Priorities, rest and breathing

This morning I lay in bed, curled up in a ball, just exactly warm enough and aware of the chill in the air outside my little cocoon. I lay there under the weight of several layers of blanket thinking about life in all its variety; about the dear friends of mine who’ve just welcomed their first child, about the three different friends I have who are soon to move interstate (to Melbourne—hurrah!) or overseas, about the friends I know who are struggling with overwork or relationship woes. And then I thought about my own life, with all its recent changes and challenges and sadnesses and joys. I thought about how life is always in a state of flux—it’s just that we seem to notice it more at some times than others. And about how life never seems to turn out how anyone thought it would, but how much richer than imagination, good or bad, reality is, if we let it be.

And then I thought again about my friends’ little baby, who is just a week old, partly because I’ve already been clucky for years and thinking about babies is something I don’t seem to be able to help doing, and partly because I was amazed to think that he still has all of this ahead of him. This life.

I remember the moment when I was a child that I realised each of the billions of people in the world had their own life events unfolding around them and an inner life trying to make sense of that. I remember not being quite sure what to do with that realisation.

In the last few weeks, for an essay I’m writing, I’ve been learning more about the anatomy, physiology and psychology of breathing. The breath is altered by all sorts of things, and in turn that altered breath changes our biochemistry. Life changes the way we breathe, and breathing changes the way we approach life. To think about something as intimate and small as a person’s alveoli, and how their life might impact on the way that gases are exchanged there, and then to imagine those tiny but significant relationships inside the lungs of billions of people is… well, incredible in exactly the same way as becoming aware as a child of vastness of humanity.

I found myself wondering this morning about the breathing of each of the friends I was thinking about, and of that new little baby. All those lungs and all their different circumstances. The enormity of it overwhelms and fascinates me.

On a day where I have next to no plans, I thought, ‘Perhaps I can just lay here all day, mulling over the wonders of life’. But the promise of a cup of tea dragged me out from under the covers and into the sunshiny winter day. And, for once, instead of rushing into my to do list (I know I said I had no plans, but, y’know, I’ve got things I want to do), I’ve let myself amble and ponder. It’s amazing how rest can shift your priorities.

~
Cat with good priorities

(Because there aren’t already enough cat pictures on the interwebs, here’s a picture of my housemate’s cat enjoying the winter sun. Now there’s an animal with its priorities in good order.)

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Lying on the floor

Walking home from teaching one night, on the phone to my Mum, I rounded a corner to find a woman and her tiny dog, waiting to cross the road.

That dog’s on a long leash, I thought.

“Watch out for my dog, lady.” the woman said.

“It’s okay, I can see him.” I said, probably impatiently.

“Yeah well, how would I know? You’re looking down.” She snapped, and crossed the road.

“Yes,” I said, “Down. To where the dog is.”

And all of a sudden this woman and I were yelling at each other across the street, until she stormed into her apartment building and the door slammed, and I became aware of my Mum, on the phone I still held to my ear, saying “Sophie, who are you talking to?”

As I told her the story, and as is often the case for me, my indignation turned to guilt. “I can’t believe I yelled at her,” I said to Mum.

“Don’t worry,” she said “You’ll never see her again.”

And it’s true. I’ll probably never see that woman with her tiny dog on a stupidly long leash again. But it’s highly unusual for me to yell at strangers in the street. If I am, it’s a pretty good sign that there’s something not so great going on for me. Anger, frustration and grumpiness are usually an indication that I’m feeling overwhelmed by or stressed about life—often I don’t even know why.

I’m pleased that this is something I know about myself. It means I can make some little adjustments to how I organise my days, so I get enough downtime or rest. Because rest is usually the answer to stress. But it’s not always easy. In this recent piece, one of my favourite yoga writers, Yogi J Brown, discusses the ways we should (and usually don’t) deal with stress. Intimacy with ourselves, he says, is the best antidote—that is, spending time with ourselves in a way that allows us to see what’s going on. Noticing the anger or frustration is the first step.

When I was a teenager, I used to spend a lot of time lying on the floor or my bed, just listening to music. One afternoon, my Mum came into my bedroom to find that I’d actually fallen asleep on the floor, my head just centimetres from a speaker that was blaring music. It’s easy to be dismissive, to say that I could afford to do that then because I didn’t have the responsibilities I do now. But that’s a load of crap. Yes, I do have more responsibilities now, but surely that just makes it all the more important that I get some downtime, so I’m able to deal with those responsibilities… well, responsibly.

In my essay for The Emerging Writer, I explored some of the benefits for writing of doing nothing (well, almost nothing—listening still counts as something, really) with the physical body. To briefly summarise that part of the essay, doing nothing allows the body and the mind to process stuff, and potentially to make links between things that might not be immediately obvious, or that the brain might not have made otherwise.

Obviously, this can be good for writing. But it’s also just good for us on a more general level. Rest—waking rest, as well as sleep— is really important. (And ‘rest’, by the way, is just as metabolically active as activity—it just uses energy in different ways.)

In this piece on the benefits of the yoga pose savasana (which translates as ‘corpse pose’ and basically involves lying on the floor doing nothing), Sydney yoga teacher Brooke McCarthy writes in detail about what happens when we relax deeply—and how to do it. After reading this piece I decided I needed savasana to make an appearance in my life every day. I haven’t quite managed that yet, but on the days when I do get to it, everything seems just a little calmer. Honestly, lying on the floor for ten or fifteen minutes when I’m really busy makes the world of difference to my state of mind. And, really, if I’m feeling overwhelmed anyway, what am I really going to get done in those fifteen minutes?

And while I’m on the subject of ‘busy’. That words makes me cranky. I’d never really thought about why until I read this piece about the trap of busyness (interesting: my eyeToy autocorrects busyness to business). Writer Tim Krieder suggests that being busy is an avoidance tactic—if we’re busy, we don’t need to face ourselves, and all those things that are worrying us or upsetting us. And the more I teach yoga, the more I realise that everyone has at leat some of that kind of baggage. Facing it is hard, so makes sense that we don’t want to do it. But avoiding it doesn’t make it go away. For me at least, avoidance often makes the worry warp into something else—like yelling at a woman and her dog on the street.

My response lately to the question ‘how are you?’ has been ‘busy’. And after I’d said it a few times, I realised that it, along with the crankiness I was carrying around, was an indication I was doing too much.

All of this is a very roundabout way of saying that, once again, I’m returning to that teenage habit of lying on the floor listening to music on a regular basis. I’m trying to get some nothing into each if my days. It’s amazing. I feel instantly less busy.