All in the Breath

All in the Breath

Published:
December 2, 2020

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.” —Matthew 6:34

Life is stressful. Especially this year with our current global pandemic. The release of the vaccine is unknown, doing all the activities we took for granted pre-COVID-19 is unknown, and the future is unknown. What if there was a way to teach your mind to accept and deal with issues no matter how large they may seem in the moment? Two years before this pandemic contaminated the world, I discovered a method to deal with my anxiety attacks in a small Adventist college called La Sierra University. A method known as mindfulness.

It was my junior year and I began to have anxiety attacks due to the heavy amounts of homework I had in my classes. High anxiety was something I dealt with my entire life. I thought it was natural for me to be stressed when assignments and presentations were due at the end of the quarter. But then I began to become light-headed and have shortness of breath. My doctor told me the high levels of stress were affecting my physical health and recommended I take an anti-anxiety medication called Xanax. I was hesitant to take Xanax because I had heard of possible negative side effects and how addicting it can be over time. But I was afraid of what would happen to me if I didn’t take the Xanax. I was also afraid of what would happen if I did take the Xanax. It was around this time when I saw a flyer that promoted free mindfulness sessions at my university. I had heard how mindfulness can help relieve stress and how it can teach you to live in the moment. I took a picture of the flyer with my phone and never opened that tangerine pill bottle containing the Xanax.

My foot clapped against the top of my coffee brown flip-flops as I sat on a bronze folding chair inside a dimly lit room. There was a diffuser changing to different colors every few seconds, while puffing out what smelled like a ripe navel orange orchard. A woman with curly, umber hair walked into the room carrying a transparent fruit container in one hand and floral pillows under her arms. After she placed pillows around the diffuser, she sat on the floor leaning her back against the wall. 

“Welcome, my name is Melissa,” she said. “I will be your guide today for this meditation.” 

I scratched my thumbnail against my jawline. She told me to put my phone on silent mode and place it on the table behind me. Melissa then had me sit on top of one of the floral pillows on the floor in front of her. She proceeded to pull out her bright, coral phone and began to play what sounded like raindrops sliding down a rooftop. Melissa glanced at her wristwatch and turned her eyes toward the navy blue door.

“I guess no one else will be joining us this session,” said Melissa taking off her shoes. “Let’s begin with the first exercise.”

Melissa told me to close my eyes and inhale and hold for as long as I could.

“Now breathe out,” said Melissa. “Exhale all the negative thoughts and inhale positive ones.”

About ten deep breaths later, I began to feel my lungs expand and my arms become a bit heavy.

“Imagine you are standing on a beach near the shore,” said Melissa. “The foam from the waves begins to soak your feet.”

At that moment, my mind didn’t think of the papers I had to write or meetings I had to attend. I was only thinking in the here and now. When the session was over, Melissa told me she does different mindfulness exercises each week and gave me a paper with tips to practice deep breathing in my dorm room. I thanked her and walked out of room with a sense of hope.

I was skeptical about trying mindfulness at first because I thought it was only an Eastern religious practice. When I left my first mindfulness session, I was surprised that it was practiced at an Adventist university. Eventually, I spoke with Sasha Ross, an Adventist who went to La Sierra University. She is passionate about the benefits of mindfulness and how it can help increase your faith in Jesus. The following are questions I asked Sasha to gain a deeper understanding on mindfulness.

“How would you explain to an Adventist how mindfulness is not just an Eastern religious practice?” I asked.

“It is not a religious tradition in and of itself any more than yoga and the practice of stretching your muscles is. While these practices may come to us from other cultures, they are simply ways of being more in touch with our body, with time, and with nature. I think for Adventists, for whom the health message and a holistic approach to life is fundamental, meditation can be very beneficial — if only because it helps calm your mind and centers your heart so that you are more able to hear the still small voice of the Holy Spirit and are more prepared to follow Christ's calling, be it through prayer, living intentionally, or serving others in a healthy and balanced way,” said Sasha.

“How would you define meditation for someone who is interested in starting it?” I asked.

“At its core, mindfulness is simply learning how to breathe and to focus on the present. For me, it's an antidote to modernity — that is, all of the pressures that come with our technologically advanced, hyper-industrialized modern society,” replied Sasha.

“How has meditation helped you as an Adventist?” I asked.

“Meditation has helped me be a calmer, happier, and more grounded person in general, which helps no matter what one's faith tradition is. Some Adventists, myself included, have a tendency to be uptight and very stressed out! Whether it is because of our individual personalities, our fears about what others think, or our collective effort to achieve perfectionism through denominationally acceptable behaviors, meditating cuts through all the noise. It grounds you in the present, allows you to just be, helps you find balance and peace in your own mind, and enables you to face life and other people in a healthy, constructive, and more loving way,” said Sasha.

Mindfulness has helped me understand that this pandemic will pass, and we will overcome these dark times. During these past two years, I have listened to different lecturers and read books on how to live in the present. By applying mindfulness in my daily life, I felt prepared when everything went on lockdown in March 2020. Mindfulness and 2020 both taught me how nothing is guaranteed to happen in the future. All that exists is the present. In these dark times we must place our faith in Jesus, and like the birds in the air we should not worry about what tomorrow will bring us. Today, whenever my anxiety tries to swarm inside my head, I stop and breathe. Just breathe.


Below are two other mindfulness exercises I did with Melissa during my junior year of college. You can practice these exercises in a comfortable place in your home.

Box Breathing

For this meditation, Melissa told me to “breathe in” for four seconds, then “hold” for four seconds, then “breathe out for four seconds,” and then “hold” for four seconds. Sometimes Melissa would say, “Inhale positive energy, exhale negative energy.” After what felt like a few minutes, I began to feel less tension in my shoulders and the middle of my back.

Mindful Eating

Melissa opened the transparent fruit container. Inside were plump, ripe strawberries.

“Take one strawberry and begin by moving it around your hands,” she said. “Now, bring your attention to the fruit in your hand and imagine that you are seeing it for the first time. Observe with curiosity as you pay attention and notice the color, shape, texture, and size.”

I grasped a strawberry and began to move it around my palms. It felt like the juice inside the strawberry was going to burst any second the more I moved it.

“Now, bring the strawberry toward your nose and smell with your full awareness. Notice if you have any memories, sensations, or reactions in your body,” said Melissa. 

This was strange for me because I never took the time to smell berries before popping them into my mouth. But after taking a whiff of the strawberry, a memory did appear in my mind. I was around seven years old, sitting down with my mom, enjoying a bowl of strawberries covered with chilled whipped cream.

“Now take just one bite of the strawberry and notice the flavor, notice the change of texture,” Melissa said. “Then very slowly begin to chew this piece of food and notice the parts of your mouth that are involved in chewing.”

 

Michelangelo Marenco is an undergraduate majoring in English: Creative Writing. He enjoys cooking Italian dishes, swimming, writing, and watching indie films.

Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

 

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