What have people in crisis, joy and sorrow discovered?
For many years, I worked with seriously ill patients and their loved ones. They were people in crisis, joy and sorrow. I have often heard them say things like «It wasn’t until I got ill that I understood what life is really about», «Being ill gave me my life back» and «Since I got ill, I have found a whole new life»! These expressions have inspired me. They made me ponder the following question:
What had these people discovered? While searching for this answer, I discovered that one of the realisations these people have made is that joy can be found through being present in the now. When they start living like this, they become present and attentive. They become less interested in the past and the future. It is the moment right here and now that is important and then they discover that joy can be found in the moment. So simple, yet also so difficult for us. Sometimes I also noticed that the patients’ spiritual needs were reinforced by their illnesses and the certainty that death was drawing closer. Through close contact with these patients, you can observe a calmness and a beautiful dignity. It is as if everything has fallen into place. I get a strong feeling that they have come into contact with something larger than themselves.
Joy can be found through being present in the now.
One of the reasons why some seriously ill people find calmness, presence and joy in such a difficult situation is that they let go, they relinquish control. They rise above their egos. They have liberated themselves from the involuntary internal dialogue and thereby achieve an inner peace and stillness. They give life access.
Your breath as a tool
You can take charge of your own life. Take responsibility for your own development, wellbeing, health, interaction with others, the atmosphere in yourself and around you. We have a tendency to seek help everywhere else but from ourselves. I have experienced this myself and I was therefore very surprised to discover that the tool that helped me the most could be found inside me. We have a powerful tool that is free and is located right under our noses. I call my breath a tool. The reason for this is that breathing is the only unconscious physiological process in the body that we have been given the opportunity to control consciously. We definitely ought to start using this tool right away.
Breath is inextricably connected to your unconscious nervous system and this is why the way you breathe will always affect your body and mind. Today, most people breathe shallowly and incompletely, which triggers the body’s stress response. When you breathe deeply and calmly using your abdomen, the body’s relaxation response is activated. Yawning or sighing also triggers the body’s relaxation response. The most important and easiest breathing exercises we have are yawning and sighing.
The human body is capable of self-regulation and self-healing. When we are present in our own body and work with it, we strengthen the body’s self-regulation and self-healing ability. When we are tense and take shallow breaths, we suppress these abilities. When we restrict our intake of oxygen by taking short, shallow breaths, we simultaneously tighten the muscles in the jaw, neck and diaphragm. This prevents the body’s energy from flowing freely, which in turn creates physical and emotional blockages.
We constantly communicate with our bodies through breathing, thoughts and emotions. We must ask ourselves: What kind of messages would I like to give my body? We breathe approx. 17,000 times per day – that is a lot of messages.
Everything we do and every thought we have is connected to our breathing. Life is a continuous mix of activity and stillness, joy and sorrow, stressing and relaxing. Your breath is part of all your activities and it changes with them. In many situations in life, we find ourselves holding our breath with excitement or clenching our jaws with anger. We bite our teeth together and tense our muscles to hold back tears, or we breathe freely and openly when we laugh. When we express joy, anger or sorrow, we let our feelings show and breathe freely. Similarly, we can sometimes hold our breath unconsciously when we hide our feelings.
We breathe one way when we are angry and a different way when we are happy. These breathing patterns were established a long time ago. In order to change our behaviour, we must change the way we breathe in the moment. We are not very experienced with being aware of our bodies and we are mainly controlled by what is happening inside our heads. And there is a lot happening in there, all the time! Our thoughts are often stressed and excited, and thoughts seem to mean a lot. This mental stress is the main cause of tension. Tests have shown that people can have up to 50,000 thoughts per day. It is in the space in between these thoughts that an extended understanding of our consciousness can arise. Realising that we are more than our thoughts can have a liberating effect that may contribute to increased self-insight.
I have always searched for joy, wondering where it comes from and when it normally arises. I have observed it in the very ill, among people who are dying and among those who have been given the gift of life. I have been told that it can be found when you are present in the moment, here and now, and this is true – it does – but it is not easy to be present. When you are focusing on the movements of your abdomen, you become present in your own body and get closer to yourself. Right here and now, there is no stress. It is vital to our health that we have the ability to disconnect and rewire ourselves.
It is my experience that the key to a better life is remarkably easy. I thought it would be something mysterious and complicated, something reserved for the elite. However, it mainly revolves around being fully present in every event in your everyday life, however big or small it may be. To fully focus on the task in hand is stress-reducing, calming, joyous and enriching.
Your breath brings you to the now because you only breathe in the now.
Your breath is an amazing aid in all achievements, within athletics, presentation technique, pain relief, singing, relaxation, self-development and stress management. Your breath affects your spirit and thoughts, your body and mind, because it is an intrinsic part of your unconscious nervous system. You only need one thing in addition and that is your will – the will to implement a new tool and the will to use it.
The here-and-now breath exercise
Keep your focus on your abdomen.
Breathe in slowly through your nose.
Then breathe out calmly.
The out-breath should last a little longer than the in-breath.
Breathe in slowly through your nose.
Then breathe out calmly.
Allow your attention to focus on
the movements of your abdomen.
You breathe in and strengthen yourself, you breathe out and let go.
Follow the out-breath the whole way out.
The out-breath gives you rest.
You have just triggered the body’s relaxation response.
Marianne Magelssen is a qualified nurse, coach and mindfulness instructor. Today, she is an author and lecturer.
Marianne has written the books Kjære Gud, kommer du snart? Det er så rotete her (Dear God, Are You Coming Soon? It Is So Messy Here) and Pust for livet (Breathing For Life).
Kjære Gud, kommer du snart? Det er så rotete her is a personal account of what happens when an event triggers unprocessed sorrow, and touches on jealousy, the victim role and the importance of being kind to yourself.
Breathing For Life is a best-selling book about handling stress, changing your behaviour and being present.