I listened to a Ted Talk this week called Breathing into Life by Brad Lichtenstein, ND. He asked a question of the audience that drives his medical practice and his work with people seeking healing from physical ailments: How do you want to live?
That question struck me as one we could all benefit from asking ourselves, especially as we are warming up into 2015. As is tradition, we set resolutions for the New Year that rarely last and quickly fall by the wayside – and of course, most of the time these resolutions are about unhealthy and unrealistic expectations about our relationship with our body, diet, and exercise. I wonder what might happen if instead of resolutions we spent some time pondering or contemplating these questions: How do we want to live? Is the way in which we are living a reflection of our deepest values as human beings? How do we discover our gifts and talents? What we can give back to the world?
This can certainly be a collective question of a community of people; however for the purpose of this exploration, let’s make it a bit more personal.
Take a moment to ask yourself the questions: is the way I am living a reflection of my deepest values? What do I stand for? What do I want to do with my precious time on this planet? How am I breathing my breaths?
You might notice as you ask yourself these questions, some kind of fear or anxiety creeping in. Really living in a way that is congruent with our deepest values or what Dr. Lichtenstein calls, “Breathing into Life”, takes tremendous courage and vulnerability.
Shame and vulnerability researcher, Brené Brown tells us that courage is to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart and that vulnerability is the most accurate measure of courage. Wow, that sounds both beautiful and terrifying! Relational wounding is a universal human experience and for some of us, we retreat deeper and deeper into a shell of fear and protection. Courage and vulnerability are no easy endeavor -but necessary explorations for being truly alive and living well.
So… How do we live from our hearts, and breathe courageously into our lives?
The simple answer is Practice.
Breath is a universal thread of the lifespan- it is the bookends of life- the first thing we do outside the womb and the last when we reach the end of life. It is such a remarkable thing because although most of the time it is purely involuntary, we can also take it from its natural or more passive automatic state to a more intentional space of practice in order to cultivate or develop it as a skill to calm our bodies and connect to ourselves more deeply.
The cultivation and practice of breathing is a courageous way to bring our inner and outer life into alignment and help us in the endeavor of telling the story of who we are with our whole heart- really living out our values in the world. If we slow down and create a space that invites stillness and deep listening, even for a minute or two, our hearts begin to let us know how we are engaging in life and if we are in alignment with our values.
Practicing the actual act of breathing, (which you will get a chance to do if you keep reading!), helps us get in touch with and deepen our connection with what is in our hearts. We will discover much about whether we are on a path of love and living well or if something in our path needs to be adjusted in order to have inner and outer alignment.
Practice Acts of Courage
Following the path of our hearts even when we feel fear and anxiety is key to breathing into our lives courageously. Learning to stay connected to our values even in the face of discomfort and unpleasant feelings develops and hones the skill of courageous breath. Start with something small, but expose yourself to the fear. Practicing and exposing oneself to that which we are afraid of lowers the psychological fear response and allows us to become more comfortable living life along side fear (which is a normal human reaction), rather than trying to cut it off or hide from it. Make it personal- what would this be for you? Perhaps this would be sharing a dream or hope for your future with a trusted friend of family member. Maybe for you an act of courage would be seeking help for something you are struggling with, or trying out something new, like a painting class, writing a short story, or volunteering at an animal shelter. Think of something that connects you to a deep value you have and start small, but start somewhere.
Practice an Attitude of Compassion (for yourself)
When we practice acts of courage and standing up for core values, things might not always turn out as planned… but they might! Either way, having an attitude of compassion for oneself allows an acknowledgement of the beauty the courage with less attachment to the outcome. The willingness to stand up for what matters in service of breathing into and engaging wholeheartedly in your precious life on this planet is worthy of honoring. Notice how you talk to yourself – a compassionate heart has the potential to transform suffering.
Practice with Courageous People
Think about those people that you admire, those that live a life of inner and outer alignment. Learning from others about acts of courage are invaluable lessons. Become curious and engage these people in conversation. Most likely what they will tell you is that courage is not the absence of fear. It is not even about a conquering of fear. Living a life that is a reflection of our deepest values requires vulnerability and a willingness to stand alongside fear, exposing oneself to it, moving through it, surviving, and growing.
Even with all of these ideas, we cannot breathe into life if we are physically holding our breath! I invite you to take the next minute as an opportunity to explore your own breath in service of cultivating an awareness of your inner life.
Sit comfortably and invite your body to relax. This can be in a cross-legged position, or in a chair with your back supported and your feet on the ground. Your eyes can be open with a soft gaze or closed- whatever feels safe and comfortable for you.
Begin to notice your breathing. What are your breaths like? Perhaps they are long and maybe they are short. They may be shallow breaths in your chest or they might be deeper in your diaphragm. Notice your breathing without judgment of what it is- it just is. Notice what is happening in your mind- is there a lot of noise or is it quiet? Bring your compassionate attention to your heart. Does it feel contracted or soft? Neutral? Open or closed?
Does your heart have something to tell you? Continue breathing softly- allowing your breath to deepen and expand your lungs, honoring whatever emotions may arise with a compassionate attention, without judgment or criticism. Perhaps ask the question of your heart: What might lead me to a greater connection with my values?
After a few more rounds of contemplative breath, begin to bring your awareness back into the physical space you are in. I encourage you to take a minute to write about what you discovered in that moment of stillness and courageous breath. What was your heart telling you about breathing into your life with courage and vulnerability?
Courageously breathing into your life helps make not only your life, but also the world a more accepting loving place. The world needs what you have to offer it, your unique values and the unique expression of them.