At the start of the pandemic, I wrote about managing emotions at the height of the uncertainty and the communal fear that had rocked us.
Now – more than six months later – we have not had a breather and the stirring external stimuli have been relentless. During this time, I’ve also seen more people coming in specifically for anxiety and depression than I’ve witnessed in my seven years of practice.
People are coming in carrying and embodying the tension of the current socio-political climate in the most creative ways. I use the word “creative” because the body will fight for survival at every turn, even if we don’t recognize its ways. For instance, I always remind my patients who find themselves picking up the habit of smoking again that they are instinctively trying to heal themselves. Wrong remedy, but right instinct. They are trying to slow their breath to calm their anxieties.
Today many are finding that their usual coping mechanisms, which seemed to work in the past, fail them when the stakes are as high as they are now. Others may be slow to realize that their efforts to “transcend” current realities are only leading them through a state of denial that their bodies will betray. Take the people who tell us they are meditating every day and surrounding themselves with positive affirmations and “doing everything right,” yet they are still carrying the tension and finding it resurfaces in unexpected ways.
Our minds are our primary source of anguish, and telling ourselves that everything will be alright does not mean we actually believe so. There have been many instances of emotional “releases” on our treatment tables. Patients have been shocked to find the tears streaming as they relaxed on the table, telling me they don’t know why they are crying. The body never lies.
How successful our coping mechanisms are depends entirely on how conscious we are of our bodies’ subtle responses – and what room we provide them to transform the varying emotions that come up.
This is because an emotion is simply energy. Yet any sustained emotion unchecked and in excess, either in expression or repression, changes our physiology and zaps our long-term vitality. Plain and simple.
At the start of the lockdown, I wrote about the need for inner contemplation, recognizing that if there was ever a time for radical self-care, it was then. And now.
How to Navigate the Current Climate to Engage in Radical Self-Care
The summer is over. The days are getting shorter and the nights longer. What we witness every year around this time is life on earth entering into a period of retraction, storage, and regeneration.
Starting in the spring, we saw the blossoming vegetation and lush abundance of nature’s bounty, all the way through the late-summer harvest. But then nature starts to retract. Particularly in temperate climates, we observe this in its full poetic beauty. The leaves start to fall off the trees and by winter the branches are bare. It looks as if the life energy of the trees has ceased, but that could not be further from the truth. In the cold months, a tree’s life energy recedes underground and is stored in its roots. The trees’ innate intelligence is revealed in their knowing that to flourish in the next season, they must first recharge.
There are fundamental principles of health and well-being, taught to us by Mother Nature for millennia, which most of us ignore at our peril and are prone to put aside when we can least afford to. Indeed, this fall/winter season promises to be one of the most passionately charged, on a grand communal level, that many of us have seen in our lifetimes. Everything will conspire against this fundamental need to restore.
What Are We Up Against?
Unfortunately – way before this epic 2020 – we always struggled with the concept of recharging. Even in our quests to live the most healthily, we oftentimes engage in a frenzy at this time of year that flies at odds with nature’s lesson.
For one, we are a society that idolizes constant “productivity.” A recent WSJ article, titled “‘We Can’t Just Limp Along’ Americans Reinvent Fall,” embodies this attitude. The author writes:
“Fall is typically a season of revival, as people return to work, children head to school, sports seasons launch and cultural life awakens. This year, with the coronavirus pandemic still spreading in much of the US, it is a season of deeper adaptation.”
The article cheerfully goes on to share the many ways Americans have “pivoted” to “reinvent,” in order to continue to produce.
How to Do Nothing
Quite purposefully during the lockdown, I picked up a book written by artist-activist Jenny Odell, entitled “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.” In it she states:
“In the context of health and ecology, things that grow unchecked are often considered parasitic or cancerous. Yet we inhabit a culture that privileges novelty and growth over the cyclical and the regenerative. Our very idea of productivity is premised on the idea of producing something new, whereas we do not tend to see maintenance and care as productive in the same way.”
Indeed, in my previous corporate career, it always amazed me to witness the ramped-up anxiety at EVERY quarterly reporting period. The ethos was that only continual growth was permissible.
