Every breath you take
What do you do when those unwanted difficult feelings arise? I used to push them away and ignore them hoping vainly that they'd go away. Now I am practicing welcoming them in, even the really tricky customers, it's a hard but ultimately deeply rewarding practice. Time to take a breathing space?
“As long as you are breathing, there is more right with you than wrong with you.” - Jon Kabat-Zinn
A pause. A moment that felt like forever... and then a cry. My daughter takes her first breath after being birthed into the world. Breathing in and breathing out, so simple and yet so underrated. That first breath, a miracle that so quickly becomes mundane and ordinary. We typically take 22,000 breaths a day but how many do we actually notice? Our bodies cleverly carry this on until our last day on earth, naturally without us generally having to think about it. I am increasingly thinking of my breath as my friend, it has certainly supported me through the last few weeks which have held much change and uncertainty for me and my family.
One change that is strongly in the wind, is my daughter preparing to leave the safety and security of her primary school to move on to secondary school – physically further away and relatively unknown to us. We have visited twice, like house buying we took a couple of viewings, and she is there today for her transition day. She seems ready for this next step, but I’m not sure that I am. Motherhood seems to be a long series of letting go, which I find incredibly hard. Now seems a good time to take a breath and reflect upon all that this means. I feel full of melancholy and sadness. I don’t want to, I actually want it to be a celebration and be totally joyful but I’m not going to push these unwanted feelings away which are the actual truth. These feelings, that can have negative consequences, seeping out in other ways like an oil slick or fast acting poison when I least wish them too, or sticking around like unwanted house guests that I try to ignore (I don’t actually do that to houseguests I’m usually welcoming!). I am allowing myself to feel the discomfort of these emotions so that they flow on by in their own good time ... and then maybe I can get to the celebration bit!
When feelings of anxiety or anger, sadness or frustration arise, as they do (they are valid emotions like any other after all, it’s just what we do with them) I use a helpful technique that I heard the wonderful Sharon Salzberg describe called RAIN, which is my go to tool in these situations:
The R is Recognise. I am getting better at recognising these feelings earlier and seeing them for what they are. If we don’t first recognise what we are feeling we cannot deal with it appropriately. So I recognise that I feel a deep sense of sadness about losing my daughter and fear - have I provided her with enough tools to make it more independently in the world?
A is for Acceptance. Before my ‘big breakdown’ (or ‘awakening’ as I think of it now!) when my body enforced me to stop and I was in chronic pain, I used to push unwanted feelings aside. I am now learning to deal more skilfully with them. I discovered that the best way to deal with my physical pain was to accept it – I couldn’t change the situation (though I did try this first!) but I could choose how I responded to it. My suffering immediately decreased. It is true too for emotional pain. I accept that this is how I feel right now and that it is legitimate to feel this way about my daughter growing up. A part of me wants everything to be peaches and cream (for me vegan of course!) all the time but it isn't and that is the reality of life, sometimes the cream goes off (even vegan cream).
Investigate is the I in RAIN. Investigate what those feelings actually feel like in your body. For me, it is a clenched stomach, tension in my shoulders and chest and I realise my breath is shallow. This is my call to stop, sit and breathe deeply. I take a breathing space and just feel the sensations in my body, firstly the feelings of my breath, that wonderful steady anchor that is always there. Then I scan my body and get super curious about the sensations, really trying to detect the nuances in them. Jon Kabat-Zinn in his superb pain meditation taught me this, showing me how to go into the physical pain even for brief moments. It was revolutionary to me, realising that the pain wasn’t as constant as I had thought, there were subtleties and ebbs and flows. Eventually, I found that I could rest with it, rather than clenching against it. I do this now with the emotional pain related to my daughter. I realise the strongest pain is in and around my heart. Simply I love her, she (with her brother too) is the clichéd everything to me. I miss her, it is a kind of grieving. I can breathe deeply into that place; I feel it expanding rather than constricting. There is a softening although it doesn’t go away. I can be ok, and maybe even at peace with it.
N is Not identifying with the emotion. I have done this so often and still do with difficult emotions. I am sad, I am angry and so on, completely identifying with it. I have found that creating some distance can make all the difference. I recognise that I feel these things, they are here but they are not me. We can personalise them and feel that this is permanent but everything changes. I am working to accept this too!
I sit and take another breath. I visualise my daughter and send her my love, and I send myself a good measure of it too as I recognise that this is a moment of suffering for me. It doesn’t need to be compared with any other suffering, as this can invoke shame and thoughts that we shouldn’t be allowed to feel this way, when in fact we already do. I'm still breathing, there's more right with me than wrong with me. Just sitting, just breathing - feeling this every day miracle. As I breathe I consciously let go, these feelings will move on when they’re ready and when they do, I'll be ready for that celebration.
“The art of breathing lies in having the courage to let go. To let go and allow your breath to breathe itself. And when you do this, something miraculous begins to happen, life begins to live through you.” - Danny Penman