To breathe is to assimilate spiritual power. (~ J.E. Circlot, A Dictionary of Symbols)
The word, in all its variants, that I heard most regularly in the early years of my own treatment, the most painful years, is also the word I repeat most often to my clients:
“Let’s take some deep breaths, please”
“Are you breathing? I’m pretty sure you’ve stopped breathing”
And more explicitly:
“You are holding your breath. When you hold your breath, you are trying to block the experience of a strong feeling – you are constricting your chest, your throat, it keeps the pain trapped, pressed down, it doesn’t let it move through.”
And sometimes this:
“Okay, listen, I can see this feeling is overwhelming, and your breathing has become very shallow and rapid, you are trying to find a way to keep breathing to stay on top of some frightened, maybe panicky feeling. I don’t want you to hyperventilate. I know you are scared, but I want you to just listen to my voice, and we are going to breath more deeply together. Put your hand on your belly, and breathe in slowly through your nose. Let just inhale slowly…. Good. Now breathe out, slowly… good. Lets just sit and breathe and then we can talk about what was coming up. But, first, I just want us to breathe together for a bit.”
I remember when the consultation room would start to spin. My head would feel very large, on top of a small, atrophied body. Although my therapist sat just a few feet from my place on his couch, he seemed a football field away. Only his reminders to breathe offered me a sense of continuity, an anchor to the present, to him, and to myself.
Other times I’d sit on the couch, certain that I was totally fine, making perfect sense, forming completely rational sentences filled with logically consistent deductions about whatever circumstance I’d been recounting. I thought his direction to take a breath was just silly, reaching for some feeling that simply wasn’t present, wishful shrink-thinking. I’d take a breath just to placate him – and then feel a sudden internal catch, a flipping sensation in my stomach, a shiver of fear. A wave of hot, shameful, dissociated emotion rose up from the depths, tears gathering behind my eyes, my throat shaking, I tried to stop myself from revealing the unbecoming repressed affect in front of his accepting gaze.
Such an intense internal combustion can occur when oxygen mixes with emotion that I sometimes worried that I might actually vomit. He wasn’t distressed by that possibility either – but simply offered to move the office wastebasket close to the couch if I thought I really needed it. I never did, thank god.
It was just pain, riding on breath’s coattails, as it rose up from below.
My own clients often release a small snort of recognition when I make the observation:
“You’ve stopped breathing again I believe… please breathe…” before their own swell of pain begins to crest.
Children, in stubborn fits threaten to hold their breath, a refusal to inhale new experience or unwanted information from the world around them, an attempt to freeze time, to arrest all change and motion, and to assert their omnipotence as Central Commander of the universe.
But, as our pediatrician once pointed out, you can’t hold your breath to death. You will simply fall unconscious and resume breathing.
Holding our breath only creates the illusion that we are in control, but the illusion is fleeting and ultimately empowers our unconscious to solve the dilemma itself whether we like it or not – without conscious assent.
Difficulty in breathing may therefore symbolize difficulty in assimilating the principles of the spirit and of the cosmos… and the rhythms of the universe
(~ J.E. Circlot, A Dictionary of Symbols)
Sometimes the pain is so intense, that all you can do breathe, as all else has become overwhelming or impossible – like a woman in labor, or a post-operative patient in a recovery bed, or the concentrated, labored breathing of the dying.
And sometimes, when extreme emotional/psychological pain makes a client yearn for “Breath’s Departure” all I can ask of them is make a promise to me that they will commit to keep breathing until the next session, or the next day, or the next scheduled check-in a few hours away.
The regularly scheduled therapy appointment lets us know when our next respite (time to breathe) will arrive. The psyche learns that we will only have to hold our breath until the next session when we can at last exhale again.
We breathe in good air, and breathe out the bad. Breathe in cool energizing oxygen, breathe out hot toxic carbon dioxide. Breathing is the ultimate, most inherently non-dualistic, bivalent act of living, our embodied light and darkness.
And the archetypal representations of breath reflect this:
Vayu, (also known as Vata, or Prana) the Hindu god of wind and breath, is “a destructive god who has an intemperate character and is often subject to violent desires which he never strives to repress.” (~ Sumanta Sanyal http://www.pantheon.org/articles/v/vayu.html Encyclopedia Mythica™)
In the Prasna Upanishad, the sage, Pippalada describes Prana variously as the primal energy of the universe, as the sun, as fire, as light that illumines all, as food, as the creator, the destroyer, the Self and as the breath. (~ The Upanishads- The breath of the eternal)
We take in anything new by inhaling, and dispose of anything no longer needed through exhaling. This is true in psychotherapeutic process too. And I watch my clients breath closely for clues about where my support is most needed and where the block resides, if resistance obstructs the processes of integration or release.
Ideally, psychotherapy allows previously unexperienced feelings, memories, instincts, intuitions, self-states to transpire (to breathe through, to become known) for the first time. It is where we say things out loud that we would, under normal circumstances, only mutter under our breath. Breath is the vehicle that we ride to conscious awareness.
We aspire to (breathe on) transformation, to new lives, to better worlds, and easier ways of being, fresher air and deeper breaths.
When we try to blow-off discomforting information about ourselves, minimizing injuries and anxieties, our dreams, our Unconscious processes, our true selves and our deepest needs, we become the destroyer, the squelcher, the smotherer of our own internal self-states.
Examining our dreams, our words, relationship patterns, assumptions, projections, and our internal responses to external events inspires (breathes into) and energizes us to press on through the stale air of stagnation. Greek pneuma means wind, soul, spirit, and breath, and represents an internalized fragment of the world soul, the generative, creative, healing principle that moves in and out of us.
Breath is the archetypal initiator of all acts of creation. In creation myths world-wide, gods breathe spirit on to the earth, into inert globs of clay, and in the therapy office the act of breathing likewise enlivens self-states that are inert, repressed or deadened.
The therapeutic process at its most elemental, is where we conspire (breathe together) to bring forth new experience of ourselves, and others into being.
copyright © 2013
All rights reserved Martha Crawford