– Rick Hanson, Ph.D.
“Life is wiggly,” as Alan Watts put it, and the parasympathetic wing of the nervous system helps us ride out the wiggles – and bumps – of everyday living. This ancient part of your nervous system is soothing, calming, and refueling. Becoming more skillful at activating it is really helpful for replacing stress, anxiety, tension, frustration, and anger with relaxation, ease, centeredness, perspective, and inner peace.
To get a sense of your calmness, take the short quiz below, or download a print out of it, here.
[If for you the breath is associated with trauma and discomfort, you probably shouldn’t try this practice in its form below. But you might adapt it to something that is more nurturing for you, such as a saying or image.]
Breathing brings you home. Body and mind twine together in the breath. As soon as you become aware of breathing, you’re in your body. Speed up the breath and there’s new energy. Slow it down and you calm. Inhale and oxygen surges into your brain while the arousing sympathetic nervous system activates and accelerates the heartbeat. Exhale and activate the soothing peaceful parasympathetic nervous system, so the heart beats more slowly. In the breath you are home in this moment, this Now.
The breath feels like life inside. No wonder it’s been traditionally linked to spiritual matters. To “inspire” is to inhale – to “inspirit,” to uplift.
The breath is always available as an object of attention, whether formally in meditation or informally as a way to recenter yourself. Track the breath in yourself, and know yourself more deeply. Track the breath in others, and know them more deeply.
If all else fails and your mind is screaming in pain or blown open in chaos, there is still the breath. Sometimes all you can do is breathe and know that you are still breathing. One breath at a time. Just getting through this breath. And then the next one. And the next.
Plus, in the knowing of breathing, there is awareness of awareness, not metaphysically or cosmically but as a refuge – if need be, of last resort. Try it: breathing here and now, recognize that awareness is a field or space in which contents come and go, such as the sensations of breathing. You can see directly that no matter what arises and passes away, awareness remains, undamaged and unstained, like the sky that is never harmed by the storm clouds passing through it. When times are terrible, try to be the observing, the awareness, to get some space from the pain and sustain a sense of being intact in your core. You can do this as well when times are good, which will help you both to stay in the sweet spot of enjoying without tipping into the suffering of wanting, and to strengthen your grounding in awareness for when things fall apart.
How to Take One Breath at a Time
So far I’ve always described these “Just One Thing” practices with an active verb, such as “take in the good,” “give thanks,” or “find strength.” I could have done the same here, with “take one breath at a time.” But this one felt different. It’s not just that we take a breath. Sometimes the breath takes itself. Sometimes it takes us. When the mind and body are really quiet, there’s hardly any taking at all.
Whenever you like, find the breath and stay with it through one inhalation and exhalation. You could notice its sensations in your stomach, chest, or around the upper lip. Or the internal sensations inside the throat or in the diaphragm. Or sense the breath in the chest altogether.
Next, see if you can rest your attention in the breath for three full cycles of inhaling and exhaling. Then how about ten full cycles, from beginning to end? Distracting thoughts may nibble at your attention, but disengage from them while sinking more and more deeply into the breath. And if you like, let go of counting and simply give over to the breath, breath after breath.
Somewhere in here, as you become more present in the breath, more absorbed in it, you could experience breathing as the whole body, the whole body breathing.
Try this at night, as you’re falling asleep, resting as a body breathing. Or if you wake and can’t easily return to sleep, soften the edges of your mind out into only breathing. Breathing blurring out into the quiet of the night.
Be breathing as you do things or have them. One breath at time while dressing, eating, driving, talking, washing, cuddling, writing.
Or simply be breathing. Nothing else to do, no one to be. The simplest job in the world. One breath at a time.
What a relief!
Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.
The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.
She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.
Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.
In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.
Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.
Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.
He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.
Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.
Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.
Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.
Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.
Rick Hanson, PhD is a psychologist, Senior Fellow of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, and New York Times best-selling author. His books have been published in 29 languages and include Neurodharma, Resilient, Hardwiring Happiness, Buddha’s Brain, Just One Thing, and Mother Nurture – with 900,000 copies in English alone. His free newsletters have 215,000 subscribers and his online programs have scholarships available for those with financial need. He’s lectured at NASA, Google, Oxford, and Harvard, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. An expert on positive neuroplasticity, his work has been featured on the BBC, CBS, NPR, and other major media. He began meditating in 1974 and is the founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. He and his wife live in northern California and have two adult children. He loves wilderness and taking a break from emails.
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