Rumi once said “Every breath you take makes one of two choices: you either surrender to your soul or struggle with doubt.” Understanding this principle changed my life.
Years ago, I was in therapy with an amazing woman named Dr. Stella Resnick. In the session I told her how effective I was becoming at calming my anxiety and reducing emotional tension. She asked me how I did this.
“Well” I said, “I say to myself, shhhhhh, everything is okay. Calm down.”
I was very proud of my approach, which helped me avoid relying on either a few glasses of wine, or some poor bystander, to diffuse my emotional intensity.
So I was shocked when she looked straight at me and replied “That’s not how you should do it at all.”
What followed was simple but life changing. She said the way to navigate all emotions was just to breathe. Not to shush yourself, or talk to yourself, only breathe. Further, she proclaimed, breathing is the secret to everything. If you want to have great sex, good communication, healthy intimacy, a sense of aliveness, the answer she said was to breathe. (She was also a sex therapist so I was inspired to listen up.)
In Somatic Psychology they view the breath as the key to authentic living. To breathe deeply is to be present and open in the moment. Breath allows us to feel, savor and connect with both the world around us our authentic, creative Self. To “surrender” to the breath means to allow spontaneous, original expression to exist within us.
We “struggle with doubt” when we resist our experience out of fear that we can’t handle what’s happening. Physically, when we feel threatened by a situation, we hold our breath to diminish the intensity.
Feel into your body and imagine gasping in shock; notice how you tighten at your diaphragm and shoulders freezing your muscles. This same pattern happens on a subtle level continuously when we resist experiencing uncomfortable feelings.
Repression is our unconscious defense mechanism that blocks out memories or feelings we believe you can’t handle. Defenses however don’t just occur in our mind. To keep feelings unconscious we have to lock down physically.
Common somatic tell-tales of repression include chronic tension in your traps, frequent sighing breaths, shortness of breath, tightness around your ribs or mid-back, contraction around your solar plexus and/or diaphragm.
In Chinese Medicine this pattern, called Liver Qi Stagnation, has deeper implications. Taoism teaches that every organ has a Soul. The “spirit” of the liver is called the Hun. The Hun stores our “Life Instinct.” It is the seat of our creativity, growth, imagination, and desire to live. Clamping down on emotional energy diminishes connection to our life force. Less breath means less contact with our transcendent self, the source of our alive inspiration.
The short-term gains of repression are a momentary sense of peace and a temporary reduction in emotional discomfort. Only it doesn’t come without a cost. First, if not resisted, emotions come and go like clouds in the sky. Factually speaking, once triggered they only physiologically last in our system for 90 seconds. When they’re repressed, however, they remain trapped and chronically active at a low-grade level.
Second, since breathing is the gateway that allows us to experience wonder and awe, holding our breath decreases the natural ecstasy that’s available to us. Life becomes dry and stagnant.
I still have moments where I want to shutdown the pain of life. My therapist was right, though. When you learn to breathe through it you have larger upside. You remain connected with yourself and the flow of life, you develop surety in yourself and trust in your resiliency.
What I’ve learned through my own journey, and through coaching hundreds of people, is that when you choose to face and breathe through your discomfort, the feelings loosen up and melt away leaving a greater sense of wholeness and peace.
Next time you have distress in your life check in with your body. Can you take a deep, slow breath? Observe the feelings that arise with gentle curiosity, stay present and just breathe. Don’t label, don’t self-talk, just breathe and be there without judgement. You’ll be amazed at how the tension dissipates and ease arises in its place.
With every single breath you have a choice; surrender to the magic of your transcendent, spontaneous soul or live with tension and doubt.
What will you decide?