Why is it so hard to describe the actual experience of breathing?
This morning, I woke up at 5:30am, before any alarm and even before Peng, my cat, started her daily wake-up routine on me to get me to feed her. After my usual routine, with coﬀee in hand, I decided to start today with a walk around the block to overcome the lethargy and depression that’s been weighing on me the past several days. I just did not feel up to my normal sitting practice today. I kneed with I’d end up back in bed, sleeping till late morning. Can’t have that again today, I warned myself.
As soon as I walked out the door, I wanted to turn back and fall back into bed. This sinking weight belongs under the covers. You’re just pushing yourself towards another collapse. But I walked. Slowly. With a lot of little stops. How far away are those rain clouds? The sky is lovely this morning of June 21, 2016. Supposed to rain by early afternoon, according to the weather app. Details. Distracting details. I’ve been wanting to get in my car and go camping for weeks now, but I keep keeping my nose to the grindstone. I keep showing up for work on this book. And for what, really? Who am I fooling? I’m just distracting myself from the inevitable. Money will run out and I’ll have to scramble and ﬁnd real work. Work that pays real money.
By the time I got back to my door, I was more than ready to fall back into bed. Or turn on Netﬂix and waste the day binge watching Chelsea Handler. Thankfully I had the wherewithal to practice pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses) instead. Earplugs connected to iPod. Start my binaural-beat meditation soundtrack. Shut oﬀ visuals with eye cover. Pink quartz egg in my left hand, purple one in right hand. Bedroom door shut. Time to fall through the ﬂoor. Time to go under all this muddy, roiling muck.
This sh*tstorm called depression:
After settling in, I notice the usual symptoms. Most of all, my diaphragm is barely moving. I couldn’t take a deep breath if I wanted to right now. I can’t force myself to take a deep breath. I don’t want to breathe at all, much less force a deep breath. All the knowledge, all the experience over all these years mean absolutely nothing when this tightness, this heaviness, sits on top of my diaphragm. The diaphragm has conceded. It has said “uncle.” There’s no reason to struggle or ﬁght myself out of this paper bag. It’s all dark and stuﬀy in here. What’s there to breathe for?.
Thoughts swirl and jump, one image with dialogue replacing another without any gap between. No room to take a deep breath in between the waves of wind and rain. At least I’m ﬁrmly in observation mode. I have put down anchor in the middle of this little tempest. At least I’m no longer lost at sea. Still no paddle to get myself out of this shitstream, but that will come on its own once I establish witnessing. Witnessing, or uninvolved observation, is what gives rises to the eye, the still center of the storm. The hardest thing is to return to this fragile center every time I ﬁnd myself lost in another wave of thoughts and images and emotions, another scene inside my invisible tempest. My poor diaphragm is hemmed in by all these crashing waves of….. What, exactly? It really doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’ve suddenly noticed, or realized, that it’s not my diaphragm that’s hemmed in. It’s just the messenger. Or it’s not alone at least. I want to say it’s really my heart, but that word ‘heart’ instantly takes over and once again words have taken over. What is this sensation, beneath the words?
This is the problem, isn’t it? I’m trying to communicate to you the importance of the diaphragm and I can’t even get past the words myself to experience it myself right now. Maybe your experience is diﬀerent from mine. To me, a big part of what makes breathwork so eﬀective is the simple fact that I cannot really experience breath as long as I am thinking. Direct experience or thinking? You cannot do both at the same time. Skeptical? Good. Try it yourself and let me know what you ﬁnd!
Being frozen inside this commotion, this dark stew of emotional and mental sensations called “I’m depressed,” feels like I’m caught up in a crowd outside my home, a crowd that keeps sweeping me out further and further from my own room. Right now, these waves are keeping me distant from my own diaphragm. I can’t feel anything, much less take a deep breath.
Breath rate instability. I don’t know which came ﬁrst, hearing this phrase in my head (a technical term written as BRI, that I read recently in a research article) or sensing this lack of rhythm in my breathing. Despite the fact that I am taking one breath after another, there is no stable rhythm. It feels like one single, isolated breath. Then one more independent breath. Then another. Each breath is separate.
At the conclusion of my next exhale, I intuitively squeeze and hold brieﬂy with rectal, genital, and navel muscles (moola bandha). My next inhale is a little deeper. Again, I apply a small moola bandha squeeze after exhaling. Again, the next inhale is slightly deeper. It’s all very gentle. Barely any eﬀort at all. But, it’s becoming regular:
It’s hard to write adequate words here to describe to you the diﬀerence this stable, circular pattern of breathing made. Without it, I would not have been able to write this at all. Now it is 8:18am. Breathing again!