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On the Importance of Breathing

Updated: Mar 23, 2020

I'm breathing, but I have not taken the time to breathe.

I was reminded of the importance of breathing today, precisely because for the past few months, I have found it very difficult to breathe.

Not literally; I’m perfectly healthy, as far as I know. Yet, I wake up most days with a tight chest, tense shoulders, constricted heart, and a head heavy with thoughts. I wake up with a weight, and I carry it around all day. I can’t seem to put it down. It is suffocating.

I’m not particularly busy right now. There are no major problems in my life. Things have been much more chaotic and arduous than this in the past, but I know I’ve felt much lighter back then than I’m feeling right now.

Because I’m breathing, but I have not taken the time or effort to really breathe.

By this I mean that I haven’t taken the time to just breathe. I haven’t tried to create internal peace. I definitely haven’t taken the time to appreciate the fact that I can breathe, and that I can do it so well (I especially notice how much I take this for granted when I have a cold and literally can’t breathe properly). I haven’t made the effort to sit with my breath, connect with it, and let everything else go. I haven’t made the effort to sit with myself. Not my thoughts – just my self (because you are not your thoughts).

Most significantly, I have not given myself permission to take off the load, to stop thinking, to just be. Therefore, my “rests” have not been very restful – instead, they’ve served as paralyzing quicksand, sucking me further into doubts, worries, and stress. When I say that I’m taking a break to watch television or read or have lunch, I feel that I’m really just procrastinating whatever it is I think I should be doing. There is a distinction, and it is critical.

Life includes work, but it shouldn’t be work.

I don’t think it’s just me that struggles with breathing, in large part because a work-driven, productivity-focused culture (i.e. more hours at work = (perceived) harder worker = more success) does not value just breathing very highly, if at all. Which is especially ironic considering how many studies have shown the connection between breaks and increased productivity. Stepping away from whatever task you’re doing is scientifically one of the best things you can do to help you efficiently accomplish that task.

If you haven’t taken the time to breathe, how on earth can you really be taking the time to do anything else?

Okay, so for most of us, it isn’t this drastic. The effects of not making time to breathe show up in degrees, depending on how much we don’t make that time. And it doesn’t really stop us from doing our work, but it sure as hell makes it harder, makes us less efficient, less productive, and less happy. It is counter-productive not to take breaks, to create stress in overwhelming degrees. But we still function and some work gets done, which is maybe why the need for air can be so hard to recognize and sate.

As we grow up in a work-driven culture, we are inundated with the message that success only comes with hard work; that nothing easy was ever worth doing; that the people who are going places are the ones that put in the most work, etc. This advice is not, on the face of it, bad or untrue. But in such a culture, work and productivity have been placed on a pedestal. We’re so terrified of not working, of not being productive, of “wasting” time, that we don’t see that that’s exactly what we’re doing; squandering time by not recharging, by not reducing our stress levels, by not appreciating the fact that we can breathe, so that we return to our work with the energy to accomplish 10x what we would have done had we spent the whole time “working”. Or thinking about such subjects, like I’ve been doing all the time lately. Which is even more debilitating, toxic, and unproductive.

(This is not to mention all the other important reasons to breathe, including the fact that productivity does not have to be on a pedestal).

The crazy thing is, I don’t think it’s about how much time we spend just breathing. It’s just a matter of if we do it, and do it well. If we’re fully present when we’re breathing, so that we come back to our lives energized, grounded, and motivated. The happiest I’ve been in my short life thus far has been a period of time when I was super busy with meaningful activity (15+ hour days), and I drew and kept boundaries for breaks. For meaningful rest, where the purpose was to breathe.

(Note: This does not mean meditation – it just means that when I was breaking, or winding down, or not working, my brain was fully present. If I was getting ready for bed, I was so at peace doing just that. It wasn’t about the length of time to re-charge, it was just about being fully there when I was doing it.)

I wish that the formal education system taught kids about the importance of just breathing. I truly think happiness and productivity would increase if the value of hard work* and the value of meaningful rest were given equal weight, from an early age. So that when you get to be an adult, and you’re really figuring out what you need and want from your life, you have a culture that supports people. Not the bottom line, not the exploitation of labour, and not meaningless work with diminishing returns. A culture that encourages and supports people - economic efficiencies making this way of thinking a win-win in the process.

Unfortunately, I haven’t grown up in such a culture, and I find myself needlessly carrying the weight of my inaction all the time. I’ve internalized the work-productivity pedestal, and the backseat placement of almost everything else. Including just breathing.

So, this is me giving myself permission to rest and be at peace, physically but especially mentally.

Today, I am going to breathe.

I hope you find the peace to be able to breathe, too.

*This blog post isn’t going to touch on the implications of a culture that preaches hard work rather than smart work, but the latter is significantly more important and how cool would it be if the thought process of smart working, smart problem solving, big picture thinking, etc. was taught and encouraged in school as opposed to the current focus on quantity and in-the-box, pre-prescribed solutions?! Thoughts for another article on another day.

Cover Photo by Fabian Møller on Unsplash

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