Breathe It In

These are words I find myself saying multiple times a day: to my clients, to my sons, to myself. Breathe it in.

We see a prairie dog hit by a car lying on the side of the road. I turn to look at my son’s face to see if he sees it. As we live in a rural area, he’s learned over the years of seeing too many dead animals to look at the fields and mountains instead of at the side of the road while we’re driving, but sometimes his eyes veer to the telltale lump of fur.

“A prairie dog, Mommy.”

“I know, love. Breathe it in.”

We watch a snippet of news and see the devastation in Texas (or wherever the current devastation might be), and I see their faces fall. As I’ve shared in other posts, my sons try to avoid the sadness by asking, “Why?”, which I’ve learned is the kid-equivalent to the adult tendency to escape the pain of life by turning to mental additions and projections like, “I’m not in love with my partner” or “I have a terminal illness” or the multitude of ways that we push away pain. It seems to be a basic human tendency to  travel up to the safer and cooler chambers of mind rather than stay with the hot pain in the heart. I put my hands on their chests and say, “Breathe it in. Breathe in the sadness.”

They’re listening to an audiobook about the period following the civil war, a story about a girl named Addy who escaped from slavery with her mother but had to leave her baby sister behind. In the sixth book, the family is reunited, but learn that the older man who took care of the baby passed away during the intervening years. My older son calls out to me, “Someone died in the story, Mommy.”

“I know, sweetheart. I heard. Breathe it in.” I’m crying as I listen from the other room, and I breathe into my own pain just as I teach them. I feel the sweet release of tears opening my heart and rolling down my cheeks. When I walk in, my sons look at me and half-smile, knowing how I can’t read these books to them aloud because of how hard they make me cry.

A few pages later, the older woman who cared for the baby dies and my younger son asks, “Why do they have to make people die in this book?”

“It’s part of life. People die. We can’t escape it.”

There is no escaping the pain of life. People die. Animals die. Nature disasters hit and we collectively feel the repercussions. Sometimes it feels like too much to bear, and certainly as young people, with nobody to help hold the pain of life, it is too much to bear. For a long time, my husband and I protected our highly sensitive sons from death as much as we could (and we still protect them from much of the world’s news; if it’s too much for me most of the time, it’s certainly too much for them). We would edit out the sections of books or films that included death, and picked our book and movie selections quite carefully. But at some point we knew that they had matured enough to be able to tolerate life’s reality. And this is why I find myself saying breathe it in multiple times a day.

The book ends with the young girl reading the Emancipation Proclamation at her local church, and the whole church and all the churches of the city where the document is being read explode in joy. We know, of course, that the repercussions of the slave trade are still in motion. We know that we have a long way to go before all people gain equality. But we celebrate these milestones that move the human race along toward more consciousness and freedom for all people and beings. And I cry again, this time from the  joy stirring in my heart. Breathe it in, I say to myself. Breathe in the joy just as much as the sadness.

We vacillate between pain and joy, between slavery and freedom, between separateness and togetherness, between doubt and clarity, between well-being and illness, between darkness and light. We know one because of the other, as it’s through the polarities that we know the opposite experience. And we learn from practices like Tonglen – which I teach in all of my courses – that breathing it in is only half the practice. When we breathe in pain, we breathe out joy. When we breathe in loneliness, we breathe out connection.

We also remember and re-learn that one of the by-products of a well-breathed heart is that, when we stop shutting down to or pushing away our own pain and the pain of the world, we become more compassionate. And when we become more compassionate we have no choice but to give. So we breathe in the pain, yes, and then we breathe out a desire to help, to offer, to give, to heal in some way. As we’ve been watching some of the rescue efforts during Hurricane Harvey, I was reminded of a statement by Mr. Rogers that I quoted in a similar blog post about having hope for humanity:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world. That’s why I think it’s so important for news programs to make a conscious effort of showing rescue teams, medical people, anybody who is coming in to a place where there’s a tragedy, to be sure that they include that, because if you look for the helpers you’ll know that there’s hope.”

We can all be these helpers, and the more we do our inner world, the more we help from a full place inside of us. Every week I ask my sons, “Where should we donate today?” As we like to donate locally to support our local community, this is what we chose this week. I also remind them that one of the antidotes to pain and loss is to give. We don’t give to avoid or bypass our sadness but as a way to channel the fully felt sadness in a positive direction.

We breathe in the pain, we breathe out an offering. This is how we heal our hearts and the hearts of the world one breath and one compassionate action at a time.

