Mindful Breathing is Activism
I have to admit, this is not how I imagined my first blog post going. With the precariousness of the reality many of us find ourselves currently navigating, I fully anticipated being able to spill my thoughts onto the page with relative ease with rage and power dripping off each word. I imagined myself perfectly articulating profound thoughts regarding the current upswing in the Black Lives Matter movement and what all of this has felt like as a BIPOC individual who is active in the movement the middle of a pandemic. To be honest, I’m still coming to terms those things in a way that is not at all linear. Each time I attempted to unfurl my thoughts into cohesive statements; I found myself instead hypnotised by the flashing curser, teasingly & gleefully bouncing against a blank word document. This would occur for what felt like hours at a time, with my crumpled-up thoughts continuing to feel damp and heavy like a forgotten load of laundry. In these moments, where I could briefly spot the emerging perfectionist-induced panic, a small voice would remind me, “compassion for self”. This compassion has played a crucial role in wading through the heaviness of 2020 with one foot planted firmly in front of the other.
Within the kit of compassionate practices I’ve managed to cultivate over the years, has been the reminder to breathe. That’s right, just breathe. I’m sure you’ve heard it used as a placation during times of distress. And I know that being reminded to “just breathe” in those moments can be about as useful as being told to switch the light on in a dark room. I mean, it’s obvious right? But stay with me here, I promise (or at least I think) this is going somewhere.
For a while now, I’ve found myself in conversations about this phase, “just breathe”, and finding new ways to hold space for breath. This led to some serious contemplation about relationship to breath as more than just a vital physiological process, I mean that IS obvious. But lately, breath has become a source of life that is coveted. It has become a brick in the activist uprising. And so, it can be used as an activist practice in and of itself.
One of the primary rally chants heard particularly over the last month has been, without a doubt, ‘We Can’t Breathe’. It features heavily on social media feeds. It has been painted in blood red on protest signs, and screen printed onto t shirts. It has been shouted it as we march through the streets. “Please, I can’t breathe” has been uttered by George Floyd, Eric Garner, Elijah McClain, and so many others before and after them, who pleaded for their right to breathe, only to have it taken from them.
I found myself deep in thought over the many ways that such a fundamental life process has been and continues to be stolen. I kept coming back to this idea that the act of respiration has become an act of revolution. Oppression is suffocating. Deep in contemplative heartbreak, I then began exploring the ways that breath has become weaponised, and how it must be reclaimed as a tool for healing. In its current highly charged context, telling a survivor of trauma to “just breathe” can open the door for additional trauma with its grounding properties stripped away and replaced with violent connotations. How can one ‘just breathe deeply’ when they have been disconnected from their breath through fear, guilt, shame, or rage?
In addition to my work as a Counselling Therapist, I am currently studying a certification in Meditation Teaching. As a meditator of several years, I have often found my breath to be my main anchor in grounding me through distressing circumstances. My breath has led me out of more terrifying experiences that I can remember. Recently though, I found it increasingly difficult to listen to the white spiritual leaders I once turned to without hesitation. I started to notice myself becoming resistant to their calls for breathing within guided practices. It was as if something deep inside me was telling me, “Do not let this person control your breath. Do not give them that”. My trust in these teachers was very suddenly and undeniably shaken as ancestral voices grew louder, warning me against placing my breath into the hands of anyone who should not be trusted with it. It became clear to me that I needed to work to reclaim my breath as my own.
The spiritual and “conscious community “is rife with oppressive spiritual bypassing; with mindfulness practices having become at times so appropriated and repackaged that it can be hard not to feel like even our breath has become a nothing more than a marketing tool of the snake oil merchant. Many folks I have spoken to across the intersections of the BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ & Disability communities, have remarked that meditation and mindfulness practices are a VIP club reserved only for the affluent white bohemian. Many of us on the other side of the velvet rope have scoffed at the very idea of breathing practices saying, “Nah. I can’t meditate!”. Some of this is due to the contemporary enlightened image that is sold to us: the lithe, blue-eyed, raw vegan sitting atop a mountain with eyes closed, legs folded into a pretzel, holding mala beads purchased for a cool $300 from GOOP. In many ways, several mindful breathing practices have been rebranded into an exclusive commodity rather than what they actually are: an essential tool for life and source of energy that requires nothing but a willingness to be open and a desire to connect to self.
