Breath is Everything, Everything is Breath

planet-4872299_1920“The fact is, that we are being breathed.” ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn

The breath.

It is our first act outside the womb, and our final act as well. With our first breath, our life begins and our bodies miraculously continue to perform this function automatically, without much thought from us, for the rest of our life. And anything that does not require much thought, is prime for being taken for granted.

 As 2020 has unfolded, the central theme I keep coming back to is breath. There are many issues in the world, but issues of the breath have moved to the forefront. I see it in climate change, Covid-19, and fallen brother George Floyd. It’s all about breathing, and not being able to breathe.

 Throughout history, mystics and sacred teachings refer to the soul as breath, often using these terms interchangeably. In some languages, they are the same word – prana, spiritus, ruach, hu. Breathing connects us to ourselves, our soul, and those around us.

“One conscious breath in and out is a meditation.” ~ Eckhart Tolle

Recent research has taught us the Earth itself has “lungs.” Millions of lung-like structures on leaves allow plants to take in carbon dioxide and return to us life-saving oxygen. But we’re currently pouring more CO2 into the sky than the plants can keep up with. Humans have put the earth in a choke-hold, and the planet cannot breathe.  

The deforestation of the Earth, which has caused a great reduction in the planet’s breathing function, has a direct correlation to Covid-19. A study by Stanford shows us that as humans continue to wreak havoc on natural habitats to turn them into agricultural land, we will continue to see an increase in animal to human viruses. Usually, these lands are deforested to either grow food for livestock or to raise livestock for human consumption.

We are choking the Earth for hamburgers.

“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.” ~ Gary Snyder

Which brings me to Covid-19. In our lifetime, we have not seen such a virus that attacks the body so relentlessly and so horrifically. A shortage of ventilators early on told us this is a virus that threatens our very breath, our prana, our spiritus. Those deeply and personally affected by it speak of having no breath. Their breathing becomes anything but automatic, requiring complete attention and effort, and it’s still not enough. I can’t imagine a more frightening feeling. Those not personally affected are told to stay home for their own safety and the safety of others. And do what? For many of us, it became a reminder to slow down and breathe.  

In public, we wear masks. Our breath, though precious, is suspect. I could have the virus, you could have the virus, the cashier could have the virus. We’re grateful to be out, but sometimes it’s hard to breathe behind the mask. (Tell that to doctors and nurses in full PPE.) 

Like a meditation, we were comfortable with that for a short time, but then we got restless. We upped our heart rate, shortened our breaths, and got eager to return to “normal” life. But at our core, we know, don’t we? We know we can’t go back.  

“The link between you and God is through the breath of life,” ~ Yogi Bhajan 

Which brings us to the heartbreak of George Floyd, robbed of his breath by hatred and a long-broken system. His death, his cry for breath, was too much for a world already gasping for air. We can’t go back. We won’t go back. We must breathe into the change that is coming. We must breathe life into the protests. We cannot take breathing for granted any longer. We must breathe for the planet, for those on ventilators, and for George and the long-overdue systemic change that is happening. 

“We have to learn to live our life as a human being deeply. We need to learn to live each breath deeply, so that we have peace, joy and freedom as we breathe.” ~ Thich Nhat Hahn

The ultimate truth and realization we must come to is that we are all one organism. If one cannot breathe, the whole will suffer, the whole will eventually be gasping for air. We cannot shortchange the Earth its pulmonary function and expect to not be affected. We cannot ignore this virus, but must learn how to live for a time with it, caring enough for our fellow humans to wear masks and socially distance for as long as it takes. And we cannot turn our backs on an entire race that has cried out for the freedom to breathe, to be equal, to be shown respect, demanding change so that one day those freedoms will be taken for granted, like breathing.  

So breathe, if you can. Breathe with purpose, breathe with compassion, and breathe for those who cannot.  

But remember to put on your own oxygen mask first.

 

You are Still Beloved.

 

Victoria McGee

 

6/10/20

Holding Our Collective Breath

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“When you own your breath, nobody can steal your peace.” ~ Anonymous

I woke up very early the other day, too early for the time I’d gone to bed. As I tried to get myself back to sleep for a bit, I took a very, very deep inhale of breath. It shocked me how good (and foreign) it felt. I realized that in this era of global pandemic, I’ve basically been holding my breath. Many of us have.

But wait, I’ve been meditating, praying, doing some yoga, practicing good breathing. And I realized that’s the only time I’ve actually been breathing. The rest of the time, I’m in a state of fight or flight shallow breathing, which eventually feels almost like holding your breath. The chest grows tight, constricted, and the lungs just barely keep us going.

It’s understandable. We are all in a strange state. We are in limbo, yet hyper-vigilant at the same time. We don’t know how this will play out, we have little control, and we can’t plan for the future. We are in separate lifeboats just trying to figure out each day.

Our breath, thankfully, is part of the autonomic nervous system, bodily functions that happen without us thinking about it. However, our breath and heart rate reflect our state of mind, our emotions, and our fears. When we are scared, our heart rate quickens, and our breath becomes faster and more shallow. We are ready to run.

Only here, in our various states of quarantine, there’s nowhere to go.

Ironically, as we face this catastrophic Covid-19, as so many people are struggling to breathe and survive, it’s increasingly important to add a breathing practice to our daily routine. Here we are, in unprecedented times, wearing face masks when we do venture out, often feeling literally afraid to breathe! But breath is life, and it’s never been more important to breathe more deeply, to relax our nervous systems, and to live in the moment.

“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Of all our autonomic nervous system functions, the breath is the one we have the most conscious control over. It has a direct influence on the vagus nerve, a nerve that runs throughout the autonomic system. Slow exhalations cause this nerve to relax and bring us closer to a feeling of well-being.

