Robby B. Echavez, MAEd, RPm, RPsy, MAGC (cand.)

Wimhoff, famous for his cold-water endurance, has stated countless times that breathing is the essential foundation of his stamina in environments that would otherwise literally take most people’s breath away. In fact, when asked by Tim Ferris about what he would put up on a billboard, he said, “Breathe, motherfucker!” Putangina, huminga ka!

Don’t we get told on by our brains to do the same thing everytime?

Deadline is coming up.
Breathe, motherfucker!
Bills to pay.
Putangina, huminga ka!
Monster mother.
Breathe, motherfucker!
Killer back pain.
Putangina, huminga ka!
Your ex coming back into your life.
Breathe, motherfucker!
Terror teacher.
Putangina, huminga ka!
Crazy boss.
Breathe, motherfucker!
Alcoholic dad.
Putangina, huminga ka!
Corona and lockdown stress.
Breathe, motherfucker!
Abuse and harassment.
Putangina, huminga ka!
Crappy neighbors.
Breathe, motherfucker!
Meaningless life.
Putangina, huminga ka!

Before this becomes more of an excuse for profanity, the main point needs to be reiterated. Our minds scream “Breathe!” everytime we near “too muchness.” And too much is easily reached nowadays because of the Corona scare. Most of us are at our teetering points. Ironically, however, it would seem that we have introjected and somatized the anxiety of the pandemic. If the SARS-Cov-2 has for its principal biological effect the disruption of our breathing, it appears this body experience is manifest in the psychological level too. That is, Corona stress is making it hard for our minds to breathe; to oxygenate and regulate itself in the rhythmic cycle of taking in, holding, and expelling.

Many individuals who have either experienced an intensification of their mental health symptoms or have suffered from emerging psychological concerns at this time of the pandemic report breathing disruptions such as breathelessness, heaviness on the chest, a lump in the throat or some other part of the airway being blocked, and a sort of heartburn-like experience where shallow and labored breathing are coupled with heat projections in the midriff and other parts of the body. All these despite currently testing negative for the virus. What is going on?

Life is tough, my darling. But so are you. Just breathe. (Photo: R. B. Echavez)

One hypothesis is that the mind has mirrored the body experience. Just as the body is calling for ventilators and open air to assist and promote breathing, so too our minds are shouting, “Breathe, motherfucker!” reminding us to support the life-giving and regulatory function of the breath and its natural rhythm. How do we do that? What are the equivalents of ventilators, breath training, and open air for the psyche?

Trusting the breath is an important requirement. This is harder to do because the virus is everywhere. In our precaution, we wear masks and shields and are reminded to act, to breathe, as if we have the virus. This physical reality is also making it difficult for us to trust our breathing psychically– to trust that just breathing, taking the time to clear one’s head, or air out a grievance or a feeling, or just find a moment to bask in silence or serenity will ever do us good. We feel that just breathing, or talking, or listening will ever do the trick and so we delude ourselves into thinking that more complicated processes have to be engaged– pharmacology, lab tests, hospital machines.

In one group session, participants talked about what kept them going and breathing.

  1. Family and friends
  2. Self-realization, feedback, or insight
  3. Need of others
  4. Writing
  5. Praying
  6. Explaining

These are everyday things. Reading through the list, did you come to doubt they could ever be effective in helping you catch your breath? This impulse that we have– to discount the simple and look for complex solutions, is the very thing that gets in the way of us trusting our breath and allowing it to lead us along. When you trust your breathing, this life force, you can never lose your way.

Another psychological equivalent to breathing easy, is to breathe wholly. Has it ever occured to you that when we breathe, on average 20 times a minute, 30,000 breaths a day, we never half-breathe. In other words, breathing is always a whole experience. The breath that you take in during inhalation, sans dyspnea or other extraneous physical events like explosive movements or strenuous activities, is always enough. And when we inhale, it has to be held by the body for a few moments before it moves out in exhalation. You’ve never breathed in, without breathing out! Breathing is a whole activity. To heed the mind’s call to breathe, it is important that we are wholly present in what we do whether this is having sex, gardening, eating our breakfast, finishing a report, thatching a leaking roof, fixing a lightbulb, or asking for forgiveness.

One person I talked with said she felt guilty over a “sin” she’s committed against her husband, despite having received forgiveness from him. After some time, we found out that the reason this was the case was because there were parts of her “sin” she didn’t reveal and so it had made the act of telling, apologizing, and forgiving incomplete. It was not a whole experience; it couldn’t be even if they wanted it to be. There was something missing in the field and it had to be added in so that it could be a truth-telling (for a half-truth is still a lie, they say) and so that the forgiver can forgive everything, and not just a part-experience.

Look to events in your life now that are interrupted, half-baked, and premature. What can you do to make these whole experiences? The pandemic is literally taking our breath away, but it’s also giving us what we need to take it back. I’m sure that just like me, you’ve heard many a friend talk about being able to spend more time with family, catch up with somebody, patch things up a falling-out. Aren’t these examples of taking what has been interrupted and making them whole?

When you hear the Self call for a time out; when it begs you to “Breathe!” these are not only invitations for you to trust and make things whole, it is also a motioning towards the center of your being. Just like the physical breath permeating every tissue and cell of our body, the life force, libido, or spirit, call it what you want, is the breath of the mind that nourishes every part of our being. It reminds us that something lives in us beyond our material selves. There is a dimension to our humanity that is accessible only if we take the time to trust, to be fully present, and to awake to it, as Anthony De Mello writes in his book Awareness.

Perhaps one reason people are finding it difficult to physically and psychologically breathe these days is because circumstances have knocked the wind out of us, bringing our attention to the most basic of things for survival and diverting our attention from foundational heart-mind and soul experiences. In our scramble to be food and home-secure and to be physically healthy, we have forgotten that something inside every single one of us needs caring and tending to. Whether it is a hurt, abuse, trauma, guilt, shame, sin, loss, grief, or regret they are calling out to us. Breathe, motherfucker!

References

De Mello, A. (1990). Awareness. New York: Doubleday.

Ferris, T. (2017). Tools of titans: The tactics, routines, and habits of billionaires, icons, and world-class performers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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