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

CONSTANTLY TURNING TOWARD GOD

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“Prayer is the key of the morning and the bolt of the evening.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

I love this quote from Gandhi, reminding us to open the day in prayer, and close it in prayer as well. This is something to take to heart, as it can guide the time in between rising and bedtime. But what happens in between? If you’re like me, I wander far from the path, I forget to pray and turn my mind, heart and thoughts to God. I enter the realm of business and worry. You too?

I was struck by this thought a couple of months ago. That I need to be constantly turning toward God. And yet daily, I catch myself trying to figure out a problem, worrying about a family member or friend’s health, making plans for the future, having regrets about the past, busying my mind with everything except the Divine. And I believe my ego mind wants it this way. The more it keeps me in a trance of fixing, judging and doing, the less likely I am to turn to God.

“God is the water, and you are the faucet.” ~ Marianne Williamson

When we naturally and instantaneously turn to God is when something literally “brings us to our knees.” A sudden death, illness or trauma shakes us to the core and we automatically ask God to come in, to comfort us, to bring healing to the situation. And we feel God then don’t we? We feel the comfort, the envelopment of God’s love that helps us raise our heads again and move forward. It is truly beautiful, even in the midst of a horrible moment.

For survivors of trauma, you would think turning toward God and calling on God every moment of every day would be like breathing. We must have it or we die. But we are MASTERS of distraction! I noticed this in my life so clearly. When a trauma occurs, I fall to my knees, I bring God in, I pray without ceasing. But as days go by it becomes clear I can’t drop out of life (like I want to).  I have to continue with jobs and groceries and living, so I developed the marvelous coping skill of distraction. I dare say that in most of us, this skill is over-developed!

And we need to forgive ourselves for bending toward distraction. How else can we sleep at night, when our mind, left unchecked, will play reruns of our trauma on a loop? How else can we check out at the grocery store when a magazine headline has triggered us and we suddenly want to cry? How else can we make small talk when such shallow actions make us want to scream? We distract ourselves with activities, thoughts, plans and MAKE our minds think of something else. It’s a survival skill, but at what cost?

“Meditation goes in. Prayer goes out. But they both aim for the same place of union between you and the Divine.” ~ Lisa Jones

Hopefully, eventually, we learn to distract our minds with God again. We learn that these thoughts are not just a distraction, but they are a point of focus that can heal us. We learn that we can place ourselves in the light by simply turning toward God. Like all good habits, it takes practice and vigilance. But beyond that, it takes a deep knowing that this IS what will save you. God’s light. God’s love. God’s grace. Meditate on it and feel it within. Pray to God and send it out. Then rest in the knowledge that within and without are the same place. And that place is God.

“It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.” ~ Aristotle

We move forward in life, our little wounded selves rallying every day to see what can happen, what good we can do, what love we can share. We truly are so brave. Let us try every day to keep turning toward God. Constantly. For that is where we will find peace. That is where we will find light. Find a mantra, a verse, a quote, anything that will take you out of your busy monkey mind and bring you back to God. For a moment. And then another. And then another.

“Don’t worry about anything; instead pray about everything.” ~ Philippians 4:6

You are Still Beloved.

Victoria McGee

January 18, 2019

Be Still and Know

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“Stop all doing and be still. Let the fire of stillness burn everything and reveal that which is Openness.” ~ Adyashanti

Be still.

Sit in stillness.

Be still and know.

I’ve been seeing this message everywhere lately – even on a sign at a craft store. So cool that this idea is becoming more mainstream at a time when we need it most. The world is more full of distractions than ever in its history, so being still is critical, not only for ourselves, but the planet we live on.

When you’ve been through trauma and are working on healing, being still can be difficult. We are tempted to keep in motion, find distractions, essentially run away from our own mind where the shadows live.

We come to learn that is where we must go to defeat the shadows and find the light.

“When you lose touch with inner stillness, you lose touch with yourself. When you lose touch with yourself, you lose yourself in the world.” ~ Eckhart Tolle

This quote from Eckhart Tolle is so true, isn’t it? And we know when we are lost in the world. It’s as if we are part of a discordant symphony. No matter how hard we try to play, the notes come out wrong. Sitting in stillness is like tuning your instrument. Until we quiet the whole orchestra, the song we are supposed to be playing cannot be heard.

It’s often difficult for people with PTSD to practice stillness and meditation at first. If our trauma is fresh, our mind can be a scary place to spend time. Left to our own devices, our mind will replay tapes of traumatic experiences. Trying to empty our mind and be still can lead to extreme discomfort and agitation. Sometimes closing our eyes is impossible, because the images are right there, ready to trouble our mind and spirit again.

I’ve been there. I’ve been afraid to close my eyes. Afraid to sit still. Afraid of the dark. Afraid of my own mind. I was lucky that I was never afraid of prayer, and that I believed in prayer on the go. I found I could pray at a stop light, in the grocery store, anywhere. Prayer was my way in to the stillness. Prayer and practice. Eventually, prayer and meditation became one.

“Stillness is the altar of the spirit.” ~ Paramahansa Yogananda

If sitting still is difficult for you, I invite you to practice. Start with only 1 minute a day. Simply sit and be still. If you have a prayer, say it. If you have a mantra, say it. Sometimes just repeating a simple phrase works, like “Be with me, God.”Just be still. If you don’t want to close your eyes, fix your gaze on something pleasant for that 1 minute, and try to quiet your mind. Stay with 1 minute for as many days or weeks as it takes to feel comfortable and at ease here. Then slowly add to it. Your mind, spirit and heart will begin to crave this minute and lead you to longer practice periods. Take your time, but take the time. The ability to sit with yourself, with God, will give you back your power, and speed your healing.

“Within yourself is a stillness, a sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.” ~ Herman Hesse 

Think of your post-trauma self as a murky bowl of water, cloudy with stuff. We are the ones who keep it murky by constant movement, avoidance, distraction, and mindless stirring of the stuff. So how does cloudy water become clear? Stillness. The sediment sinks to the bottom and the clear water rises to the top. That which is not useful will fall away when we stop stirring and allow clarity to ascend.

“Let it be still, and it will gradually become clear.” ~ Lao Tzu

In searching for thoughts on stillness for this blog today, I was struck by how universal this idea is among all religions. From the Psalms, “Be still and know that I am God,” to Buddhism, Islam, Hindu writings, and beyond, they all point us inward as our path to draw closer to God.

There may be shadows in your mind, in your stillness, but the light and Love that knows no limit is also there, waiting for the opportunity to heal and comfort you.

“In quietness are all things answered, and is every problem quietly resolved.”                      ~A Course in Miracles 

Be Still and Know you are Beloved.

Victoria McGee

January 29, 2018