There is nothing more precious to us than the breath – without it, we can’t survive for more than a few minutes, and yet we comfortably let it go hundreds of times a day. The breath flows out, there is a pause, it flows back in. Even though the breath is so terribly important to us, we instinctively know we have to release it. There is no point in holding on to the breath, in clinging to the old, stale air, just in case it might come in handy one day. We need to let go of the used-up air, so that fresh, oxygenated air can flow back in and nourish and sustain our body.
It’s a good analogy for our life, where it’s so easy to grasp on to what’s old or outdated, ‘just in case’. We do this with our possessions, of course, but more importantly, we do it with unhelpful behaviour patterns, both in relation to ourselves and with other people. It often takes someone else, a trusted friend or therapist or mentor, to point these patterns out to us. Usually we’re so caught up in them, we’re like a fish which doesn’t know what water is. Even when we do become more aware, it can be surprisingly difficult to let go. Releasing old patterns and memories requires a sense of trust – trust that the void which has been left will be filled by something which is helpful to us. It is the same sense of trust we show every time we release our breath, when we leave our body empty, having faith that the next breath will flow back in and provide us with the life-sustaining oxygen we need.
Sometimes when we’re stressed, it can be wonderfully healing to really release the breath – either with a big sigh, or, if this isn’t possible because of other people around, at least by taking a slightly deeper breath and extending the out-breath, allowing ourselves to relax into it. In a similar way, it can be helpful to consciously release something which no longer serves us. All cultures have rituals for releasing and letting go. Funerals are the most universal of these – we all understand how important it is to formally say good bye to a person who has passed away. Yet many of us live with disenfranchised grief – grief for something we have lost, but which has no public recognition, no ritual or communal coming together to mark it. Next week we will look more deeply at this ‘silent grief’, and explore how mindfulness can help us to work with it in the absence of societal rituals and support.
Weekly practice idea:
A few times a day, take three slightly deeper breaths, releasing them with a sigh. Notice how you feel after-wards.