And what a beautiful walk it was

Back from my walk out in the woods. Getting towards sundown… birds settling in for the night, tiny creatures singing out of sight, and the breeze on my face, cooling me after my brisk hike into the woods.

I am struck by the amazing beauty of it all, the simple power of something as basic as new life emerging from the earth, once again. Green, new, hopeful life without a reason to be cynical or self-destructive.

And I am struck by the impact that conscious breathing has had with me. Spending just a few moments breathing steadily, slowly, focusing my attention on a single point — a pine cone, a fallen branch, water in a little stream flowing over glistening rocks…

In all my years of hiking these woods — although I’ve been away from them for the past 3-4 years, as my last fall made it very difficult for me to be outside and in wide open, uncontrolled spaces — I have rarely (if ever) had the kind of presence in that place I had this evening. I usually returned to my home somewhat tense and shut-down. I would start out wide open and ready for a good walk. But when I got home, I would be a far sight less relaxed than I expected/wanted to be.

For years, I knew something was amiss with me, when I would go out on my walks. I would walk for about 15-20 minutes and everything would be fine. Then I would start to shut down, would start to ruminate about this, that, or another thing. I’d get stuck in my head and wouldn’t actually see very much on my walks, even though I’d cover miles of ground in beautiful, healthy woods.

I always knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Now, I think it’s because I would get tense, being out in the woods, I would start to feel uptight about something, and I wouldn’t breathe properly. The lack of deep, measured breath would give rise to more tension and add to my agitation, and then I’d ruminate even more… A self-fulfilling cycle that I could never seem to break.

Somehow, I’d always get trapped in my head. And my walks would turn into traveling psychodramas.

But today, I took my time, made a point of stopping to breathe, periodically. And I just let it all in. Whereas before, I would start to wall myself off and shut down, today, I let myself stay open to what came across my path. No social anxiety, when I happened across a landscaper loading a backhoe onto his trailer. No drama when cars would pass me closer than I liked. No shutting off and getting stuck in my head the whole time.

Today was different.

Because I breathed. On purpose. Measured, mindful, enjoyable breaths. Good breaths. With awareness and purpose.

Today was good.

What conscious breathing changes

I have been consciously working with my breath for about a week, now, and I have to say, the changes I’m noticing are remarkable. These are changes for the better. Changes to patterns and aspects of my life that have been entrenched for a pretty long time. In fact, the patterns and aspects of my life that I feel shifting are ones that I had actually been resigned to having to deal with, for the rest of my born days.

I had thought that I would just always have to deal with things like constant agitation, anxiety, fear, and avoiding the things that freak me out. I had thought that I would just have to get used to restlessness running my life, a perpetual undercurrent of manic-ness flowing in the background of my life, 24 hours a day. I had thought that relaxation was something that other people could do, but not me. I had even thought that conscious breathing was not something I’d ever  be able to practice fully.

Turns out, I may have been wrong. All the stuff that I’ve been battling against, for as long as I can remember — especially the behavioral things, and the hidden, underground state of anxiety, despair, and agitation that stokes them — may not be as unmoveable as I had thought. And a very important piece of this puzzle, perhaps the one missing number in the combination that would unlock this mystery that is my life, has turned out to be mindful breath.

In just the past week of doing just a few minutes of conscious breathing a day — and I’m not joking about the “just a few minutes” because I am at this point unable to focus exclusively on my breath for more than about 3-5 minutes — this amazing change has taken place. I’m actually relaxed. Loosened up. Not nearly as rigid as I had been. I’m so relaxed, in fact, that it’s taking some doing, for me to get moving in my current daily work. And looking closely at that pattern and examining why that is, I am realizing more and more each day that it’s not because there’s something wrong with (only) me — I’m just not in a good job. The position is not a good match for me. And I need to change that.

So, I’m revising my resume and I’m reaching out to talk to recruiters. And you know what? The whole way I’m doing that, is changing, too. I have been more present, more confident, more secure in my dealings with recruiters, than I’ve ever been in my life — and I’ve been dealing with headhunters for over 20 years. I’m actually clear and relaxed and centered, and I’m not on constant guard all the time.

