Breathing and Resilience
Breathing and Resilience
I want to talk a little bit about breathing. Not yet another lecture about how to breathe properly, nor why you should let your focus stay on your breathing sometimes, though, also here, we will circle back. Instead, I want to talk for a moment about breathing as a window into our cycles of doing and not-doing, the dynamic interplay between tension and relaxation – one that I believe can help us recognize these patterns that are all around us, happening in us, through us, as us, both within and without our conscious perception. These patterns, like the simple in and out of the breath, are before us and after us, both bigger and smaller than us, over which we can exert little control. The beat of the heart, the rise and fall of the breath, sleeping and waking, and even living and dying – we can, at best, influence these in some small way, for relatively vanishing durations, but we can never really control them, not the fact of them. I can choose, over a finite duration, when to inhale, and to pause, and then exhale. But I cannot choose to wait for very long, or the choice, for both, will be pushed by my physiology. Likewise, I cannot choose to only inhale forever. No matter how deep the breath, there is a point at which it reaches its natural zenith, and I have to exhale.
While we discuss the rest of this, I ask that you bear in mind this sense of rising and falling of the breath, allowing it to be there without strain, struggle, or force. Just to breathe, in and out.
Eustress vs Distress
Stress, in its most simply stated form, is nothing more than the response of an object, structure, person, or even ecosystem, to pressure, strain, or tension. Stress is not inherently positive or negative, but just a fact – all interactions, whether they are physically demanding or emotionally fulfilling, put stress on a system. Bones need the stress of gravity to develop fully and healthily. Muscles grow strong with regular exposure to the stress of weight-bearing activity. But when stress becomes too great, negative consequences also occur – knees give out from overuse, passion for a job becomes burnout.
This is where the concept of eustress vs. distress comes in. When the stressor enhances adaptability, growth, creative response, and dynamic engagement, the stress, even perhaps when quite high, is still “eustress”, or a positive and healthy form. However, when the stressor becomes overwhelming, putting pressures on a person or situation that cannot be creatively or meaningfully adapted to in realistic amounts of time or with reasonable amounts of expended energy, the stress becomes distress, and systems and persons lose effectiveness, begin to function aberrantly, and can ultimately fall apart.
I have written about Workplace Stress before – and while stress is a normal part of life, and while experiencing some degree of stress from one’s workplace is expected and even necessary, over the last few decades, workplace stress has moved increasingly toward the “distress” side of the equation. In particular, these increasing levels of workplace stress are strongly correlated with the sense that the workplace continues to place high levels of demand on its workers, without giving them the means to be effective at meeting those demands – specifically, the psychological sense of having no control over outcomes, but being held responsible for those outcomes, is growing.
Similarly, even when a worker does have a degree of say in his or her work output, both in terms of directional strategy and implementation tactics, there are very often simply structural realities that lead to extreme stress – changes in the market, competitors that are better funded or more rapid in their deployment, deadlines that are unreasonable but immovable, etc can all lead to rippling effects of stress and pressure throughout an organization. More and more, these stressors are not occasional shifts that require bearing up under during transitional moments, but become the norm, the rule more than the exception. And as noted before, when a stressor becomes overwhelming in either quantity or duration, systems begin to collapse.
Anxiety and Depression
Dangerously, both anxiety and depression are exacerbated by high levels of stress, particularly those kinds of stress that stem from a feeling of powerlessness over a situation, or, similarly, from the sense that one’s contributions and efforts are being stifled or stymied from being effective. Anxiety and depression as dysphoric emotional responses have their own patterns and difficulties beyond the stress that may be inducing or exacerbating them, and because of this they have the potential to set up difficult-to-escape cycles, wherein anxiety or depression are made worse by the stress, which in turn situates the person to be less likely to bear up under stress, perhaps especially unrelenting levels of stress that never seem to alleviate in the modern workplace.
In many workplace situations, there is often at least an implied if not outright stated reality that everyone must be “always on” – phone calls and emails must be answered whether at work or not, web and application services monitored for uptime, and the like. And beyond the intensity of the simple day-to-day, there is the real need to generate genuinely fresh ideas, novel insights, unique strategies, differentiating features, and market-changing developments. But the unrelenting nature of it does not often allow a space in which this can happen, and the pressure to do so, even for projects that may legitimately have your passion, can exhaust reserves, can drain vigor, and leave the fire of innovation with little more available to it than a caffeine-spun raw-and-grating burnt sense of nothing left.
