Have you ever done one of those breathing grounding meditation exercises? The one where you think about where you are breathing? Like the one where you concentrate on how the air is coming in and out of your mouth or your nostrils. And they sometimes say things like: notice, or bring your attention to, how the air is coming in and out, which is rather than trying to control, just sort of step back and watch or feel or let it be. And then they might encourage you to locate the way that your breath moves, so you might feel the air on the back of your throat, or moving down into your chest cavity. Your chest rises and falls, your belly inflates (cup your hands loosely around your stomach and feel it fill up like a balloon), your ribs move to the sides, out and in.
Then there’s the move to relocate the breath, so you might think about a flow of air down and out through the bottom of your feet, or in your groin, or the tip of your nose or the top of your head. Think about the space above your head. Breath out and fill the space above your head. These moves, around and through your body, are a way to gently access and anchor you to your physical self at times when your mind is racing away. They offer purchase as a counter to hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that cut off some physical experience — numbing unnecessary information that does not assist you in fight or flight.
Last year I remembered how to breathe so that I could swim underwater again. I forgot for the longest time and couldn’t put my head under. I lost the knack, which is so obvious to swimmers that it’s a struggle to explain — just breathe out through your nose. No, don’t panic. Don’t breathe in, you’ll drown! Breathe out when your face is in the water and the water won’t come in. It took a slow few months, but I no longer get neck ache from holding my head rigid from the surface during breaststroke and I fully intend to remember how to do front crawl one of these days.
More recently I learned to breathe to manage pain. I knew that that is something people do — and I think I might have even known how to do it at one time and then forgot — but it’s a way to loosen up tension in muscles so that when contact occurs you relax into it. When I got a tattoo under my arm, just up from my armpit, I breathed slowly and calmly and it felt like a scratchy tickle from the needle (not a gun). When I got a hole punched through the helix cartilage of my ear I breathed out as instructed when the piercer told me and they said I’d done so well and I didn’t even scream or squirm until 20 minutes later when a friend hugged me and their shoulder shoved the metal into the new, raw edges of the tender puncture.
One of the things I can’t understand is how not to control your breath. When you are instructed to let your attention gently rest, notice, become aware, how do you not engage the muscles that control how much air comes in and out? I can’t help but try to slow it down and increase the volume and adjust my posture and locate and scratch a sudden itch and stretch out the tension in a braced limb. I cannot let my body be. And that is a part of the grounding, I think, to understand your body as a weighty, constant, tangible presence, but not something that needs, right now at least, to be attended to. Not in its entirety. Our attention can be held, loosely, over the surface tension and through the breath relax into itself.
But now I’m thinking about my body. And my body is thinking about me. And we’re connected: it wants and I want, and it needs and I need, and we see each other, or feel each other, or signal to each other. And I, me — a sort of whole me — we fidget and fuss and maybe we let our shoulders drop, and maybe we can let our hands be held by our lap, and we could let our jaw go slack and our sit bones shift and our thighs and calves press more flatly into the support. But there’s a tension that holds me together and the breath and the blood and the mucus and the saliva and the stomach acids circulate and the skin and fat, they grip tight around the muscles that sandwich the bone. And that’s what I feel when I breathe deep: that I’m a messy semipermeable sac, held together and mostly upright by a scaffold of weak, calcium-rich stone. And my breath? That’s animate, in and out, up and down, through the holes in the bone. I’m not solid but I’m not soluble, and that’s where I find some solid ground.
A Scaffold of Weak Stone (2020)
Produced by Ralph Pritchard
Selected by The Lake Radio for their fourth annual ‘Works for Radio’ presentation.