Eternal Echoes :: Breath
"No thing is ultimately at one with itself. Everything that is alive holds distance within itself. This is especially true of the human self. It is the deepest intimacy which is nevertheless infused with infinite distance. There is some strange sense in which distance and closeness are sisters, the two sides of the one experience. Distance awakens longing; closeness is belonging. Yet they are always in a dynamic interflow with each other....
Our hunger to belong is the longing to find a bridge across the distance from isolation to intimacy."
John O'Donohue, Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong
The notion of having multitudes of selves, with varying distance and closeness, is a common mythos of humanity’s. However much we long for integration, we are essentially fragmentary creatures. The dynamic interaction between the two ends of the spectrums is an important animating force of the human experience. Everyone has experienced it. It’s a phenomenon which is intrinsic to the of journey of self-knowledge (or enlightenment as it’s called in the East) and the healing process.
Yet, this concept is not only a poetic and metaphorical ploy. It is relevant, for instance, in neuroscience and healing after traumatic stress. It is a key component of what mindfulness and yoga practices do on the stage of tissue and blood: reconcile the mindless, the unconscious, with the present, the conscious.
It reminds me of the brain "mind", which can also be viewed though this lens of having many “parts”. From a neuroscience perspective, Bessel van der Kolk explains in The Body Keeps the Score:
“[…] Neuroscience research has shown that we possess two distinct forms of self-awareness: one that keeps track of the self across time and one that registers the self in the present moment. The first, our autobiographical self, creates connections among experiences and assembles them into coherent story. This system is rooted in language. Our narratives change with telling, as our perspective changes and we incorporate new input.
The other system, moment-to-moment self-awareness, is based primarily in physical sensations, but it we feel safe and are not rushed, we can find words to communicate that experience as well. These two ways of knowing are localized in different parts of the brain that are largely disconnected from each other. Only the system devoted to self-awareness, which is based in the medial prefrontal cortex, can change the emotional brain.”
Whereas one part of the brain creates a story for society (if the story is told enough, we are likely to believe it), the other part of the brain registers a different truth: how we experience the situation deep inside, on the biological and molecular level. It is this second system that yoga and meditation practices aim to access and befriend.
When we are shocked or nervous, we sometimes loose our tongue, we are unable to articulate, to speak. For instance, I loose all my words when I am put on the spot. After years of kid Amaury being told she is stupid, adult Amaury now doubts herself even when she is the subject matter expert in the room. When put on the spot unprepared, performance anxiety overcomes me, and I have a hard time articulating what I know. This is because the parts of our brain responsible for speech (Broca’s area in particular) often shut down during traumatic events, or when past traumas are roused and reexperienced in some way. Hence why talk therapy can only go so far: speech does not transcend all the layers of brain. Although talking about our problems certainly makes us feel better on some level and gets us to a place where we can better understand our trauma from an intellectual perspective (which is a really important step), it does not help us activate healing at a deeper level.
This is why respiration is a central tool in Eastern traditions. Respiration is the most accessible bodily function that both the conscious and unconscious parts of the brain interact with. To effect great change and healing, we need to tap deep into the unconscious brain functions. Breath transcends the three parts of the brain (the Triune), the Brainstem, Limbic brain, and Prefrontal cortex.
A very rudimentary summary of the brain parts for context: the brain develops from the bottom up, 1) The Brainstem, sometimes called the reptilian brain, is responsible for basic housekeeping, like arousal, sleep, hunger, breathing and chemical and energy balance; 2) The Limbic brain, sometimes called the mammalian brain (because all animals that live in groups and nurture their young have one), is the seat of emotions and is responsible for monitoring danger, practicalities of survival, what is pleasurable or not, and is the central command post for coping with the challenges of living within complex social networks. The limbic brain is shaped in part by response to experience, and in part by genetic pre-dispositions. The first two layers of the brain are at the heart of the central nervous system; 3) the Prefrontal cortex, is what sets humans apart from other mammals. Our Prefrontal cortex is the thickets of all the mammals. It’s the seat of language and abstract thought, the ability to take in vast data and attach meaning to it, the ability to plan and anticipate, to have a sense of time and context, and when working with lots of other Prefrontal cortexes, create culture.
Respiration touches all of these parts. It is 1) an unconscious bodily function that will happen without our conscious input (Brainstem), 2) a function of our nervous system that both responds to and effects change to our physical and emotional states (Limbic), and 3) can be consciously observed and manipulated to effect change to the nervous system (Prefrontal cortex). Again, this is a rudimentary summary, but the point is: how you breath has a huge effect on your emotional, physical, mental states. The inhale activates the sympathetic nervous system. The exhales actives the parasympathetic nervous system.
The most valuable meditation technique, and most often the very first step in meditation, is watching the breath (focus awareness on the breath moving in and out of the nostrils without altering your respiration). Even without practicing pranayama (breathwork), simply observing respiration without changing it lends an important effect: it forces us to be present. Focusing awareness on a small area like the nostrils helps the mind concentrate and become one-pointed. This begins a link between the unconscious and conscious mind.
When our mind begins to generate negative thoughts, our respiration rhythm changes, we start breathing differently. This is a key signal, it’s your body indicating “Hey! Biochemical reactions are going on!”. Then, having noticed the signal, you can start observing respiration (and eventually other sensations in the body). Thus, when we observe respiration and sensations, we are also observing what is disturbing the mind/body unit. When we observe what is happening in our bodies, whatever negativity triggered it passes away more easily. Eventually the triggers trigger less because we understand them.
With regular practice, the circle widens, we come to understand ourselves not only intellectually, but experientially. We come to understand our bodily functions AND their interaction with our mental and emotional world - our own inner reality.
Healing depends on experiential knowledge. You can be fully centered and present in your life only if you can experience and acknowledge the reality of your body in all its visceral complexities.
Dig deeper into the eternal echoes.