Sunday, October 11, 2009

Just breathe...

We've all engaged in finger pointing exercises: that activity starts pretty young -- especially if you have brothers and sisters. "He started it," or "She hit me first" seem to be commonly repeated phrases in the face of parental accusations.

But it doesn't seem to stop there: I often find myself in the car, driving down the road, late to an appointment, and some part of me is busily finger-pointing, manufacturing excuses. "There was a truck blocking our road," or "I got a phone call just as I was leaving," or "My husband decided at the last minute he wanted me to run an errand."

It's not that the excuses aren't true, but the fact is I COULD have been on time if I'd not been engaged in something else; I COULD have factored in some allowance for those last minute interruptions. But I don't tend to say "I got caught up in planning the workshop and lost track of time" because some part of me isn't quite willing to accept the responsibility for my lateness. Some part of me, which seems to date back to my childhood, is convinced that anything I might be working on is not valuable enough to serve as an adequate excuse, and wants to project blame elsewhere.

So that's what happens with finger-pointing. But this image isn't really about finger-pointing. It's about TOE-pointing, which has much more attractive connotations. Toe pointing calls up images of graceful ballerinas en pointe, a child testing the water of a pool, or certain kinds of exercises which can only be done lying on your back, exercises which stretch, strengthen, and tone. While finger pointing comes out of our heads, out of a real or imagined sense of guilt, and is accusatory, toe pointing turns things upside down and focuses on the body, with implication of smooth, flowing lines; testing, adventurous; graceful, organic, feminine.

So even though our fingers and toes are all part of the same body, we tend to see them as separate, just as we see the brain and the body as separate, and we're altogether too quick to label one good and the other bad. How can we begin to reunite brain and body? Because if we could see it all as one, the good and the bad would be shared across the range of activities and we might be less quick to label; might remember that fingers test the water, too; that a ballerina's hands may describe an even more graceful arc than her toes; that feet can step on things and grind them into the dirt.

I think that in order to strike that balance, to see it all as one complete whole, we have to keep our focus on the heart, the source, that which relentlessly pumps food and energy out to the extremes of being. If my head is about thinking, my hands are about doing and my feet are about going, and if my attention remains on any one of those extremes, I lose sight of the importance of being, which is, after all, central to existence. So I need to keep returning to the heart of the matter; to the heart which lies at the center of being, providing quiet and constant fuel for the thinking, going, and doing by which we define ourselves. Somehow I have to balance my attention levels in a way that keeps me whole and fulfilled while allowing me to carry out whatever purposes I was born to.

But of course it's hard to justify taking the time to return to center, because it doesn't necessarily have any obvious result; we get nothing to show for it except (over time, if we're lucky) through increased productivity in the other areas. Fortunately there's a frequent reminder out there, a way for the body to return to center even when the rest of our attention is out doing, going, and thinking. That reminder, of course, is the act of breathing. And if we watch that, we see that the body understands perfectly that there must be a balance between breathing out and breathing in, between doing and being, between giving and taking, between loving and receiving love.

Which is why, when my daughter calls to announce she's stressed out about something going on in her life, whatever advice I may offer I always end up adding, "Breathe. Just Breathe." And she's heard that from me so many years now that she always stops then and takes a deep breath, and I hear that light sigh of her exhale, the sigh that says, right, I get it; I have to stop obsessing and just remember; know that I am loved and the world is good and everything will be okay.


Just Breathe.


Dianna Woolley said...

Sound advice this breathing stuff:)!!
THank you.

Maureen said...


Your posts are always worth reading, and this one works for so many reasons, starting with that image, which is attention-grabbing.

A friend this morning wrote on his blog, in response to another friend's post, about the "whitespace" we need to fill sometimes and sometimes to just leave empty and accept--a little like your returning to the center.

Your gentle admonition to "Breathe. Just Breathe." brings to mind Muriel Rukeyser's "Breathe-in experience. Breathe-our poetry."

altar ego said...

Breathing is one of my comforts these days. I'm trying to practice mindfulness, to allow the things that bump and bruise to bounce away without damaging the core from which I draw strength.

And, I am trying to hold the center in my marriage as my husband reels with uncertainty and doubt and anger and a helplessness that he doesn't appear equipped to handle. Sometimes breathing doesn't feel like enough, but at the very least it keeps me afloat. I'll take that over drowning any day.

Diane Walker said...

This calls to mind what they say on the airplane: put the oxygen mask over your own face first. We cannot help if we cannot breathe. Sometimes we are breathing for two... or more...