Focus on the Exhale

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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.

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Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who loves British murder mysteries, advice columns, and hot breakfasts. She uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, “Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri

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  • Funny to find this right after practicing some deep breathing. Trying to stop hanging myself on the hook. Thanks for sharing, I feel less alone in the struggle!

    • I’m so glad, Morag. This is a theme that constantly comes up in my life 🙂

  • This is SO good: “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.”

  • “I realized that eliminating unhelpful activities was easier and more life-giving than all the trying hard in the world.” THIS! I had to learn this the hard way. It wasn’t until the past year when I realized that I don’t have to say yes to everything. It’s okay to say no, in fact, it’s healthy to say no. My husband and I are on a journey to a more simple, meaningful life. What’s the point in doing things when they don’t support our purpose, right? I love you words today, Heather!

    • Thanks, Keri! Yes, it’s a huge transformative thing. And I’m getting better at it, even if it still takes a LOT of discipline for me not to default to over-performing all the time 🙂

  • First, please tell me we can sit down and chat more at the Redbud retreat because you are in my brain and I need some Heather-therapy. This is me 100%. And oh, I am trying to hard to learn to exhale. I sometimes just can’t catch my breath and am looking for the things I need to say no to and the ways to cultivate stillness more. This encouragement was more needed than you know today!

    • Yay! Yes, more retreat Nicole-and-Heather time, please! And don’t be too hard on yourself. Learning to cultivate stillness doesn’t all happen in one day. 🙂 And honestly, being in the middle of a big move/life change probably isn’t going to be the peak moment for mastering this. You can take ‘cultivating stillness’ off the to-do list for now, at least, and just survive a bit. Taking pressure off myself to handle my life elegantly all the time has really helped me. xoxox

  • Um — this is amazing. Thank you!

  • Breathtaking writing.

    And breath-releasing, too.

    Love this, Heather.

    • Oh, wow. Thank you, Bronwyn.

      • also, were we great-minds-thinking-alike or what? I mean, I guess CAPACITY sent us all there 🙂

  • Beth Pandy Bruno

    Beautiful beautiful! Always love your words.

  • Ahhh I’m exhaling! Lovely. All so true
    …we pile to do lists avoidinging to our knees where the best of life begins ..blessings! We will have that coffee again!

  • fiona lynne

    This is such a powerful image and one I really identify with. Thanks so much for sharing this, Heather (and that Dyami is a keeper).

    • Dyami’s great! And I appreciate your kind words 🙂

  • My cousin gave me a necklace that says breathe. It’s something she has emailed me many time, that one word message reminded me to take a slow breath because she knows I was overwhelmed and anxious. But what would that breath be if it’s just held in? Love your perspective on this Heather and the reminding us what it really is to exhale.

    • yes…telling me to breathe often makes me uptight 🙂 exhaling with you, Debby.

  • Oh man, from one “intentionality freak” to another, these are very welcome words. Thank you.

    • hey, thanks, Beth! Little fist-bump to you, intentional girl!