37 comments to Breathe It In

  • Frances

    This is a lovely post, Sheryl. Thank you. I’m trying to ‘breathe in’ emptiness this weekend but I’m really struggling. It’s really stuck and won’t pass. I’ve re-read your articles on it and still no release. I tried to write about it based on your post, The Fullness of Emptiness – the shape and colour of it, the memories inside it. I wrote a lot but still no release. I feel like I’ve carried this feeling of loneliness and emptiness around all my life. Sometimes it’s big and sometimes it’s small, but it’s there most of the time. I don’t know what to do. Nothing feels fun or fulfilling and if it does for a moment, the ‘what’s the point?’ and ‘so what?’ thoughts cut it dead. And they’re right. What is the point? Of having projects, goals, dreams, hobbies?

    • What’s the grief inside the emptiness? What pain are you avoiding?

      • Frances

        I don’t know. On paper, it might be moving in with and then out of a flat with my partner…big changes in my lifestyle due to a new job…my sister moving away to university. But that would be really clutching at straws. It doesn’t FEEL like it’s those things. I did cry with my Mum after writing this, though I couldn’t say what it was about.

  • Lindsey

    Sheryl, thank you for this post. As I read it I am hunkered down in my family’s home near the west coast of Florida as Hurricane Irma makes her way over us. This week has been a trial of watching forecasts, preparing supplies, fortifying our homes, making the excruciating decision to leave my home to surround myself with loved ones and face the unknown of the aftermath, and hoping for the best in the face of what we cannot change.

  • Margarite

    Does breathing it in literally mean letting it soak in your mind and heart? To not resist or avoid the feelings but accept them? How do we let light back in after breathing in the pain?

    • Yes, and it also literally means to breathe into the pain. Take a deep breath and breathe into whatever is uncomfortable. And then breathe out what’s needed: spaciousness, love, light. Eventually – with a LOT of practice – it will become the new habit.

  • Ashley

    As I am navigating life with a 2 week old little girl, I cherish the few minutes I get to “breathe” and read your wisdom Sheryl! It gives me hope through the fear of the newness of this really crazy and amazing transition.

  • Alexis

    Sheryl- as I have come to the truth that my intrusive thoughts are projection onto my partner and that I truly do love him, I seem to still struggle with the thought of “I need to find my own independence and growth and it has to be away from my partner”, although I don’t see that he holds me back from any of this…would you consider this an anxiety thought? I don’t WANT to leave my partner but what if it’s a necessary thing to grow more as an individual, is it something that I need to choose? Is it possible to grow and develope individually while in a relationship? Culture tends to send us the message that you need to be happy with where you are at, have your own passions and independence before entering into a healthy relationship. How much of this is true?

    • You can absolutely, 100% grow as an individual while in a partnership. Keep in mind that most of the messages our culture disseminates about relationships are dysfunctional and just plain wrong, so while, yes, a healthy sense of self is helpful when it comes to having a successful relationship, there’s nothing that says that you can’t pursue your passions while connected to another person.

  • Andrea R

    Hi Sheryl:

    I haven’t posted in a while, but I read your blogs weekly still. While my home state is in the middle of a hurricane and I’m in Colorado on vacay feeling guilty (waving at you from Loveland), your words help calm the angst.

    No – we can’t avoid trauma, tragedy, destruction, devastation, or any form of pain. What we can do is invite it in, feel it, express it, and release it. And celebrate the awesome people who show up to hold our hands, cradle our hearts, and support us through the grief and loss. We also need to celebrate ourselves when we show up in those ways for ourselves.

    I was told recently by an ex that all my inner work reflects a self-absorption that isn’t healthy. I breathed into the pain of those words…the trigger of my “not enough” and “I’m doing life wrong.” I was supported by Source to get back to a place of self love through synchronicity. I opened up the new Matt Khan book “Whatever Arises, Love That,” (you will love it if you haven’t discovered it yet). I saw the movie The Shak. I heard some unexpected healing words from someone that helped lift my shame. Then I read your blog.

    It’s the same message that I need to hear…and hear again. How doing our inner work – which is really about opening our hearts and growing love and shrinking fear – not only heals us, but then heals everything outside of us. It’s about embracing ALL of life both good and bad – thoughts, feelings, and choices, and loving it all. Every last bit.

    Even the dead prairie dogs on the roadside and the fact that we have such ginormous hearts that we can feel that kind of caring for something.

    All my ??