Besides relaxation, the benefits of deep breathing include boosting the immune system, lowering heart rate and blood pressure, reduced depression, improvement in  diabetes, and the management of chronic pain. For me, it also provides a sense of control. I may not be able to control the outward situation, but I can control my response to it. With regular breath practice, I control the effect of the pandemic on my nervous system. I control how much fear I’m willing to experience. Deep breathing in conjunction with meditation or prayer is extremely healing and centering. Even just stopping for a moment, taking a deep breath, filling the lungs, and allowing a long, slow exhale, can re-center us quickly.

“One conscious breath in and out is a meditation.” ~ Eckhart Tolle

When fear and anxiety arise, I use this simple technique to help me stay in the moment.

Breathing in think, “In this moment I have ___________. (water, sun, music, air, etc.)

Breathing out think, “In this moment I need nothing.”

Repeat until you feel calmer. Regulating our breath helps us focus on the present moment, and focusing on the present moment keeps our minds from spiraling into worse-case scenarios.

Dr. Andrew Weil recommends deep breathing as part of any wellness program. Here is a link to three of his favorite exercises. https://www.drweil.com/health-wellness/body-mind-spirit/stress-anxiety/breathing-three-exercises/

The world is, indeed, holding its collective breath. Let us take some collective deep breaths, calming the vagus nerve of the planet. Breathe deeply, fill your lungs, hold for a moment, then exhale slowly, blowing out audibly your fear and anxiety. Take some calming breaths for those who cannot – those who we hold in deep compassion; those working on the front lines of this pandemic, those who are fighting for their lives, those who are suddenly unemployed, and those who have been thrown into unforeseen grief.

I pray that one day, we will all breathe easy again. In the meantime, breathe deeply.

“Every breath we draw is a gift of God’s love: every moment of existence is a grace.”

~ Thomas Merton

You Are Still Beloved.

Victoria McGee

4/7/20

Covid-19 and Collective Trauma

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The paradox of trauma is that it has both the power to destroy and the power to transform and resurrect.” – Peter A. Levine

Lately, I’ve been conscious of trauma as it applies to society. Due to the outbreak of Covid-19, the world is currently in a state of collective trauma. Collective trauma refers to the psychological reactions to a traumatic event that can affect an entire society. For most of us, our daily way of life has drastically changed in the last few weeks. Freedoms and income have been reduced, and we are in a constant low-grade state of fear.

When a society experiences a collective trauma, such as 9/11, mass shootings, natural disasters, etc., our routines and relationships, those things that anchor us to our society are disrupted in such a way that it can leave us struggling to reclaim the purpose of our lives. In some ways, this can lead to a positive re-prioritizing of what is truly important. In other ways, it can leave us grasping for meaning and feeling hopeless.

For those of us already dealing with PTSD, this collective trauma can trigger other traumas to rise to the surface. We may find we are having trouble sleeping, nightmares, generalized anxiety, or hyper-vigilance may be rearing their heads again. Others may find they are having a surprisingly calm reaction to all this, as being in a trauma state is not strange to us, and we feel able to function in this state better than others.

Traumatic events can trigger past traumas, and who among us has not experienced some level of trauma? So we as a society have this huge collective trauma and our own historical traumas slamming us all at once. It’s a lot to deal with and process! And we’re confined either with partners, family, friends, or alone. Being alone can be most challenging as there is no distraction from your own thoughts.

If you’ve been feeling some of this, the dis-ease that has been engendered by this disease, there are practices you can undertake to ease the trauma response. We must regularly engage in self-care, find comfort in spiritual practice, stay connected to our tribe, and begin to reframe our relationship to historical trauma.

“Radical self-care is what we’ve been longing for, desperate for, our entire lives – friendship with our own hearts.” ~ Anne Lamott

Self-care is the best thing you can do for yourself right now. Stay centered and grounded as much as you can in whatever way works for you. Exercise, yoga, meditation, bubble baths, reading, and creative expression will connect you to your center. We cannot face this event coming from a place of scattered emotions and thoughts. Limit your news to a single check-in every day to keep from going down the black hole of information saturation. Go outside and find a place to connect to nature. None of these things cost money and can help you find some balance amidst the chaos.

If you have a spiritual practice, there is no better time to enhance and build upon it. Read, study, pray, and fill your soul with comfort, fill your mind with faith. Read the inspired words of those who have overcome darkness. Viktor Frankl, Elie Wiesel, and Mother Teresa, for example, are inspiring in their ability to hold onto faith in the midst of great suffering. Turn to your spiritual practice at this time to help you hold onto your faith, and to get a glimpse of the big picture. The world has survived many traumas and will survive this one as well.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” ~ Viktor E. Frankl

In these times, we must find a way to stay connected to our tribe. Facetime, Zoom, Marco Polo, social media and good old fashioned phone calls are our life-lines now. Resist the urge to isolate, to avoid the changes we’re all adjusting to, and reach out. Write letters, send cards, connect with people you’ve been meaning to re-connect with. You have time, and everyone needs to hear from the people they treasure.

Lastly, start to reframe your relationship to historical trauma. If we are here, we have survived trauma, personal, ancestral, historical, and collective. This means we are resilient and we have developed coping skills that not everyone has. We know how to self-calm, self-care, rise above, forgive, and even help others. Build on the resilience you’ve developed thus far! We are strong, flexible, wise souls and our energies are needed in this crisis.

               “We can make ourselves miserable or we can make ourselves strong.                    The amount of effort is the same.” – Pema Chodron

We are in a state of collective trauma. So let us attempt to join in collective healing, first by taking good care of ourselves, then by contributing to healing the energy of the planet. We all need the energies of compassion, positivity, balance, and calm right now. Let’s practice this in our daily lives and see what healers we are.

You are Still Beloved.

Victoria McGee

3/20/2020