By David Jones
Sometimes it all comes back to breathing.
I had an emotional couple of days with no real outlet. As pressure built, I kind of slouched through work on Tuesday, and even my supervisor said I seemed to be just going through the motions. I said I wasn’t even managing that.
That evening I felt awful and went to bed early. Sleep stubbornly refused to make its rounds, but it sent a migraine in as its stunt double.
I’ve got a history or suppressed emotions triggering a migraine. You can tell it’s different from sinus headaches or stress headaches. Pain relievers won’t touch it. You can’t sleep it off. Sensory input (sound, smell, taste, light) feeds it and the pain hijacks pretty much everything.
So even after the application of a lot of ibuprofen and a dark cool room, it obstinately refused to leave, or even dim.
So I focused on slow, deep breathing. The pain began to loosen its grip. Of course, once the pain eased my brain said, “Okay, now to deal with stuff,” which made the pain reappear.
Back to breathing.
It reminded me of my granddaughter. No matter how much she’s told to stop doing something, she’s stubborn and keeps trying to do that thing. My brain has that same stubborn streak.
Let’s figure out how this started—throbbing owies. Okay, what if I slowly ease my way into dealing with this? Pain. Maybe if I just think of pleasant things. Ouch.
So the only thing that would ease my suffering was to lie still in a cool dark room and just breathe in and out. I noted recently how stubborn my granddaughter can be: you can discipline her to stop doing a thing, but wait a few beats and she’ll be right back at it. Just like her, I kept getting disciplined because I stubbornly insisted on resuming the very thing that reinforced my suffering.
I tried treating the symptoms of the suffering, but that didn’t help a bit. Maybe if I could understand what led to the pain, I could deal with the cause and find relief. No dice.
It all came back to breathing.
It’s a good mindfulness lesson, looking back. Think about the conventional wisdom of falling into quicksand. It’s best to avoid stepping in it to begin with. But once you’re in it, struggling and resisting just makes things worse. At some point it’s counter-productive to try and escape the moment. The struggle just solidifies the suffering.
At that point, knowing what led to the migraine was irrelevant. All that mattered was lying still and breathing. Simplify. Accept. Be present.
My internal monologue kept redirecting me every time my reflex to dwell kicked in.
“I shouldn’t have let it get this far.”
“Now’s not the time. Breathe in. Out.”
“I hope it stops soon.”
“Doesn’t matter. Breathe in. Out.”
“Why isn’t the ibuprofen working?”
“Doesn’t matter. Breathe in. Out.”
Thinking about fixing the problem just embeds the problem. It’s the classic irony of anxiety: struggling to lessen it increases it.
That’s the beauty of mindfulness—of meditation, of just breathing. Just being in the moment is the absence of struggle. What might feel like giving up or failing is actually the only step that leads to success and freedom.
That’s basically the point of telling folks, “How can you be free from anything that you cling to?” Buddha understood it wasn’t going to be easy for people to learn how to let go. But letting go was the key.
Remember the movie Twister? The opening scenes culminate in the dad holding onto the storm cellar door as the tornado starts shaking it. Even as the door starts coming apart, even as he yells that he can’t hold it, he nevertheless stayed right there trying to hold the door closed. For that, he suffered catastrophe—a catastrophe he would have avoided if he had just let go.
When fear and doubt show up, it’s easy to justify clinging to any attachment where we feel the comfort of familiarity. That’s where faith in acceptance comes in.
“Mindful breathing won’t fix the problem that caused this mess.” Maybe it won’t. Do it anyway.
“What if it doesn’t work?” Maybe it won’t immediately or directly. Do it anyway.
Have faith that the way to become stable is to let go of what creates the instability. Clinging ever tighter trying to bring it under your control isn’t the way.
When I trained to become a first responder at my workplace, one of the first lessons was “When you arrive at a crisis, stop and take a couple of breaths before you proceed.”
When a crisis presents itself, whether it’s without or within, the first step isn’t to start planning, or to try and wrangle things under your control. The first step is to center yourself and become mindful and present. It doesn’t require sitting in meditation for 10 minutes. All it takes is a couple of breaths.
And it took a migraine to remind me that it all comes back to breathing.
David Jones has a 27-year career with the United States government. He encountered mindfulness in therapy for his endangered marriage (which had led to anxiety-based depression and dissociative disorder symptoms), and writes about the experience in his blog as well as articles in various publications. He started writing articles about mindfulness for Yahoo Voices under the brand: A Mindful Guy.
Editor: Dana Gornall