When my husband Dyami and I were first dating, he said something about breathing that changed my life.
His father’s a musician and music teacher. Driving down the freeway that day, Dyami mentioned his dad taught voice lessons occasionally too.
“I hated voice lessons,” I said. I took them on and off through childhood, learning show tunes and the occasional Italian aria. I liked singing fine, practicing less. But the main thing I disliked was breathing.
“I’d have to lie down on the floor with a dictionary on my belly and practice,” I told my husband. “I’d breathe until breathing suffocated me.”
It was true: with the weight on my diaphragm, concentrating my long inhale, air itself smothered me. My habitual anxiety took over from my good intentions. Only a few breaths in, I could not stay still.
Dyami shrugged, keeping his eyes on the road.
“Dad always says it’s the exhale you have to concentrate on. If you just focus on taking in more and more and more, you can’t relax. It’s hard to sing when you’re tense.”
I opened my mouth to respond, and then closed it. I had never thought about lung capacity that way before.
Focus on the exhale, Dyami said. You can’t take in more and more.
It may be that at that moment I knew I needed to marry him.
I’m a trier. A doer, a planner, an intentionality freak. Self-discipline, I understand. Focusing, checklists, goals. I show up early, with all my ducks in a row.
As life skills go, this is not a bad thing. In my more disorganized teens and twenties, I’d put things off and lose track of deadlines or license plate registrations and feel ashamed of my incompetence. Life is easier when you can stay on the ball, and also, the DMV does not fine you.
But especially after I had children, I noticed that my plans and projects and intentional do-gooderness never really satisfied me. I’d add this habit and that routine and experiment with that practice compulsively. I wanted to improve, to do better, to be better. Then I wanted to do some more.
I ate more organic vegetables. I learned how to organize my housekeeping and cut coupons. But nothing felt like it stuck, really. Nothing struck deep.
It was during the whole couponing-and-budget cutting phase that I started wondering exactly why I was working so hard to save money. We weren’t struggling; in fact, Dyami’s business had taken off, and we’d finally become debt-free. I hated shopping, and the whole exercise of clipping coupons and scurrying from store to store with young children made me very uptight.
I didn’t need to clip coupons. I didn’t even like to clip coupons. So why was I clipping coupons, exactly?
Also, I’d started noticing a pattern. I’d read a book or a blog and upend my life to try out the new thing that would change me. Until I read the next book or blog and shifted gears, leaving that earlier intention by the side of the road.
I wanted to be intentional with my life. But more often, I felt like a hamster on a wheel.
Why did my “intention” feel so purposeless? Why did it make me feel itchy and harried and claustrophobic?
And it was then that I thought of what Dyami had said, so many years before.
You can’t take in more and more. You have to focus on the exhale.
What would an exhale look like in my life? I wondered.
I thought about shopping, and how in my quest to save money, I often went out and bought things secondhand that we didn’t really need because I was bored and anxious with little kids at home.
Maybe I need to exhale that, I thought. Maybe I need to stop shopping if I don’t actually need to buy anything.
It’s funny: I probably saved way more money with that decision than I did working hard to coupon. But really, the money was a side issue. With that one choice, I realized that eliminating unhelpful activities was easier and more life-giving than all the trying hard in the world.
I’m all for taking on new things, for intention and do-gooder projects and self-improvement. So many resources have changed my life, helped me shed shame, or develop creativity, or just figure out how to keep laundry from rotting in the washer.
But the single greatest intentional self-help and self-care habit I have learned is to exhale. To pare down.
Pare down my possessions.
Pare down my schedule.
Pare down my expectations.
Pare down my kids’ activities.
Pare down my spending, my social obligations, my volunteering. Pare down my intentions, my spiritual disciplines, and my own perfectionism.
See: the thing about paring down is that it makes room. When you exhale and exhale and exhale, you leave space to breathe.
The more I pare down and eliminate things from my life, the more I notice the lie at the center of my constant activity. The lie that I am in charge, that everything is up to me. That I should be endlessly productive, on-the-hook, culpable. That there’s no rest, no grace, no peace to be found.
The reason breathing used to make me panicky (and still does sometimes) is because cultivating stillness and empty space and capacity is a life-long journey. To be still and breathe, is to admit that there’s more to life than doing and achieving. It is to admit that Someone else runs things.
The long exhale affirms that peace-seeking is the only way to sing.