  • Sarah

    A beautiful post. I needed this. I’ve hit a bout of anxiety related to health fears, and at the same time my 3 year old has been resisting negative emotions. It’s emotionally exhausting to not only get through the day myself but to also be in the presence (and responsible for helping guide) of such big emotions. We do a lot of breathing these days. Thanks for your post.

  • Srish

    Hi Sheryl,
    I have been reading your posts for a few months now. And they make for a good Monday morning read (I am in India). I stumbled upon your website when I was going through a bad phase in life. It felt good to learn about relationship anxiety from your website and to know what I had been feeling was explained somewhere. The negative thoughts I had been having, have reduced in the past but are not completely absent. Reading today’s post somehow made me want to post a reply. And say thank you for all the efforts that you put in.
    Thanks
    Srishti

  • Sophie

    I so loved your post and especially the initial section from the accompanying email; your words truly resonated with me. Thank you for being you and choosing to be as you do X

  • Megan

    Hi Sheryl,
    I recently got married and am doing better with my anxiety around that. We had planned to have kids once we were married, but I find myself so anxious with all the suffering in the world and natural disasters/climate change thinking of bringing kids into it. I’m not sure if this is my anxiety or realistic but I feel a bit frozen on how to move forwards.

    I would appreciate any thoughts or insights you have very much.
    Megan

    • It’s an understandable concern, Megan, and I think any deeply thinking/feeling person would have the same concerns when considering having children in this day and age. I encourage you to sit with it and let your answer arise from your soul, not your head. You will be guided toward what feels most loving.

  • Nikki

    Very moving Sheryl. Thank you for the reminder

  • Tay

    Sheryl, how can I know I’m in my relationship because I want to be and not need to be? I moved states about a year ago and have had a tough time making any friends or finding any hobbies other than work and I’m nervous I’m only with my partner because I’m lonely. Im moving soon to be closer to some friends of mine and I’m SO scared that I’m going to find out I don’t really want to be with my partner once I’m happy with my life that’s outside of our relationship. I know it will be healthy for me to have a life outside the relationship but I’m also terrified. I know I love my partner but there is also that sense of fear of “what if I discover my true feelings about him when I’m truly happy with my life”. I don’t want to lose him…I don’t think.

  • Angela

    Sheryl what a beautiful blog! Giving is priceless, no matter how we feel, giving makes things better, its a beautiful thing, you just feel good about yourself. Your heart smiles and sings. I have been feeling good the last 3 weeks, i have a new job and I have been keeping busy with my little ones, I have been doing the work. I do have a slight concern that i will
    get back to anxiety mode. I do know how to manage it with the incredible tools! I am happy just the wayI feel, and I hope I have broken fear. Please Sheryl, I just feel exhausted with anxiety, You cant blame me, I am sure you agree lol

  • Angela

    I dont want to be going through this relationship anxiety all my life. Do I have to keep doing the tools all my life Sheryl in order to stay tuned?

    • It’s kind of like asking: “Do I have to exercise and eat well if I want to feel healthy in my body?” When anxiety hits, we see it as a messenger and we listen.

  • nicole

    All of this anxiety has led me to one overarching question. Its a strange one to say the least: what is the role of a romantic relationship and why should I want one? Not sure if this is categorized as an intrusive thought or if its a deeper question behind all of this anxiety. Is the role that your partner simply makes your life happier? or is that the relationship itself pushes you to fight for something and grow and stretch as an individual? Any insight would be lovely xoxo

    • Everyone must find their own answer to this question, and it is a valid one. Most people will say that humans need partnership, support, companionship, someone to share life with, to dream with. There’s often also a spiritual component: it’s through intimate relationship that we are offered a crucible inside which we grow and evolve our capacity to love. John Welwood speaks beautifully to this topic and I highly recommend his books.

      • nicole

        How do you go about finding this answer with all of the anxiety happening at the same time telling me that I don’t want a relationship? Although I am not and have never been an independent person…I do love companionship and support but my head keeps telling me I don’t want that and will never get that from my partner.

  • Shatakshi

    Thank you Sheryl, for such wonderful and relevant posts. Everytime that I am down, I read one of them and they tether me to the place where I find the courage to just let go.
    I do repetitive tasks and get so fed up and and exhausted, so thank you for spreading what you do with so much dedication!

  • Angela

    Thank you Sheryl, thats a good answer, it makes sense although planting a new seed of habit has been difficult but a learning Experience. Hardest work I have ever done. I do feel I have changed as a woman. All positive