Seated for a meditation practice, I noticed my abdominals tensing just at the moment I was trying to expand my belly to allow more air to fill my lungs.
This pattern of tensing and contracting on the inhale is called a reverse breathing pattern, and when I first learned I do this, I was filled with shame.
Seriously? Breathing is automatic. It’s one of the few things we really don’t have to think about, and I was doing it wrong?
Who has to learn how to breathe?
As I soon learned, most people.
Somewhere along the way, between the time we took our first breath and the time we became adults (or maybe teenagers, or even children) we conditioned some bad habits.
We learned that we had to tense against life.
The Tension Habit
It’s is a physiological habit that reflects a psychological habit. Or maybe the psychological habit reflects the physiological habit.
Causation is complicated.
The point is, they are one in the same.
Most people are walking around in a state of chronic tension — clenched jaws, tight fists, hunched shoulders — trying to hold it all together, bracing for what’s next. In this state, locked in the prison of our armored bodies, holding it all in with our abs of steel, we tense against life.
It’s an unconscious action, a habit; the way we move when we’re busy, or lost in thought, or sitting in front of our screens — when we’re not present.
When we tense against life, we can’t open fully to life’s experiences.
What Happens When We Tense Against Life
You can read this as a metaphor, but this is literally whats happening in our physiology.
Breath is life.
If you aren’t taking in oxygen, you’re dead.
The Inhale: Letting Life In
When we brace through the core, we don’t allow ourselves to breathe into the belly. You don’t actually breathe into the belly, of course; you breathe into the lungs. But if you don’t allow the belly to relax, you cannot fill the lungs. You need to allow the diaphragm to move so you can get the breath in.
So, quite literally, bracing and tensing against life makes us unable to let life in.
Whatever we do let in, we hold on to with every fiber of our being. We become afraid to let go of what we have, afraid of the changes that are a natural part of life, the things we might lose if we relax, if we let down our guard, even for a moment. Afraid of the death of what we know, what we love, who we are.
We are conditioned that we need to “hold it all together,” both physically and metaphorically: tight core, tight schedule. Can’t let it all fall apart.
It’s like that old anti-perspirant ad, never let them see you sweat.
This is our conditioning. Hold it in. Keep it together.
The Exhale: Expression and Letting Go
And then, because we are trying to hold everything together and hold on to what we have, because we resist letting go as much as we resist letting in, we don’t exhale fully.
The exhale is our expression, a letting out of who we are and what we have to share, as well as a letting go of what no longer serves us: the toxins and crud that accumulates through our days.
When we don’t exhale fully, we don’t empty our lungs, we retain some of the carbon dioxide that needs to get out.
We hold on to the junk and the poison that gets into our system, the emotions we were told that it’s not ok to express, the sounds of ecstasy, rage, and despair that society tells are are not appropriate, the remnants of life that no longer serve us.
Primed to believe that it is not ok to make noise, to let go, to let it out, we hold on. We hold on to the imprints of our conditioning, of our traumas, our ideas, beliefs, expectations. Anything that comes to us, we try to hold onto it, even if it’s not serving us.
This becomes a vicious cycle. When we hold on, we don’t empty. Without the emptiness, we have no room to take in anything new. And because we have no room to take in anything new, we hold on even more to what we have, afraid to let it go, afraid to fall apart.
On a physiological level, all this holding restricts our intake of fresh oxygen, it restricts the flow of breath — of life force — through the body.
Restricted oxygen to the body means muscles and organs don’t get the nourishment they need.
Bodies get stiff and rigid, limiting our range of motion. Bones break or disintegrate, crushed under the weight of what we take on. Organs and tissues fail to function optimally, or sometimes at all. We develop dis-ease.
As below, so too above. A rigid body creates a rigid mind, just as a rigid mind creates a rigid body. It’s all one unit.
No coincidence that the current pandemic is a virus that affects the lungs, the breath.
Everything is a message. This is where it starts: the lungs, the receptacle of breath, of life. It is forcing us to notice what already exists: when we tense against life we cannot breathe.
Breathing is a Habit
Breathing is automatic. You’ve been doing it since you were born; it hardly feels like something you need to learn how to do. It’s one of the few things we really don’t have to think about.
Except we do have to think about it.
To break the habit of tensing against life requires intention, awareness, and willingness to sit with the discomfort of stillness and come into the body. It’s harder than it might sound.
It’s so easy to lose connection to the body when we sit in front of a screen all day, or when we run from one thing to the next, preoccupied with the busy-ness in our minds and the running list of things to do and places to be.
When we are lost in the maze of our mind, we disconnect from the body.
Sometimes I’ll snap out of a working trance to notice that I was holding my breath, tensing my muscles.
Releasing these tensions against life is a lifelong practice of letting go, opening, and letting in.
The practice starts with awareness; a hundred times a day, waking up to how we are tensing our bodies and our minds against the present moment.
Let Life In
When we stop tensing against life, we open to an awareness that is immeasurably large and suffused with love.Tara Brach
Life is knocking at your door. Open. Breathe. Let it in.