Balance as Resilience
And so here I would like to return to the breath, not as a metaphor, but as an illustration of a larger pattern. As burnout, I have really been describing a kind of relentlessness, an overwork that is unsustainable. It is the inhalation that refuses to exhale, holding its breath at the top and trying to strain for some eternal peak performance. We have to exhale. There is a natural, healthy rhythm to it.
An idea sparks – we begin our inbreath. It matures, takes shape, and coheres, as we inhale, reaching our capacity. And now we exhale, the idea rests, its excesses fall away, the clear and necessary stand out as the rest drops, until we reach our nadir, and the idea is let go of. It is this letting go at the bottom that is as vital as anything else. The idea is already alive – struggling to hold on to it is unnecessary and exhausting. Our next inbreath and we develop the idea, connect it to others, find its context. Our next outbreath we see tenuous connections drop, allow it to settle into the landscape of our other possibilities.
These cycles of inbreath and outbreath are our whole lives. Inhale and we push hard, we work, we strive. Exhale and we rest, we restore, we let go. Inhale and we take a conference call. Exhale and we hang up. Inhale and we write a report. Exhale and we send it. No more than that. Like the breath, with the report sent, we let it go. It’s not ours anymore, anymore than the breath is.
But more, we inhale and we are at work, we exhale and we go home. We inhale and it is our workweek, we exhale and it is the weekend. We inhale and we defend an idea, we exhale and we listen to someone else.
There is this pattern running through absolutely everything. It is unavoidable, it is in many ways the giving and taking, tensing and relaxing that is the movement of our whole lives.
It is exactly a recognition of these patterns that can allow us to become aware of balance, not as some arbitrary or exterior value or goal or good that we feel that we “should” or “must” find. We realize that it was already ours. Our heart contracts and releases, we breathe in and out, we wake and we sleep, we are born and we die. That balance is what literally creates and sustains us. It was not “ours” because it is what we are. We don’t have to struggle for it or strive to find it. We just have to remember it, remember that we already are it.
And then, as my teachers say, our lives become a way to live simply in harmony with it, with the cadence of rise and fall, of come and go, that characterizes all things.
Inspiration and Creativity
And in doing so, we discover that creativity is already ours as well. That it is a natural part of life. There is a reason that “inspiration” denotes both inhalation and the stirring of a creative impulse. They are, like one another, an experience that does not belong to us, but happens in us and as us, that literally is us – any sense of struggling to “force” a creative moment is an illusion. We do not “own” creativity in that way. It comes as naturally as breathing, when we are balanced. Creativity does not have to be summoned with titanic acts of will. In fact, these titanic acts of will in many ways simply exhaust us, tire us so fully that, if creativity in a moment does strike us here, it is because we have finally gotten out of its way, and little more.
We can cultivate creativity, but to do so is to cultivate balance, an even and fluid respiration of our days and weeks, of our relationships of give and take, to one another and to ourselves. When we inhale and find that the work we did or the idea we had did not reach a peak that we desired, nothing is to be gained by holding that breath, refusing to exhale it. Even if we know that the next breath will not bring the desired result, we have to exhale, and take the next breath in.
Balance and an awareness of this rise and fall does not give us a way to step around or outside of it. We will have periods of our lives of heightened creative insight, of greater productivity, of a more visionary outlook. We will have periods where we need to stop our efforts forward, and consolidate what we have gained, cut the excess from what we thought we knew, and look carefully, gently and quietly, at what has worked and what has not. Forcing these exhalation moments of quiet insight to hurry along will not ensure a return to moments of inhalation that look like success. It only ensures that we are not fully letting go of what no longer serves us, personally or professionally. The genesis of every new profound insight or creative change is only to be found stirring within the relaxed and restorative outbreath that does not look like productivity in its moment.
The key is to allow the outbreath to happen, too, without scouring it moment to moment for the genesis of a new cycle of creative inbreaths. A scattered desperation will miss the subtle moment of creative inspiration, unable to hear it between the noise of its own pressured need.
Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine
It would be absurd to make a leap from the above to a statement as naive as “this is what acupuncture and herbs can do for you!” There is no magic for that kind of balance, that kind of relationship with both receiving and letting go. That is not just the work of a lifetime – that is what life itself actually is.
But, because that is what life “is”, in the sense of breathing in and out, of coming and going, acupuncture and herbal medicine work to take advantage of the reality that you already possess exactly that capacity, because that capacity is your life. Acupuncture is based in large part on the principle that these rhythms of your life, the functioning of physiological systems, of emotional cycles, of rest and work, are the normal and healthy state of the body and mind. Disease, in these terms, is simply where these cycles, the necessary give and take, becomes disrupted, stagnated, stopped, or misdirected. This holds physiologically and anatomically as much as it does emotionally or psychologically.
Acupuncture does not add or remove anything explicitly. Rather, it adjusts aspects of the normal rhythms of respiratory, circulatory, neurological, and endocrine systems in ways that have, empirically for over 3000 years, shown to be effective for a wide variety of complaints. The language and the ideas that have been used to describe how and why these changes take effect have evolved over time, such that the theories that were in use in different centuries in the history of East Asian medicine more broadly were markedly distinct – that has been the case today, too, as research moves to describe and explain elements of this system of medicine.
There are treatments for reducing stress, shifting your body’s capacity to deal with things like pain and insomnia, treatments to help your breathing regularize and deepen, to sustain microcirculation where capillary beds may struggle from trauma, postural, or dietary stressors, and much more. There are ways with both acupuncture and herbs to help shift the body and mind into a state of balance that enhances both clarity of thought and emotional resilience, and even enhance physical performance, not because these add something new or extra to you, but rather remove the stagnations and inefficiencies that were impeding what was truly the fullness of your own life from the beginning.
Ultimately that is the goal of this medicine. The model of health is not one that starts with an illness and works to find what has failed. Instead it is a model of health that is oriented toward expressing the fullness of your potential, and doing so by helping you to simply do what comes naturally – to breathe in, to breathe out, to receive and to let go, with a simple and unpretentious balance, the easy harmony of acting when it is time to act, resting when it is time to rest.
Finally, I would like to talk for a moment about mindfulness. As a buzzword it has become radically overused (and I am not helping matters by using it here). I have no interest in badmouthing mindfulness strategies and techniques – how could I, as I intend to offer something that falls at least broadly within the same category.
A differentiation I would like to make, however, is where the rhetoric of mindfulness diverges from the daily act of living life. It can be easy to get the impression from much talk of mindfulness that, by focusing deeply on what you are doing in just this present moment, everything you do will be successful, or that you will short-circuit stress, or that you will find yourself markedly happier, more content, more peaceful, etc. Maybe. Maybe not.
The difficulty I have with much of this kind of talk is that it produces for someone new to any kind of meditative discipline the sense that “mindfulness” is some new skill, a state different than something they possess, something “extra” that they need to bring to a situation, add to it, and that if they do not consciously set out to be “mindful” about a task, that they are failing at “mindfulness” as a life strategy. This is mostly nonsense.
Mindfulness is not an “adding to” – it is equally false, however, to say it is only a “stripping away”. Mindfulness is nothing other than exactly what is in front of you, exactly as you are. Distracted? Then Distraction! Anxious? Then Anxiety! Mindfulness, for me, is neither more nor less than allowing things to be exactly as they are. Stressed by my work! Happy about a clean test suite! Anxious about a meeting! Going home for the weekend! Mindfulness. In moments of experiencing these, the key is not to try to force some external awareness on them, divorcing ourselves from the experience of them. It is simply to allow them to be what they are, exactly as they are. The vast majority of our suffering and strife arises not from the experience we are having, but from the strain to avoid the immediacy of an experience, turning it into something else, or simply worrying about whether it is the right experience, whether we should be doing it differently, if we should feel something else, or think something else.
So yes, when you are on a call, be on a call. But if that call has nervousness in it, be nervous. If it has anger in it, be angry. If it has joy in it, be joyful. See what it looks like, how it feels. Notice the texture of it, the sense of how all of these things roll through you, but are not “you” nor are they other than “you”. For the moments that you are in an experience, let drop the judgement that it should be something other than it is, that you should be something other than you are.
You’ll notice that it feels a lot like breathing, in and out.