Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Artwork by me. Inspired by my dear friend. 

I didn't always know how to breathe. In fact, prior to 2005, I did not realize that breathing was even something one paid attention to. I simply left the job up to my autonomic nervous system. Autonomic...automatic...autopilot...what's the difference? 

And then I met Jeana.

Jeana came into my life at one of those points when everything else seemed to be leaving. I had just taken a new job in St. Paul at the Minnesota Department of Human Services. I was also in the midst of the devastating collapse of a 22-year marriage and role as pastor's wife in the rural Midwest. Having raised our daughters in a town of 150 (of which we were 7), the Twin Cities felt much like stepping off a cliff in the black of night. Every single piece of my foundation had seemed to crumble away. It was truly my darkest hour.

One of the first gifts Jeana gave me was a framed piece of Japanese art. On this beautiful picture were these words, "Inhale. Exhale. Breathe In Life."  Little did I know the impact these words and this friend would have on my world. As the years have gone by, I have learned much about breathing from Jeana. Her direct and gentle persistence throughout the ups and downs of my days has not only changed the course of my life and the lives of my daughters, but has opened my heart and created a desire that at times seems almost unquenchable. A desire that continues this day to lead me down a path of self-awareness, acceptance and compassion. 

I've thought of Jeana a lot this past week. Hearing her voice, feeling her soft touch on my shoulder, reminding me to breathe. It's not so automatic, this breathing. The world sneaks in and the next thing I know, my shoulders are tight, my breath is shallow and life seems more like something that is happening to me than with me. 

View here!
In thinking about how this happens, something dawned on me the other day while reading  Pema Chödrön's The Places That Scare You. I mentioned a couple of posts back that she talks about emotions needing a story to proliferate. What she means by that is that whatever emotion we are feeling - whether it be anger, loneliness, fear or even emotions such as joy or passion - those emotions cannot exist if we are not telling ourselves some sort of story. If I'm really feeling sick and stuck in fear, I may be telling myself things like, "I'm never going to feel well. I haven't felt good in over two years. I can't keep doing this. Pain is taking away my life. I don't do anything. How will I get what needs to be done, done? The doctor's don't understand how this is impacting my life. I'll never be normal again...."  Consciously or unconsciously, I am telling myself some sort of story. Why? Because I get something out of it - temporarily. Kind of like a piece of chocolate cake in the middle of your diet. Short term...heavenly! Long term...not so good. It feels good to sympathize with ourselves. But in the end, it only keeps the negative emotion alive.

What dawned on me is that when I find myself sitting there, out of breath, this is exactly what I am doing. I have stopped being present in the moment and I have gotten myself all caught up in some story. The solution? Pema says, "Drop the story line and just abide with the energy." Ouch. We don't like to do this! I don't like to feel pain. I don't like to feel lonely. I don't like to feel hungry. I don't like to feel hurt. So what do I do? I try to get some bit of relief by telling myself a story. And it never works.

So, this week I put my enlightenment to the test, on two different occasions. My first opportunity was after IVIg on Monday. On a scale of one to ten, one being a fairly uneventful infusion and ten being plain old miserable - this one ranked at about a nine. I felt sick during the entire infusion and the days that preceded it were filled with nausea, digestion issues, headache and pain. At one particular point I found myself spiraling downward, contemplating all that needs to be done this week in preparation for a graduation party and a week filled with company. The story was pretty good.

My second opportunity was after hearing something less than desirable about myself. Whether or not there is validity in the statement has little impact. No one wants to hear about his or her shortcomings - real or not. It's painful to think that we are not perfect in the eyes of those we love. Especially our children. And it's easy to get caught up in trying to figure out the why or in trying to prove one's innocence. Another pretty good story.

In both situations, I was able to realize what I was doing and give the whole "abiding with the energy" business a shot. Was it difficult? You bet! Was it worth it? Absolutely!  First of all, stopping the story takes away a lot of the energy. In the situation where I was feeling sick, the minute I broke free of the story I felt a distinct peacefulness fall over my body. The pain was still there - in fact, there were moments where it seemed more intense and the temptation was to tear up and start the whole "woe is me" line - but I caught myself. And the more I was able to just abide with the energy of not feeling well, the more I was able to breathe. Soft, gentle, slow breaths. Just being.

In the situation where I had gotten my feelings hurt, stopping the story shortened the whole ordeal dramatically. Not only was I feeling better sooner, I did not aggravate the situation by responding inappropriately or making false assumptions. I realized the situation for what it was, allowed myself to just feel the energy of being sad, and moved on. Because I did not respond out of my hurt, because I was in control of my breath, a wonderful conversation later ensued and it was a cherished opportunity for compassion and growth.

"Inhale. Exhale. Breathe in Life." I am so thankful for these words and the reminder they have become for me to be present in this life. They have inspired me in so many ways - the books I read, the poetry I write, the paintings I paint. Breathing means being present. Being present means recognizing what's going on in my world. And as Pema states, "Never underestimate the power of compassionately understanding what's going on."

Blessed breathing to you.


Terri Huston said...

This is so true Theresa! I think I have sort of come to this conclusion on my own - I think. I love reading your writings- you have such an amazing gift! Thank you for sharing~!! Much love~ Terri

Theresa said...

It's the simple things that become most profound when we just take the time to listen to them! Thank you, Terri!!

Anonymous said...

Monday I spent with your lovely Anna, passing along a few gifts, tools, really, for navigating our journey. She is such a beautiful spirit and I am grateful that she and I have connected. The first thing she asked as I passed the gift bag to her was if they were used! How funny to hear the excitement and anticipation in her voice to receive some "hand-me-downs." But she knows the the beauty of such things being shared. The way she received my offerings felt like I was the one getting the gift!

Tuesday I arrived home in the rain after a very long day to find a gift for me in the mailbox, though I must say, the title did not make me want to "crack 'er right open." And yet, to receive that gift on that day made me feel very loved. I love you, my dear friend. And thank you for sharing the gift of your family with me. We all learn so much from each other!

Peace surrounds you,

Theresa said...

And so the journey goes....
Peace to you as well, Jeana.

annaburesh said...

I loved this post, Mom! Very true, very real. I always take this advice from you and it has helped me many times! Thank you for that.

Love you so so much!

Theresa said...

Like Jeana said - we ALL learn so much from each other! That's the beauty in being vulnerable - in being REAL. Thank you Anna, for the times when YOU have taught ME. And lately....that seems to be the case more often than not!
I love you too!!