We are concerned about climate change and worried about looming ecological collapse, yet we still adhere to the idea that stock-market growth signals the “health” of our economy.
And this is just the backdrop to our current chaotic state of affairs. At the height of the pandemic – when we were being forced to retreat and retract – I observed that many of us still failed to do so successfully. Those who worked from home jumped on the Zoom “business-as-usual” bandwagon, thinking we were being as “productive” as ever, even as many acknowledged how the collision of work and family life created new levels of anxiety.
Facing the Cauldron of Intense Emotions of 2020
This fall, we are still facing fear around a pandemic and social-distancing in a time of great social unrest, in tandem with another anxiety-filled election season.
Fear is at the root of most anxiety, with the fear of not being in control being the predominant one. It is no coincidence that in Chinese medicine, fear is understood to particularly tax our kidney energy, which is considered our energetic “battery pack,” for all intents and purposes. It is the kidney energy that we seek to preserve, especially during the fall and winter.
Our metaphysical kidneys store our jing, or the “essence” that propels us through the span of our lives. Part of that essence is dictated by our genetic inheritance, but how long this battery lasts also largely depends on how effectively we retract, restore, and recharge it. Fundamentally, all unmanaged intense emotions that run amok – such as anger, grief, worry – are non-restorative scattering of energy.
… And So Is Scattered Attention
We can’t avoid the constant stream of anxiety that is part of the news cycle we face every day. Even when you avoid it, it seeps in. Even as we are vigilant about what we are internalizing, much is still going on at a deep-subconscious level.
However, beyond ramped-up emotions, today we also face an unprecedented predatory grab of our attention. No time in history have we been immersed in such a flood of information and instant “social” interactions that serve none of the restorative functions of true healthy social relationships.
Odell wrote her book after being exhausted and disappointed by the mirage of “connectedness” that we’d all bought into in the lead-up to the 2016 elections. As an artist and social activist, she tried to piece together what world we had embraced and came to the realization that our attention was our most precious commodity – one that we were squandering in damaging ways.
Our social media, in tandem with our traditional media as it tries to keep pace, is structured to elicit strong emotions. Those who engage feel the pressure to be relevant, immediately and constantly. Even reputable reporters have fallen into this trap of feeling they have to maintain a live twitter feed to opine at every turn.
But the immediacy of the medium has a dark side. “Instantaneity flattens past, present, and future into a constant, amnesiac present,” writes Odell. “The order of events, so important for understanding anything, gets drowned out by a constant alarm bell.”
She observed that just the process of reading, speaking, and thinking online goes against our real-life social productivity, self-nurturing, and (more importantly) collective organizing to effect change.
Thus activism to improve our society can actually be undermined by the online connectivity that seems to encourage it, but which may instead sap our energy and productivity, dispersing our attention to the point of impotency.
This is perhaps best expressed by Odell in her quoting of an essay by Dr. Veronica Barassi, a British professor who specializes in and lectures about social movements, political activism, and media tech:
“Activists, Barassi says, ‘have to adapt to the pace of information and constantly produce content. Meanwhile, information overload creates the risk that nothing gets heard.’”
More importantly this further distances us from our own inner wisdom – fundamental to countering the increasing fear of losing control.
Reclaiming Our Attention While Assuming Our Responsibilities
Odell titled her book “How to Do Nothing,” but I recognize a sort of implicit Taoist interpretation in what “doing nothing” actually means to her. It means owning the time and space necessary to be productive effortlessly.
The yogi master Sadhguru, in his bestseller “Inner Engineering,” further elucidates this understanding. He highlights that learning to pause and slow down – Odell’s “doing nothing” – does not equate to relinquishing responsibility, but to learning to exercise our responsibility with control.
The word responsibility comes from the phrase “ability to respond.” According to Sadhguru, the key is knowing how and when to respond in a manner that least taxes our vital energies. Rather than being constantly and instantly responsive or reactive, “doing nothing” means taking control of our own responsiveness to exercise our agency in a constructive manner.
Odell’s book is a manifesto on how to radically reclaim our attention from the attention economy. Indeed, it is the most radical thing we can do at this time. But it takes time and space.
