Resources for Recovering Resilience: Breathing into Calm

Last week I had a temporary crown placed on a tooth that already had had a root canal. Officially, no nerve, no sensation in that tooth. But even with anesthetic to numb sensation in the neighboring teeth, I felt all kinds of poking and pulling and cold water and cold air. I didn’t want the startle to cascade into anxiety, so I began a breathing practice modified from Thich Nhat Hanh: “Breathing in, I feel sensation. Breathing out, I calm myself.”

Deep, gentle breathing has been used in the yogic tradition for 3,500 years to help a person relax their body into a state of calm and ease. Deep breathing, when the exhale is longer than the inhale, activates the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system; it is our body-brain’s way to return the body to calm and equilibrium. Focusing the mind on a phrase, as I did in the dentist’s chair, keeps the pre-frontal cortex (our CEO of resilience) online, available to regulate the body back into calm. Remembering to breathe five slow deep breaths in a row from time to time can be very helpful in stabilizing the body and relaxing the mind, all day long.

Breathing Creates Resonant Connection

Here’s a very simple exercise, learned from Frank Ostaseski of the Zen Hospice Project, to use the breath and touch to create a resonant connection between you and another person that can also relax your reactivity and help you return to calm. This exercise is done with a partner. After 2-3 minutes you can switch roles.

  1. Have your partner lie down comfortably on the floor and close their eyes. You sit comfortably on the floor near them. Come into a sense of presence, of being with this person, here, and now. Place one hand on their hand or forearm, the other hand on the crown of their head. Your partner breathes slowly, deeply. Begin to synchronize your breathing with their breathing. Simply breathe together for 2-3 minutes, noticing the life force of the breath entering and leaving their body, entering and leaving your body. You are strengthening the capacities of your resonance circuit to regulate you, and dropping into a mutual baseline equilibrium, an equanimity for two.
  2. A variation of this exercise is to contemplate the reality that the molecules of air entering and leaving your lungs are the same molecules of air entering and leaving your partner’s lungs, and indeed, are the same molecules of air entering and leaving the lungs of anyone you are in the same room with, the same car or bus or plane with, the same office or store or theater or world with. To open up to this kind of intimacy with beings all over the planet can radically expand our minds and open our hearts, creating a larger perspective, the bigger picture, that is also supportive to seeing clearly and relaxing your body into calm.