The Breath of Life (Part 5)

This is the final part in my series on breathing [see parts 1, 2, 3, 4]

In this final part of the series I will be looking both at how awareness of breathing can help our system to quieten down and come back into balance, and at how the breath can help us to find greater poise and freedom in movement.

Your Breath is a Bridge

Breathing is perhaps the only significant function in the body which is regulated unconsciously (by the Autonomic Nervous System or ANS) while also being able to be straightforwardly controlled by the higher brain centres. We can choose to stop breathing for a while, to hold our breath, speed it up, slow it down, and manipulate it in different ways. Because breathing belongs so much in both these worlds it also acts like a ‘bridge’ between them.

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The ANS is one of the main systems in the body for regulating our level of arousal. Faced with a dangerous or demanding situation it (usually) ‘activates’ us, increasing heart and breathing rates and releasing adrenaline to give us the energy and alertness needed to deal with the situation. When the danger passes (if all is working as it should) it quietens our system down and returns us to a balanced resting state. Because of the stresses of modern life (which offers conditions very far from those the body evolved to deal with!) many of us tend to live a lot of the time in an over-aroused state. This is reflected in tense muscles, rapid breathing focussed high in the chest, and a general feeling of being stressed and worried. Many of the stressors we encounter today do not dissipate so quickly  as a predator passing in the night! Money worries, unsympathetic work environments, challenging relationships and unsupportive communities — these are experienced as deep ongoing threats to our sense of safety, survival and self, and often they are difficult to get away from. At the same time there is often social censure around expressing feelings and allowing the tension which has built up in the system to discharge naturally. Many of us end up trapped in a state of ongoing stress where a level of ANS arousal is pretty much permanently locked into the system.

This is where the role of breath as a bridge can help us. Because it gives us a ‘link’ between the ANS and the more conscious parts of ourselves, it offers us a very direct way to encourage the ANS to quieten down and return to balance. Here’s something you can try:

Make a little time when you don’t have to do anything else. Lie down on your back on a firm surface with your knees bent (semi-supine position) and with some support under your head if necessary so that it is neither lolling back nor pulled forward. Give yourself a general intention or ‘wish’ to quieten down a little and take a few moments to come into your body. Can you notice that you are breathing and just take a general interest in it? Can you describe it to yourself? What does it feel like to be breathing? Which parts of you seem to be involved? What quality does the whole pattern have. Is anything within you (emotional or physical) resisting the free movement of the breath? Do you still have your original wish to be quiet, or has it dissipated in the urge to follow these instructions? Are you ‘holding on’ in any way in response to the instruction to look and take an interest? 

Can you be aware of what’s going on without trying to change it particularly? Whenever we try to change our inner state we are putting effort and stress into the system. What does it feel like to be patiently aware of what is going on without trying to change it? As you get up and get on with your day, can you keep the gentle intention to quieten down a little? Without making a another problem of it can you notice now and again that you are breathing?

Some people find it fairly easy to watch and take an interest without getting caught in judgement about themselves and trying to get it ‘right’. Others may struggle with this, particularly if their nervous system is caught in a cycle of stress and worry. If this is you then you can see some more information on what is going on in my blog post here. You may also find a few sessions with a teacher can help you to find clarity about what you are up to which makes it hard for your nervous system to settle and quieten down.

Your Breath is a Register

In previous parts of this series we’ve seen how the breath can’t really be considered apart from the rest of us. Relaxed and easy breathing depends on support from the postural system, because if that support is not there then we will tend to be using muscles needed for respiration to hold ourselves ‘up and together’. Because the breath is so intimately tied to our overall state of coordination (our ‘Use’ in Alexander terms) and because it is going on all the time, it can function as a highly sensitive register of what is going on in our system overall. Any level of unnecessary tension or imbalance in the system will be reflected in a subtle or obvious holding or constriction of the breath. In this way the breath can function like the relationship between our head/neck/back — when it is out of kilter it tells us that our system as whole is out of balance.

We can use this as a way to find ways towards moving more skilfully. Here's another thing you can try. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your head supported as in the previous exercise (I am suggesting lying down because it is easier to begin with as you don’t have to worry too much about gravity). Again spend a few moments to quieten down (N.B. your nervous system needs to be in a relatively quiet state for this game — it will not be possible to do this if you are in an over-aroused state). Now think about rolling onto your side and visualise how you will go about doing it—but without actually moving. Notice what happens to your breathing as you mentally prepare to roll. Does it tense up a little? Does it become held or restricted in any way? If so this indicates that you are asking your body to move in an unbalanced way, and it is therefore, by necessity, automatically bracing and holding on to make the movement possible. This tension in the system is reflected in your breath.

That is useful information. You have discovered something which you don’t want! This is far easier and less bother to deal with than becoming aware of something you do want—because all you need to do to deal with it is to say ‘no!’. So say ‘no’ to that way of rolling over. Spend a few moments to quieten down again. 

Now imagine another way of rolling over. Perhaps instead of starting by hauling with a shoulder you could think of letting a knee release. Again imagine doing it—maybe even try it out a little. What happens to the breath this time? Is it held more, less or the same? Gently, carefully, with patience, we can use this process repeatedly to find ways through complex movements which do not require us to brace and hold on. We say ‘no’ to those responses to the idea of moving which cause involuntary breath holding or constriction, and give consent to those that do not. We become explorers, and through saying ‘no’ to what clearly doesn’t work can come across movements which are relaxed, open, supported and free.

