Well, my little “retreat-at-home” went pretty well. The builders building the school nextdoor seemed to be at their noisiest last week, drilling up the pavement, but maybe I just noticed them more as I was being quiet? For this, and many other reasons, it was not at all like my usual retreats, when I would go away to a quieter place for 5 days or so. But it was a refreshing and good time. I particularly found the digital and tv detox helpful. I may have to do this more regularly.
One of the things the retreat drew strongly to my attention was something that I had been beginning to notice anyway about breathing. Slowing my breathing and breathing more deeply is becoming a more habitual part of my practice of contemplation and prayer these days.
This has come to me now for several reasons. I’ve been doing yoga in the lockdown, which encourages a type of active, aware breath, in tandem with physical movement. (I recommend https://www.youtube.com/yogawithadriene if you want to try some for free online.) Over the past few years, I’ve also had many conversations with friends and done various bits of reading and researching on the topics of trauma and anxiety. There’s so much to be said about this, and, although it may not be possible for everyone in every situation, generally speaking, finding a way of stilling yourself using your breath can be very helpful for many people.
For a long time, I’ve been aware of focusing on the breath as a starting point to prayer or meditation, but I don’t think I’ve ever practised this as consistently or habitually as I now find myself doing. Somehow, trying it out every time I’ve settled into a time of contemplation, meditation or prayer for a few weeks (and especially on my retreat week) is finally making its mark, and it is now becoming almost a reflex – as semi conscious as a night time brushing your teeth routine, really.
Maybe the right “tool” appears at the moment we most need it?
If you want to try slowing your breath, find a comfortable position with a strong foundation (notice the soles of your feet on the floor, your sit bones on a chair, or if you’re kneeling, the tops of your feet and shins on the floor etc). It takes me a while to make myself pay attention to my physical body. I wiggle to find the best position. Then I might open my hands in my lap, close my eyes, and just begin to notice my breathing.
After a few breaths, I gradually begin to deepen my breathing in and to lengthen my breathing out (so I breathe out for longer than I breathe in for). To really deepen my breathing in, sometimes I put a hand on my belly and feel it rise as I breathe in and fall as I breathe out. This reminds me that a deep breath fills the lungs from here, rather than from higher up around my chest, where we tend to gasp from if we’re anxious. As I’m doing all this, I also begin to gradually relax my face, jaw, shoulders, legs; wherever my body feels tense.
I stay with the deeper breathing for a while. On my retreat, I used an incense stick, which smoulders for half an hour, each morning as a measure of time, and also as a lovely fragrance to breathe in deeply. I only normally use incense like this when I’m on retreat. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea! It’s also quite tricky to commit the whole half hour to stillness. But as I noticed each day how the smoke curled its way unaccountably towards me, I was reminded of previous retreats, and I received a blessing from its gentle, silent, unpredictably curling, fragrant smoke.
Being still and breathing, even just for ten minutes before a meeting brings a blessing for me and for those I’m meeting with, I’m sure. Giving myself the freedom to be still and breathe for half an hour is glorious.