As I started to examine that principles that will shape my own meditation teaching framework in the not so distant future, I had to also dismantle the ways that I had previously bought into the illusion of breath as a luxury…because that is what was sold to me. And I wanted it so badly. Colonisation runs so deep that it even dictates how we show up for ourselves in mindfulness practices.
After shaking myself out of this realisation, everything had to be challenged: from accessibility of potential future host spaces to language used to methods used in the communication of that language. I recalled the many spaces I had meditated in over the years, and the directive language used to create distance between students and teacher. I recollected the number of times I did not feel safe to continue sitting practice in a space, but felt I lacked the choice to leave or alter my position in a way that was more adapted with my own needs in that moment. These concepts of choice & adaptation was overwhelmingly one of the things that I kept returning to as a means to reclaim mindful breathing practices as a malleable device for spiritual healing and/or exploration.
How often have you thought, “I can’t sit still/on the ground therefore meditation is not for me”? How often have you thought “I hate when the teacher does a body scan because my body is not currently safe for me to be aware of”? or “my mind always wanders off; I’ll never be able to just not think”? Who told us that mindful practices can only exist within such rigidity? By removing the principle of choice and imposing a fixed set of rules, what occurs is a vetting process that dictates who is deemed more or less worthy of accessing a relationship with breath and ultimately, a relationship with self.
Such ideas about how to engage in mindful practices are not etched in stone, but rather exist as set of principles set forth by various individuals. Just people like you and me. And like any set of guidelines, they can and should be changed to suit individual choices and adaptations. They can and should absolutely be called into question and challenged. And they must be accessible to intersectional community members who choose to engage with them. Accessing the benefits of mindful breathing & meditative practices is not a bonus, it is a fundamental human right. And it’s time it was viewed as such.
So, what does this adaptation look like in practice? Well, If you are a Black Individual who feels the weight of collective trauma when being invited to connect to breath, perhaps use of a mantra can support your practice until you have reclaimed your breath., let’s say for example you are an individual who feels as if fidgeting may pose a challenge to your meditation practices. Perhaps choosing a smooth stone to hold & gently rub during practice may provide an anchor that is more accessible. Maybe you are unable to sit on the ground or place your feet on the floor when sitting in a chair, so an adaptation might be to rest your hand over the heart or resting gently on the stomach as a means to ground within your vessel. If body scans make you acutely aware of areas within the body that hold chronic pain or trauma, you have the choice to omit scanning from your practice whether partially or completely. Everyone deserves to breathe freely and mindfully--however they choose to, so they can meet themselves in new and insightful ways. Taking ownership of the ways you are able to show up for yourself is advocacy work. Showing compassion for self is revolutionary. Reclamation of breath is activism.
Beneath this entry I have recorded a short insight meditation to coincide with this entry. This meditation uses connection to breath and a quick body scan to provide a short tool that can be used anytime you have five minutes to spare. The video contains subtitles with an additional transcript underneath for those who prefer to copy and paste it so that you can use your own authentic inner voice for practice. If you decide to give it a go, feel free to let me know how you went! What did you like? What did you find difficult? How can future meditations be made more accessible to you? In order to reclaim breathing practices are being anti-oppressive, they must reject the dominant cultural influences which continue to take that breath away. May we continue to breathe deeply for all those who no longer can. May we continue to rise into expansiveness, just as lungs on the inhale. And may we continue to cry, laugh, scream, grow-such as the release of the exhale.