We don’t usually forget to breathe in, but sometimes we forget to breathe out. We hold it all in…the stress, fear, grief, anger…and our body bears the burden. So it makes sense to start with the breath. In Roy’s first assigned exercise in her book Momfulness, is a Breathing Meditation. She suggests using the two-breath meditation by Thich Nhat Hahn:
Breathing in, I calm my body
Breathing out, I smile
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment.
This is a prayer I have used often. In fact, about a year ago I found that my co-worker had written this out and left it on my desk.
I have treasured this paper ever since and left it out on my desk. Partly because it’s in her handwriting and I find her spirit so uplifting, but also because it’s just a nice reminder how connecting to the breath can so easily restore the non-anxious presence an effective family therapist must embody. Often a client will notice the note and I will have the opportunity to share this lovely and simple prayer.
In the two weeks I practiced this at home in my mothering as part of my Becoming Momful Project, I immediately begin to notice changes. Here are a few of the positive outcomes I have noticed:
- I feel more connected and attuned to my children.
- I’m listening in a new way.
- They are sharing more and have often shared without first being asked to share.
- I enjoyed playing “Mom” even more than normal.
- There was a more genuine quality to time spent together.
- They have both been more calm, cooperative and kind to me and each other.
As I practiced the two-breath meditation at home, what stood out to me the most was the smile on the out breath (see my smile->). In this practice, I imagined the breath as the Holy Spirit. As I inhaled the breath would travel in and down the body creating a calming effect. The belly expanded full of peace. During the exhale, the Spirit would travel back up and out the mouth gently lifting the sides of the mouth. Often the smile stayed for the second breath without intention or effort…just because it feels good to stop and breath. It felt like the out-breath gently pushed my mouth into a smile as the air went out.
I ran out of gas recently, which sadly is not an uncommon occurrence in my adulthood. We were on our way to a music lesson for my daughter and the car stopped 2 blocks from the gas station. When it happened the old thoughts flashed in: “What is wrong with me!?!” “I’m such an idiot!” “We’re going to be late AGAIN!” These thoughts came instantly, before I even turned around to tell the kids what had happened. So I put my hand on my heart (self-compassion technique I’ll explain later) and began breathing. Thanks to this practice, what could have been an awful memory was turned into a game and fun experience with my kids. The power of breathing to keep us human is astounding.
Normally, when emotion rises the middle animalistic part of the brain takes over the human part of our brain. It’s called emotional hijacking or the “fight-or-flight” response. Our limbic system is built to protect and is always on alert for any danger or threat. When things go wrong, our brain fuels us with the power to fight a bear by flooding our body with stress hormones. The problem is our brain doesn’t distinguish the differences in real vs. perceived threat well. When we pause to breathe and purposefully slow down our breathing, the process begins to reverse. It’s almost like telling the body, “It’s ok…we are not really in danger.” This is called the relaxation response. As we slow down our breath, we also slow down our heart rate and this sends a message back upstairs that we are ok.
I so enjoyed this first exercise in the first week of my momfulness project, that I decided to devote 2 weeks to it. There is plenty of research documenting the power of breathing, but there is also clinical evidence that smiling increases happiness, and that has certainly my experience. I find myself smiling at my children now just to see if their mirror neurons will kick in and they’ll smile back at me. What joy!