On the individual level, efficient productivity naturally stems from the steps we take to nurture our health. This demands “incubation time.” We can’t expect instantaneous results. We put in the time to exercise, to meditate, to experience nature, or to connect with others; we reap the full rewards down the road.
It is necessary to carve out this time within deliberate cycles, both seasonal and daily. Like there is a fall and winter phase during the year, we also have diurnal cycles that correspond to this storage-and-gathering phase. For instance quality sleep at the right time is the most obvious way we restore and regenerate ourselves daily.
But in addition, we need to be deliberate about how we direct our attention and focus. And this is where deliberate contemplative practices are worth their weight in gold.
Reclaiming Our Attention – The Way of the Drummer
Particularly in the health and wellness space, contemplative practices always seem to revolve around traditional meditation practices borrowed from the East. But I like to search for – and highlight for my patients – the many other manifestations of what I’d call a “universal knowing” that many cultures have tapped into for millennia. There are many contemplative practices developed in traditions around the world. The key is finding the practice that speaks to you.
One of the books I most enjoyed reading during lockdown was “The Drummer’s Path,” by artist-drummer Sule Greg Wilson. In a chapter on the principles of drumming, he shares the role of breathing in the practice of drumming:
“Changing your rate of breathing is like shifting gears. At the usual rate of 18 breaths per minute you’re in drive. This rate of oxygenation keeps you relatively tense, focused only in the here and now. You can maneuver down the street, but you won’t tune in to Spirit.
“Twelve [to] nine breaths per minute is the optimum rate for physical exercise. You stay relaxed and clearheaded, and you have the oxygen you need to efficiently fuel your body.
“Drumming calls for intuition, sensitivity, a circularity to your touch and your energy. If you are breathing slowly – say, at the rate of four to six breaths per minute – your powers of intuition and harmony with the music and situation have a chance to manifest.”
This is what the seasoned drummers of the world may understand intuitively, and why the great ones are able to serve as the vehicle for transferring charged energy to an audience or group of dancers.
“Oxygen must be present to unleash … power,” Wilson goes on. “If your breathing is high in your chest, fast, and shallow, ain’t no power going to come. You are heating up your head, constricting your sphere of awareness ….”
On the other hand, breathing all the way down to the navel can take the drummer to another level: “When your breathing is deep and conscious,” he writes, a “change over to spirit occurs.”
Personally, just being around great drum playing can totally mesmerize me and make my day. It was fascinating to read from an experienced drummer what drummers experience inwardly as they unleash the power of this timeless instrument. The inspired drummer keeps their sweet spot in the midst of this power and is then able to move bodies all around.
This sweet spot where “change over to spirit occurs” is what many artists engrossed in their art probably experience and mystics around the world have taught for ages.
The Power of the Breath
It always comes down to the breath. Wisdom traditions around the world have intuitively understood that our breath is our most potent medicine.
Mystics and medicine folk from a myriad of traditions, from Taoist monks and yogis to African spiritualists, have understood this. For many of these traditions, the breath and spirit are one. (Indeed even our language reflects this as the origins of the words we use around the breath such as “inspire”, ”respiration” from the Latin root “spirare” likewise evoke similar ideas such as “giving life to” and “animating.”) Moreover, many of these ancient wisdom traditions developed elaborate practices to control breathing in order to foster better physical and mental health.
Science is catching up with this knowledge. Our breath is our only direct access to our body’s subconscious nervous system. Called our autonomic nervous system, thisoperates largely unconsciously and regulates bodily functions, such as heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, pupillary response, urination, and sexual arousal.
This system controls both our fight-or-flight response and our restorative processes of “rest and digest” (aka “feed and breed”). It also includes our enteric nervous system – those gut neurons also known as our “second brain.” Most of our nervous responses that directly impact our vital organs and metabolic processes are occurring in real time, all subconsciously and seemingly out of our control.
Hacking into Your Nervous System
Traditional contemplative practices around the world have focused on the breath because our breath is the only part of our autonomic nervous system we can consciously access. It is our means of hacking into our nervous systems.
