All I’ve done for the last year, roughly, has been the business of self-improvement. Some of it has earned me money, some of it is counted as formal education, some of it is therapeutic, but it has been a course of solipsism.
I’m not disinclined towards self-examination. I have piles of journals filled with the teenage ramblings of someone with––perhaps too much of––a penchant for navel gazing. “I” statements are relatively easy, all things considered.
Of all of the practices (writing daily, photographing daily, art classes, paid labor, free labor) exercise is the one that has yielded some of the most interesting results. I remain amazed by the degree to which is impacts the mind.
The body is the source of any number of terrible names: meat suit, transport, flesh bag, etc. The fact that human beings (and other creatures of our planet) are fleshy machines, capable of complex thought and movement, and ultimately decaying and eatable is a profoundly alienating thing to consider. (I highly recommend this short film based on the story by Terry Bisson. An excellent use of 5 minutes of your day.)
When we can escape the dichotomy of the mind vs the body (one which was described to me recently as being more Western than not, though my inclination is that more cultures describe the disconnect between mind and body; most major religions speak of distancing oneself from the earthly, and thus fleshy, plane, and any culture with ghosts is one that can imagine the mind without the body), we open ourselves up to that which science is increasingly confirming: that the body and the mind are intimately intertwined. A revelation which should come as no surprise, and yet always does. I try to remind myself that if the psychosomatic exists, and the mind can tell the body to hurt where it does not, then it should come as no surprise that the body can tell the mind to react or believe something that is not necessarily true.
For me, harnessing that has been the business of mindfulness. My father recently made an offhand comment that has profoundly influenced me, and confirmed even further something I was starting to believe.
I said that my natural breathing pattern isn’t very deep: I take small breaths when I’m breathing naturally. He responded by pointing out that shortness of breath is a symptom of anxiety, and if I am prone to bouts of anxiety, perhaps a closer examination of my breathing is in order.
My unofficial mantra has become to breathe deeply. If I find myself at loose ends, or anxious, or tired, or upset, or even just bored, I breathe in deeply and feel it flow all the way to the pit of my stomach, and expand my ribs outward. This kind of breath is astoundingly powerful. I’ve been developing a daily yoga practice and the constant struggle to maintain my focus on the poses and my muscle usage and breathing out and breathing in is possibly the most important thing I do every day.
I bookmarked a page of breathing quotes, and I’ll share with you my favorite three:
Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts.
––Thích Nhất Hạnh
Whenever I feel blue, I start breathing again.
––L. Frank Baum
Inhale, and God approaches you. Hold the inhalation, and God remains with you. Exhale, and you approach God. Hold the exhalation, and surrender to God.
(The last one is an odd one for me, with my inherited atheism, but it provides an excellent image, and serves as a great mantra for practicing the fourfold breath.)