One of my greatest mentors is the late Stephen Levine who is best known for his pioneering work on death and dying. When many of my friends were battling the AIDS virus back in the late eighties, facing certain death, I attended a number of Mr. Levine’s workshops. I learned so much from him but of all his teachings, I most treasure his guidance on letting go – softening my belly when I’m angry, anxious or fearful.
We hold our grief, anger and our fear in our bellies. We store old wounds and battle scars there, as we build up a hard wall of resistance and tighten around those feelings. Then we rush all over the place to distract ourselves and hope the time will come when things lighten up on their own. They won’t without some participation from us. When our hearts become closed and hard, when we become numb to our pain, we also become numb to hope and joy. But if we can encourage ourselves to stop running and pay close attention, we can feel the armor that starts in the belly and moves upwards to our hearts. And we can do something about it.
The challenge is to find a way to soften the rigidity, a little bit at a time, using the one precious tool that never fails us – our breath. At first, when we begin to breathe consciously and let go around the edges of the hurt, it feels like we are inviting an avalanche of pain and sorrow and darkness to overwhelm us. But if we can hang in there and just keep breathing, that door we slammed shut so long ago that has been holding us hostage, begins to open. The darkness takes on a slow dissolve, we can feel some hope rising and we start to feel lighter. The road forward becomes visible as we can envision a way to go on with our lives.
I became aware of this breath work after I got out of an extremely abusive relationship many years ago. I literally fled for my life and I felt broken and ashamed of having allowed myself to remain in the line of someone else’s fire. But I slowly came to realize, breath after breath, that I was young and naïve and I didn’t know any better or I would have done things differently. I accepted the fact that I was an imperfect human being as we all are, a work in progress as the saying goes, and I had to start where I was to change things. As I continued to do the hard work of letting go of the shame, as I began to loosen the tightness in my belly, my muscles softened and my heart opened toward myself.
This letting go didn’t happen all of a sudden or right away. I didn’t do it once and abra cadabra, my belly softened, my heart was healed and I didn’t have to think about it any more. I had to keep coming back to my body, notice when I was tightening my muscles, place my awareness on it and breathe. It became a daily practice for me, an ongoing exploration of mindfulness that I did every day. Or several times a day.
I still do it all day long. As life tosses obstacles and tough lessons in my direction, I try to remember to deepen my breath, soften my belly and carry on. In this society where we value hard muscles and six pack abs, it’s counterintuitive to soften the very muscles that we have worked so diligently to toughen up. But as Stephen Levine said so eloquently, “Soften your belly. When are you going to stop auditioning?”
We need room to live and to grow. Breathing gives us space inside. We need room to hold a number of emotions at the same time, and if we harden our bodies and our hearts, there is no room for loving kindness. I bring awareness to my breath because I want my life to become an easy place to be. I want to feel hope. I want to stop fighting with myself as I breathe deeply, place my focus on letting go and keep on doing it.
What do you do when you feel anger and anxiety?