Breathing Calmly Together

When I  breathe with you we are one.
Risings and fallings,
Like the tides and the phases of the moon,
Our breath brings us back around to love.

Breathing and emotion go together. When we are excited, our breathing tends to be rapid, shallow, and centered in our chest. When we are calm, we breathe more slowly, deeply, and centered in our abdomen.

Taking a slow deep breath can very effectively help us to calm down when we are anxious, angry, or in the grip of any other stimulating emotion.  It works even better when coupled with a calming thought that counteracts the thought that stirred us up in the first place.

Let’s say you are called upon to perform some challenging task, and you notice your anxiety rising. Mild anxiety can be performance enhancing--it gets your body ready for action, but after a point, it gets in the way of performance and is unpleasant. If you think a positive encouraging thought, maybe something as simple as, "I can do this" and take a slow deep breath and let it out slowly, you will feel the anxiety recede. You may need to repeat the thought and the breath to keep the strong emotion at bay. As with most things, repeated practice will make this a natural and habitual response.

One more thing. Notice if you are breathing mostly in your chest or into your abdomen. Sure, your lungs are in your chest, so your chest moves when you breathe, but when your diaphragm relaxes and your belly expands, your lungs have more room to collect oxygen. Let the breath move into your belly as you breathe slowly and calmly.

Once you have learned to calm yourself, you can share the emotional state with others. Emotions are contagious. If we are around unhappy, upset people it is difficult not to start feeling the same way, and if you are around happy, calm people you are more likely to feel happy and calm. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to be the happy and calm person.

One reason emotions are contagious is that we tend to synchronize breathing with those around us. You can actually calm another person by altering your breathing pattern. Let’s say you are sitting with a person who is in the grip of a strong unpleasant emotional state. Notice their breathing. It is probably fairly rapid, shallow, or maybe choppy. Their chest is tight, and their abdomen rigid. Now notice your own breathing. Calm it down. Begin breathing more slowly and deeply. Allow your abdomen to rise and fall with the breath. Now gradually adjust your breathing pattern so that you start your out-breath at the same time, or just slightly before, the other person’s. Allow your exhalation to continue a little past theirs. Breathe in, and again breathe out just as they do, and carry your out-breathe a little farther than they do. As you breathe, you can make a quiet, just barely audible sound as the air moves in and out of your lungs.

As you are breathing, fill your heart and mind with kindness. Send this person in distress loving thoughts. Activate your empathy, and wish them peace. Make your breathing with them an act of patience and good will. In a little while, your companion may begin to breathe more calmly, more slowly. As you breathe together in synchrony, they may find the calm that you hope to share.

This technique can be enhanced by touch. If it is appropriate for you to touch this person while you are calming them, you might hold their hand, or put your arm around them, or maybe even put your hand on their abdomen, with their permission of course. As you breathe with them, guide their breath with a slight change in the pressure of your touch. Almost imperceptibly, increase the pressure of your touch as you exhale, and lighten the pressure as you inhale. Again, remember that your breath is synchronized with theirs and guiding it to be gradually slower and deeper. Your touch is also synchronized with their breath and is a subtle message to them to slow it down. You must do this in harmony with them or don’t do it at all.

When a person is upset, or if they are very young or very sick, it may be impractical to discuss this technique with them, but when it seems appropriate, you might want to tell the person what you are intending to do. For instance, you might say, "I’d like to help you to relax. Let’s just sit and breathe together for awhile."

Breathe in peace.
Breathe out love.

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© 1999-2002 Tom Barrett