When feeling is the only answer

I am slowly learning to be present to the uncomfortable emotions that are a very hard (and very necessary and very normal) part of life’s journey. I don’t have to like it, though.

Several months ago, I had a falling out with one of my dearest friends. The experience sent me into a tailspin. I spent months talking to other friends, my husband, family. I’d recount the situation again and again, looking at it from various perspectives. I tried to make sense of the friendship loss through the lens of all the changing relationships from my past. I tried to situate the loss in the grand scheme of all losses that have ever occurred in my life. I tried various assignments of fault (mine, hers, ours). I tried to take blame and place blame and understand all the causes. I tried to figure out what could have gone differently. I tried to find a thesis, a theme, a clear point. I tried to sum it up logically, analyze it until the truth arose to the surface, pack it away neatly in my brain.

In short, I drove everyone around me a little crazy. A lot crazy.

Until finally, a very good and wise soul listened to me discuss the situation (again) and said, simply, “It sounds like you’re experiencing deep grief.”

Oh. Right.

This looks like how I’m feeling.

Here’s how my brain works: when something goes awry, I try to find the logical thread. I want to understand why things happen, and in my desire for clarity, for cause-and-effect, I try to fit a grid of order on to anything that feels like chaos. This logical approach has its value: I am able to help others work through situations that challenge them. I am a sense-maker, often taking senselessness and ordering it in a way that feels fulfilling, that helps me understand the waves of the world. But this ability to be so logical is often a safety device: my ability to detach and start calculating in the face of pain and vulnerability have kept me very safe. I can hide from suffering under the guise of problem-solving.

This looks like how I want to feel.

That is, until all my words and sense-making and analytical constructing (and deconstructing) add up to naught. Because sometimes, oftentimes, there is no sense to be made out of the chaos of life. Painful, awful things happen for no reason, with no reason, with no sense.

In those times, when there is hurt, suffering, loss, grief, I am learning slowly, slowly, slowly to feel what I am feeling, rather than think away what I am feeling. I am learning to be present to the uncomfortable emotions that are a very hard (and very necessary and very normal) part of life’s journey.

So. I am very sad. I feel deep loss and grief that has lasted months and has peaks and valleys where the suffering wanes and then rises to squeeze my heart again.

And while I would like to reason my way out of this, there is no reasoning, only feeling. Only breathing, and being present to this pain, and remembering that the beauty of suffering is that it does relent. It does pass. Even if the shadow of loss sticks around (forever, it seems), we can eventually move on to joy.

Several months ago, I lost a friend. And I am grieving that loss. And there is not much sense to be made of it. And one day it will hurt a little less.


Every emotion has an attendant breath

With every breath, you have the power to change the way you feel.

When you’re sad, you breathe a certain way. When you’re angry, anxious, or fearful, you breathe a certain way. And when you’re surprised, joyful, happy—there’s a corresponding breath for each of those, too. Whatever emotion you’re experiencing, your breath reveals it and mirrors it. Your breath informs it and reflects it. There is a relationship between the two: what you feel and how you breathe.

(And just to bring it home, pause here and try it. How do you breathe when you’re happy? Okay, how about when you’re angry? What about when you’re worried? Take a moment to tap into the breath you automatically go to for each emotion.)

Once we realize that our breath and our emotional state have a connection, we can start to shift our emotions by noticing (and changing) our breathing. Truthfully, you already know to do that: consider that when you encounter a friend who is upset, you instinctively offer support to your friend by saying “just breathe” or “take a breath.” You know attending to the breath can help someone regain a sense of groundedness when their emotional state feels out of control.

Close your eyes and breathe, deeply and slowly, for 5 full breaths. Powerful stuff.

In yoga, breath practices are called “pranayama,” which translates to “breath control.” There are many types of breathing offered by yogic philosophy: breathing through one nostril to calm (left nostril) or energize (right nostril); breathing equally through each nostril to balance (called nadi shodhana or anuloma viloma); taking short rapid breaths to feel more awake and encourage core awareness, big exhalations through the mouth to cool and calm (simhasana, or lion’s breath, accomplishes that.) These are just a few types of pranayama. There are many more.

Here I’m practicing simhasana  (lion’s breath), which is cooling and calming. (With those sunglasses, though, I don’t need much more coolness, am I right?)

There are many breaths to learn about and study, if that interests you. It’s fascinating!

But in my own practice, I find that simply deepening and slowing my breathing can have big results.

Deep and slow breathing changes things physiologically: we bring more oxygen into our lungs, our parasympathetic nervous system turns on, and as a result we feel calmer and more in control. We have more spaciousness in our emotional landscape. We relax a little more. Our emotions shift.

Yoga poses and meditation are super important practices, but breathwork can be done regardless of circumstances: it’s ninja-like. You can do it anywhere and no one knows. You can change your breath mid-meeting, mid-argument, mid-presentation—you don’t need special props or a yoga mat.

The next time you’re flooded with emotions, go to your breath and see what’s happening there. Slow it down. Deepen it. Then watch the power, magic, and beauty of just breathing.