than three years and suddenly, at the age of 25, I had left a home for an apartment, a husband for an empty bed. Everything seemed unstable and uncertain. Had I known to choose breath instead of numbness I would have been able to awaken, get out of bed, and see the opportunities that might be already unfolding. My relationship to my suffering, to my daily existence and to my very sense of self would have been different if I had understood what Thich Nhat Han said, “Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness.” I might have reached out more. I might have found a connection to another who also knew heartbreak. I would have been a bit more clear, instead stumbling like a three-legged homeless dog from scrap to scrap of affection.
With breath as our focus, we slow down, become aware, and then we can choose how to respond, rather than simply react.
Physically the breath is rejuvenating, feeding the body with life-giving oxygen. Emotionally, breath provides us with micro experiences of calm. As we breathe we create tiny islands of respite from the intensity of emotion and eventually feelings begin to settle. As we focus on simply breathing, our cognitions begin to align themselves away from panic and terror or rage or despair and slowly useful thoughts or questions begin to emerge: “Who can I lean on?” “What has helped me in the past?” “What do I need to learn now?” Those would have been really handy that year.
With mindful breathing, too, we form a new relationship with ourselves. In shock or despair the tendency is to become reactive…to take action that is historically familiar whether or not it is helpful. With calming breath, we demonstrate self-care, and from that place we are more likely to move in a direction that is nourishing. Spiritually, with each inhale and exhale, we bring toward us a slight liberty, an openness to that which is and that which is larger than us. Mindful awareness of the breath indicates a “radical receptivity to life,” to quote author Megan McDonough and that moves us toward connection…with life, with ourselves, with those who have chosen the same in moments of anguish.
For you see, there is no easy way out of pain. No magic bullet exists, nor any charmed formula to protect us from suffering. The story is told of a woman, who after losing her only child, walked hundreds of miles to find the Buddha. Hearing of her trek and her loss the Buddha met her on the road and the mother begged the holy man to bring her son back to life. He responded that he would consider her request if first she would do one task.
“Anything,” she replied.
“You must travel for a year and find the house of no suffering.” And so she did. She walked as she could, knocked on every door, asked to find the home without pain, the family without hurt, and you know how this ends, we all know how this ends, there is no house without suffering. In this we will never be alone.
Returning to the Buddha she had little to say, only that she no longer needed to ask of him what she asked before.
Life will come together, to paraphrase Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, and then it will fall apart. Breath is an anchor. With it we can remain present long enough for the next choice in our journey to unfold. It is the beginning of the journey into the darkness, which so beautifully-paradoxically-powerfully is the only way out of the darkness. Breath is our first crucial choice, connecting us to the lineage of those who have chosen life and it is direct evidence of our life force itself becoming invigorated again in micro-moments, here, right here in the body, right here, exactly where we are. We need be nowhere else.
Sit quietly now.
Let the rhythm of your breath become even.
Focus your mind on your breath.
Notice its rise and fall.
If you become distracted, simply notice, say “oh well,” and return to breath.
Stay with breath a moment, perhaps three minutes and then perhaps four.
And know that each time you choose this one action…this quieting down to breathe…you are preparing yourself to see options unfolding in front of you, ones that will bring you closer to peace and away from harm.
Maria Sirois is a psychologist, author, and seminar leader who teaches internationally in the intersection of resilience and flourishing. She is the author of A Short Course in Happiness After Loss (And Other Dark, Difficult Times) and Every Day Counts: Lessons in Love, Faith and Resilience from Children Facing Illness.
Maria Sirois was the co-leader of a workshop at the Garrison Institute with Mark Matousek, “Writing For Resilience: The Life Saving Power of Changing Your Story,” on April 12-14, 2019.