This is amazing. Nothing short of phenomenal. During one of my job interview discussions last week, when I couldn’t understand what people were saying to me, I didn’t just sail on past it and assume I would figure it out later. I actually stopped the conversation, made sure I understood what they were asking/saying, and then I responded to the actual question they asked. In the past, I would have just rushed it and fudged it. And I would have ended up either looking a little “off” or getting into a job that I had no business getting into. I’ve done that more times than I can count, but this time I didn’t do that. I actually held my own, and I participated fully in the conversation.

That, because I was calm and centered and focused. I was consciously working with my breath.

Which amazes me, because for years, I’ve been confounded by people who tell me “Just breathe…” in response to traumatic situations. It’s so friggin’ annoying, being told to “Just breathe” when all hell is breaking loose. Seriously. It seems like such a slap in the face, such an over-simplistic, dense, “dumbed down” (if you’ll pardon the expression) response to what can be complex and mind-boggling situations in life.

I mean, honestly…  I’m in extreme existential crisis, and you expect me to “just breathe”?! Come on – gimme a break.

But taking a closer look at it, thinking about what mindfulness can do for the physical system*, and thinking about the breath in terms of what it does for the parasympathetic nervous system (the “PNS”) (I wrote an extended post about the importance of the PNS here), I had to reconsider my attitudes towards conscious breathing, and give it a try.

And it’s paying off. In a very big way. Whether it’s the stimulation of the vagus nerve by the expansion of my lungs against the inside of my chest cavity, or it’s bringing my full attention to the act of breathing and blocking out everything else, or it’s the delivery of more oxygen (prana, according to some of my friends) to my physical system — including my brain… it’s working. I could tell something was different, almost from the start. Literally. Within a few days of doing a “piddly” little bit of conscious breathing, I was noticeably more relaxed in my mind and spirit and body, and people around me could tell there was something different.

On Friday night, a long-time friend of mine told me it was good to see me “back” to my old self again. “You’ve been so serious for such a long time,” they said. And others around us agreed.

Yes, it’s good to be back.

And all over the breath. The missing piece of my recovery process. Something I do, every single minute of every single day. It sounds almost too simple to my complexity-hungry mind. But maybe it is.

Anyway, I’m not bothering to doubt the importance of this. These changes are very similar in nature the improvements I’m experiencing as a result of regular (daily) exercise. But they’re happening a whole lot more quickly. I’m quite certain that several things have helped with this — they’ve laid the foundation:

  1. I see a chiropractor regularly, and they have been really helping me get my central nervous system in shape.
  2. I exercise each morning 99.99% of the time without fail.
  3. I am intent on changing my life for the better and I am determined to overcome the obstacles that get in my way.
  4. I eat the right things and stay away from lots of junk food, including drugs and alcohol and cigarettes.
  5. I have help from a great neuropsych.
  6. I have the support of people who love and care about me, who want the best for me.

There are more factors, of course, but these are really the foundations for my own improvement, and my own experience of the breath. I suspect that if I didn’t have these, I might not have the kind of success I’m experiencing. But the fact is, I do have them, and I am experiencing a radical shift for the better in my life, as a result of conscious, intentional breath.

Amazing. Truly amazing.

———————————————-

In a . . .  study, Montreal University researchers from the lab of Pierre Rainville, PhD showed that meditators experienced an 18% reduction in pain sensitivity compared to their non-meditating counterparts.

Building on this earlier study, researchers have found that Zen meditation can decrease sensitivity to pain by thickening brain matter.

In an earlier study, Montreal University researchers from the lab of Pierre Rainville, PhD showed that meditators experienced an 18% reduction in pain sensitivity compared to their non-meditating counterparts.

Building on this earlier study, researchers have found that Zen meditation can decrease sensitivity to pain by thickening brain matter. (Source: NICABM Website at http://www.nicabm.com/nicabmblog/?p=751)