Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Soul Breathing

This week I felt the impulse to share a very simple practise I use to lower fear and be with any anxiety that arises. First, a little background.

One of the things I appreciate about the writing of Jungian analyst James Hollis is how direct he is about the challenges of being human. In Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life (as well as in his other books) Hollis tells us that in order to find and fulfill our purpose in life, in order to really grow up, we have to expand our capacity to tolerate anxiety, ambivalence and ambiguity. Why? Because, given the unpredictable and every changing nature of life there is going to be anxiety, ambivalence and ambiguity. When we were children and relatively powerless we understandably developed strategies to lower or distance ourselves from the discomfort of anxiety: some of us tried to earn safety by attempting to do things perfectly (me!) while others sought to escape through fantasy or whatever numbing substance/activity was available, (food, television, computer games) while still others became combative and rebellious. The problem is the anxiety management strategies we developed as children don’t work well for us as adults if we really want to be present, live our lives fully and co-create meaning in the world.

On the surface, this can be a hard sell: read this book or do this work and you’ll be able to tolerate more anxiety? May not be the catchiest marketing method. But the truth is we cannot experience and be fully present with joy if we are armoured against or busy trying to outrun the anxiety that’s part of normal human experience.

And there are moments, even when we are fully committed to being present with whatever is, that can simply feel like more than we can hold, moments (or days, or weeks) when our anxiety goes through the roof. Our palms sweat, our hearts pound, we can’t articulate a complete thought and/or we are racing around doing a thousand things to avoid feeling the anxiety. In those moments, it’s helpful to have a way to ground and strengthen our capacity to be with what is. I want to share one such practise here.

This method for being with anxiety without letting it paralyze or send us running from the room is deceptively simple. It comes out of my experience participating in and leading sweat lodge ceremonies. Now, if there’s anything that can and sometimes does raise anxiety it’s going into a small, dark structure filled with hot steam and other people you may or may not know, to do a ceremony designed in part to help you send out prayers from the heart centre of your being. And in ceremony there is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, no distraction, no way to use old strategies. So, one of the things I have often done myself and have instructed others to do when anxiety arises is- breathe through the soles of your feet.

I know, it sounds crazy, but try it. Wherever you are reading this, put your feet flat on the floor and imagine the earth below you. It may be several stories below you, but wherever you are, it is there- same earth as the one that’s there when you’re sitting on a beach or hiking in the wilderness.

Then, imagine that you are breathing through the soles of your feet, inhaling up from the earth through the bottom of you feet into your body, and exhaling back down through your body and out the soles of your feet into the earth. The beauty of this method is that although it grounds and calms, it does not take us away from what is happening within or around us. It just helps us lower our fear enough to be with what is. And you can do it anywhere: in the middle of a business meeting or at the dinner table with relatives. The more you practise it the more you can develop what is called split attention where a small part of your awareness is imagining your breath flowing in and out of your body through soles of your feet, while you are clearly and calmly answering a question in a job interview or explaining to a relative why you don’t have a “real job.”

So take this along with you today. Give sole/soul-breathing a try, because the soul really can hold it all.


  1. Thank you for this exercise. I so eagerly await each entry. Your reflections are a blessing to me. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for putting this into words! I have been doing this for several years but have had no way to explain it to others. You are a blessing! <3

  3. I hope all tax accountants read this this week. Thanks

  4. This is perfect; soul/sole breathing! I always try to take good care of my soles; for they are the soul of my being/breathing! What a perfect entry; these past few weeks I have been dealing with anxiety early morning with my 6 year old daughter (not getting ready for school on time). From now on, I shall practice this breathing ritual!

    And regarding sweat lodges, I was once in a sweat in Hawaii, and my body became covered in tiny ants, crawling all over me. My first reaction was to get them off, but crowded in a small sweaty space, I realized that wasn't going to happen. So I surrendered, took deep breaths, and allowed these tiny blessed creatures to do their thing! They sure taught me a great lesson! And Thanks for beautiful posts!

  5. dear oriah,

    i read these every week and it is always a joy. i am not able to leave a comment every week though, other than a mere thank you.

    but this i must share: my yoga instructor marco rojas who has a gift for taking you to meet your soul through your sole is always emphasizing this sentiment: to breathe through the space in our feet.

    so i am grateful to find your words today in a context that can happen anywhere.



  6. This is interesting seems to work...I am working on not doing nervous over talking..this may help