Learning how to breathe

The most important thing that I’ve learned during these undergraduate years is learning how to breathe. That may sound strange. After all, don’t we learn how to take our first breaths as soon as we leave the womb? We take that first breath, filling our tiny lungs, and the rest of our lives, we never have to think about it. Breathing, like the beating of our hearts, is something in the background of our lives. Something that we take for granted early on in life.

It’s something that I certainly never thought about. Especially as time went on, and life became busier and busier. I never paused to catch my breath, to take it all in. One exception is the yoga classes that I took in lieu of gym class in high school. There, breathing was everything. When I focused on my breath and on the present moment, the poses were that much easier to do, and I felt better. But I never carried over that focus on breathing to the rest of my life. I never realized its value when taking an exam, giving a presentation, having a conversation, or just sitting at my desk.

I went to college, got even busier, stressed about a variety of things, and again, I never once thought about my breath. I took exams with my heart pounding, waiting for the results, and wondering whether I had done good enough. I did presentations where I was almost always a bit too nervous and almost always speaking too quickly. I had conversations when I said things without taking a breath first to make sure it was what I really wanted to say.

I was always thinking about the future. What’s next? What experiences do I need to add to my resume? Will I do well on the final exam? How will that paper turn out? Always in a rush to get things done, I was hardly ever in the moment. I hardly ever gave thought to the breath that sustained me.

I realize that I’m not the only one. Everyone wants to be the best, to do their best, and to be productive. Seeing that word makes my skin crawl even though I use it all the time. Productive. It makes me feel like a machine. When people ask about my day, many times, I’ll say “I got stuff done today. I was productive.” I look at it as an accomplishment. But is it really? When I give myself time to think about my “productive” day, many times I realize that I rushed through it all without ever settling in and letting myself be.

I think how much better my day would have been if I had just lived every moment of it instead of rushing to get it done just so that I could feel like I hadn’t wasted time and that I had produced something of value. I should have been evaluating my “productivity” not on what I had produced, but how I had felt while I was doing it and if I experienced every moment of it. And I should have given myself a chance to unwind, away from my laptop and away from my worried thoughts.

I’ve been actively trying to do exactly that in the last few months. When I feel like my mind is spinning like tires in mud, I come back to myself. Breathe, I say. Be here. Be in your life. Even when it’s difficult. And it works. I feel better. My work is better. My relationships are better. My heart beats slower, and my breath comes easier.

Last semester, I gave a presentation where I spoke slowly, eloquently, and where I let each word come out at its own pace. What changed? I chose to breathe. In the minutes before the presentation, I could feel my heart jumping out of my chest, and my hands becoming cold. “Oh no, not again,” I thought. But I gathered myself. This time was going to be different. I took a few silent breaths, and I dived in.

During an exam, when I feel my heart racing and my mind going too quickly, I take a few breaths, and then, go back with a much calmer mind.

When I’m having a conversation, I listen to the other person, take a breath, and respond. I don’t rush to just say anything. Especially when I’m upset.

I’ll be very honest with you. Sometimes, I still forget to breathe. I still feel myself rushing, my body in one place and my mind in another. My breath caught in between.

But I always bring myself back.

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Something that helped me realize the value of breathing and living in the present moment is a class I took on Asian religions that included an introduction to Buddhism. We read several texts written by the Zen Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh.

Below is an interview between Oprah and Thich Nhat Hanh. Listening to him speak is a meditation all on its self. Enjoy. 🙂

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