Heart and lung conditions aside, most of us don’t struggle to breathe. As a species, we have evolved to breathe oxygen on a planet that is not running out any time soon. Fun fact: Nearly half of the world’s oxygen is produced by tiny microscopic ocean algae called Diatoms. It’s not just about the trees people! Thanks to our autonomic nervous system, breathing is something we can do without even thinking about it. Aka sleep. In fact, thinking about breathing can actually make it more difficult.
In meditation, we are invited to notice our breath. Count our breaths. Through this act, we become one with our body and get a front-row seat to its natural processes. When we highjack this process and try to control it, we struggle, and that struggle, if left unchecked, can morph into anxiety or full-blown panic. The irony of a perfectly healthy person surrounded by oxygen yet convinced they are about to suffocate is worth a meditation in itself. I should know, I’ve been that person. Hell, I am that person. 3am. 3pm.
As someone who likes to be in control, I have continued to learn the hard way. In the past, feelings of breathlessness brought me shame and I resented them – as I saw them as a sign of weakness. Whenever I felt it, I fought it. Which of course made it worse. Now when I feel it I know it’s my brain’s way of saying, “let it go, John, we got this.”
‘Let it go. Right Right. Will do. Thanks for the reminder Brain.’
30 seconds later…
‘Yo Brain, what are we letting go?’
When I run up the steep sections of Mount Prevost, I’m met with a voice in my head that screams, “BREATHE .” The voice is so oppressive it often stops me dead in my tracks. Although this voice is in my head, it doesn’t come from my brain. It’s my ego trying to take control of a process it sees as out of control. Because the ego’s voice is louder, I listen to it and allow it to wrest control from my brain’s autonomic breathing system. It doesn’t go well or seem to matter if I’m on running up a mountain or lying in my bed, when ego takes control I breathe harder and faster convinced I can conquer the breathlessness that was ironically created because ego took control.
Spoiler Alert. It never works out. I am inevitably forced to cry uncle, fire my ego (again) and give back the control to my brain – lest I experience a full-blown anxiety attack or worse, lose consciousness from over-breathing (which I’ve never experienced but hyperventilation is a real thing. It appears to be the brain’s last resort to get back the control). Well played, Brain. If that’s even your real name.
Once my brain is back in control, my breathing returns to normal. This allows the carbon dioxide that has built up in my lungs to be let out. It turns out the brain knows a thing or two about keeping itself alive. It also turns out, this was the message my brain was trying to send to me in the first place. BREATHE out. I was so focused on getting oxygen in I failed to let enough carbon dioxide out. Hence, the breathlessness.
‘Let it go, John, we got this.’ Hmm.
It’s hard to breathe easy when we’re trying to conquer and control and we can’t let it go. So I’m learning to submit. And just let it go. And allow my brain to be my brain. It’s the least I can do. And in this case, less is better.