Thursday, May 21, 2015

Only Five Breaths a Day

Life gets busy so quickly. It sneaks up on you like when you're driving and suddenly realize you're going 15 over the limit. There are those days when everything happens all at once, so many things are coming due, there are twenty emails in your inbox, and you feel behind on everything.

Credit: fhirART.

It's hard to find ourselves in all of it. After a day of deciding--which job to tackle first, why this story isn't working, what to wear to my meeting--picking what to eat for dinner feels impossible. It makes it hard to know who we are anymore. Choices are us deciding in the moment who we're going to be.

When we're making so many decisions at once, we don't have time to look down and see who we've become. I decided to say yes to that friend and no to the other, to say something negative about traffic and positive about the weather, to work late instead of going for a walk: who am I becoming in the process?

We need a way to stop all the clamoring voices so we can breathe, remember what matters, assess ourselves, and change course if need be. That's when we can be more objective, get a fresh perspective, and--if you're like me--connect with God.

In other words, we need to rest; cultivate self-awareness; make space; center ourselves. Whatever you wish to call it.

This centering has taken different forms for me over the years. At one point, I'd write my to-do list a sheet of paper, and at the end of the day I'd flip it over and list the things that happened that I was thankful for. It made me mindful of what I accomplished and of good things that happened to me. It also helped me notice the larger patterns of my life and make more informed decisions about how to spend my time and energy.

I've also ended each day writing how I felt throughout the day followed by a single prayer request. For a while after that, yoga in the mornings was my centering point. Reading my Bible sometimes helps me rest, but I spend a lot of time pondering what I read and it can add more thoughts into my head instead of calming the ones I already have.

My current practice involves one simple thing: five breaths.

I sit cross-legged on my chair or floor (in lotus pose--although that's optional), close my eyes, and breathe slowly and deeply. I stop thinking about all the other things, and just focus on breathing and being. It's impossible for my brain to be completely empty, so I usually have a little conversation along the lines of, "Hi, God, nice to be with you," and picture myself in a forest.

It takes me less than a minute, which is usually all I have before my attention gets caught with something I need to do right this instant and I go leaping off. Those five breaths have changed the whole sense of my day. For five breaths, I'm fully here, instead of over there where things are done and things need doing, or the place where my brain is full, or the place where I'm with people and wooooo. For five breaths, I know myself and my place in the world.

As I go through the rest of my day, I feel more balanced and alive. I take more notice of little things. I give myself the grace to let my brain go quiet at other moments, even though I really should be pondering what to do about XYZ. The peace of those five breaths lasts the whole day.

I believe spirituality doesn't exist solely in solemnity and holy spaces and selflessness and transcendent joy: it also exists in living. The five breaths help me give greater importance to being human. They remind me God is everywhere: in the dish-washing, when I write the climactic scene in my book, in awful traffic, when things couldn't get any worse, and in the laughter of good friends.


You might have a centering activity already. Taking a walk. Getting up from your desk and doing tree pose. The mindless routine of making the same thing for lunch. Almost anything can compose the small breaks we need in order to make it through the day.

If you don't have one, I encourage you close your eyes, take five breaths, and enjoy the rush of air into your lungs.

I've talked about rest a lot here on the blog. I'm an overachiever and workaholic, and yet life is supposed to have a balanced rhythm of working and resting. We do work, then we stop and enjoy what we've done, enjoy being finished, and enjoy that we don't have to do anything in order to earn our worth as human beings.

Rest takes the form of a lot of things: vacation, the weekend, turning off the phone for a few hours. These five breaths are another form. Taking 1-2 minutes every day to stop doing reaps the same rewards as week each year.

Taking five breaths a day has made me feel like I'm back from vacation, except without the mind-numbing sense of "what was I working on before I left?" Thank goodness breathing is so easy.

Word count: 894.