Controlling our breathing is our one way of impacting otherwise automatic and subconscious processes. Proper breathing allows us to regulate our blood pressure, boost athletic performance, affect our pulse and heart rate, thermoregulate our body temperature, achieve better mental clarity, to name a few. In other words, it gives us direct access to our sympa-parasympathetic responses.
James Nestor’s recent bestseller, “Breath,” delves into the modern scientific studies that have helped prove this. “No matter what we eat, how much we exercise, how resilient our genes are, how skinny or young or wise we are – none of it will matter unless we’re breathing correctly,” he concludes. “The missing pillar in health is breath. It all starts [t]here.”
5.5 Breaths Per Minute
The average person takes 3.3 seconds to inhale and exhale, averaging about 18 breaths per minute. Nestor details many studies that reveal that deliberately slowing down the breath translates into many immediate health benefits. Various physicians have already experimented with this to treat maladies from high blood pressure to anxiety and depression. He writes:
“It turn[s] out that the most efficient breathing rhythm occurred when both the length of respirations and total breaths per minute were locked into a spooky symmetry: 5.5-second inhales followed by 5.5-second exhales, which works out almost exactly to 5.5 breaths a minute.”
This is the same rate Wilson speaks about when he describes the sweet spot of “moving into spirit.” According to Nestor, this same breathing rhythm is built into prayer rituals around the world. He details the following examples:
- “Buddhist monks chant their most popular mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, each spoken phrase lasts six seconds, with six seconds to inhale before the chant starts again.
- “The traditional chant of Om, the ‘sacred sound of the universe’ used in Jainism and other traditions, takes six seconds to sing, with a pause of about six seconds to inhale.
- “The sa ta na ma chant, one of the best-known techniques in Kundalini yoga, also takes six seconds to vocalize, followed by six seconds to inhale.
- “Then there were the ancient Hindu hand and tongue poses called mudras. A technique called khechari, intended to help boost physical and spiritual health and overcome disease…The deep, slow breaths taken during this khechari each take six seconds.
- “Japanese, African, Hawaiian, Native American, Buddhist, Taoist, Christian—these cultures and religions all had somehow developed the same prayer techniques, requiring the same breathing patterns.”
Finding Your Drummer’s Lair
More importantly, what the scientific studies Nestor explored seem to reveal is that deliberate, slow breathing brings the systems of the body into a state of coherence. At this slowed level of breathing, it appeared that the “functions of heart, circulation, and nervous system were coordinated to peak efficiency.” The metaphorical place where a person enters optimal coherence, or gets “into the zone” in popular parlance, is what I will call “the drummer’s lair.”
So perhaps the first place to start training our bodies to rest, restore, and regenerate is with the breath. This takes deliberate effort, but has a compounding effect when we engage in regular practice. There are various structured practices being offered everywhere to start this process, but I encourage you to explore until you find the one that speaks to you.
Once you find your practice, understanding its “why” and with full reverence for the tradition that has brought you this knowledge, commit. And remember that you must connect with the practices that speak to your spirit. For example, singing slows down your exhale just as much as deliberate breathing practices. If you have enjoyed singing, consider focusing your attention on the songs that bring you peace and joy and singing more often.
You don’t always have to sit in quiet contemplation. Just find your drummer’s lair – that calm place in the middle of seeming chaos. Once you are able to do it on a consistent basis, you will find you are able to “digest” the realities around you more constructively as well.
Focusing on slowing down your breath will jumpstart the process of restoration. Your restoration practice will also help you to reclaim your attention. You will be more mindful and more deliberate in what you ingest and decide to digest. The world is throwing a lot our way right now. Finding ways to absorb and process it all without damaging ourselves, and then owning when and how we act and react, are critical. Remember, restoration does not mean “no action;” it means slowing down to find your purpose and place for efficient action.
No matter how you choose to engage later (activists, we need you!) restoration is absolutely essential to properly protect yourself, your family, your community, your society, your world.
The key is to harness the power to improve your health and achieve your maximum potential at the right time, deliberately learning to reclaim your time and space. Learn from the teachings of nature how to gather the strength to engage for the long haul. In this current turbulent environment, we need to find the eye of the storm, to move with the chaos – not against it.
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