This is a powerful practice — but for some it may be challenging to find a way into it, particularly if your nervous system is over-activated. Often we can be quite removed from our physical selves, or may find it too difficult to slow down and really say ‘no’ or to give consent to unfamiliar movement patterns. In this case it may be helpful to have a few lessons with someone who can give you objective feedback about what you are really doing, and encourage your system towards a more relaxed and free way of doing things.

Breathe out!

As I’ve said before, breathing is both simple and complex — so complex that I’ve only been able to scratch the surface in this series of articles. However we don’t need to be overwhelmed by the complexity if we remember that breathing is not generally something we have to do. The body knows how to breathe. The point of understanding a little about how the mechanism works is not so that we can ‘do’ all that complexity ourselves, but so that we can become aware of the ways in which we interfere with that rhythm, so that we can choose to stop doing so. The best thing we can do for our breathing is to look after ourselves as a whole, and learn to allow the breath to do itself. Once we let go, everything flows.

I hope you've enjoyed this series and found it interesting. One thing I have not covered at all is the use of the breath for singing, speaking etc. I am to look at this in future, so this is relevant to you then watch this space!

How to feel more supported and secure

For many of us it's easy to feel overwhelmed in the face of the challenges and demands of our lives. Some seem to swim through life without too much trouble, but many others feel that they could do with a little more inner and outer support and security — or else may take pride in their self-reliance and dogged determination while paying a price in terms of stress and isolation!

Human beings evolved with a wonderful system to physically support and carry us  — and this in turn would have been held within the container of a supportive group or tribe. Today few of us fully experience this free flowing support on either an outer or inner level, and many carry wounds which can be traced to a diminished sense of community and loss of contact with our bodies.  As a result we may feel a lack of trust in ourselves and a nagging sense of doubt and insecurity in our relationship with the world.

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Security has an inner and an outer aspect. We get literal support from our physical structure, and from the experience of being embodied—and also social support from our relationships. These two sources of support are interrelated and inseparable. If we don’t feel a fundamental sense of physical security and support within ourselves it's hard to feel safe and secure enough to receive support from others. And it’s hard to access this physical feeling of support in ourselves if we are not giving and receiving practical and emotional support from our culture and those around us.

Inner security

Our inner sense of security starts with feeling a secure and relaxed sense of self—and our most fundamental sense of ourselves starts with the body. We may think that ‘ourself’ is a product of our mind, but it is only through sensation, feeling and contact that we know we exist in the world at all. Our sense of selfhood develops from being a body interacting with itself and the environment. So a true feeling of security is only possible if the sensations and feelings we receive from the body give us a feeling of safety. If the messages we receive from the body are not confidence giving (for example if we are constantly getting messages that the body is unbalanced, fixed, rigid, collapsed, incompetent, precarious or untrustworthy) then this will profoundly how we experience ourselves and our relationship to the world.

A question of trust

The body’s sense of security is fundamentally related to our relationship with gravity. We are upright and (uniquely) unstable creatures, and this brings us into a very different relationship to the ground than other animals. We need to feel secure, safe and competent even while balanced precariously on two legs — and from this balanced place be open and responsive, leaving our limbs free to do all the tasks which are part of living and survival for human beings. 

This is a tall order. When we first come into the world we are not able to support ourselves in any way at all. We are not only dependant on care-givers for food and nourishment, but also for physical support. A new-born horse can stand and run within 30 minutes, but for the first month of our lives we cannot even support our head and it needs to be held for us — and it takes up to four months for us to be able to hold our head against gravity when upright. 

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In the first few months of life it is essential that we are held, and that we sense it is safe to let go and relax into that holding. In time our postural support and balance systems develop and start to activate. These systems enable us to fulfil one of our fundamental tasks, which is to be learn to be supported in the earth’s gravitational field. To accomplish this they make use of deep muscles of postural support, controlled predominantly by ‘lower-level’ and largely involuntary/unconscious parts of the nervous system—including simple reflexes in the muscles and spinal column and the cerebellum in the brain. If all is working as it should, the balance/postural system is there for us to—in a sense—gently lean on. So long as there is a general intention to be upright and supported it will effortlessly and efficiently support us in a balanced, dynamic upright state. We don’t have to do posture, we just need the intention or wish and then to get out of the way and allow the system to work as should. This means that, when all is well, uprightness and relaxed poise feels like letting go.

However, to be able to let go into support like this implies an ability to trust. We have to be able to trust that our (neurologically low level) postural system will support us if we let go of higher level control. For some people this is fairly easy but for many others it is not. From the earliest age, and throughout life, we receive messages about trust and trustworthiness, and a sense as to whether it is safe to let go. As babies we need constant, dependable physical support to relax into, and if that is not forthcoming—or is qualified by, say, an anxious or overly demanding caregiver, we may have a question mark near the centre of our being about whether or not it is really safe to let go and trust in support. Later in life this impression may be contradicted by good experiences—or it may be reinforced by further experiences of lack of safety throughout our lives. 

If our primary experience is that is not safe to let go, it is likely that this lack of trust will find physical expression in us gripping with our large movement (phasic) muscles in an attempt to grab support rather than relaxing into the safety and security of our postural system. Instead of allowing fluid, dynamic uprightness we lock ourselves into position by holding parts of ourselves rigidly in relation to each other.

Trust in relationship

As well as needing to trust ourselves we also need to be able to have faith that is possible to respond freely to other people in order to create and maintain relationships in which we are able to give and receive support. Much of human relating happens way below the level of speech and reason. As essentially tribal animals, our nervous systems are highly tuned and responsive to each other and we pick up and respond to the subtlest physical cues from those around us, much of the time unconsciously. Our bodies are continually communicating with each other whether we’re aware of it or not. 

To relate freely and easily to each other there needs to be freedom for this unconscious dance to happen at a physical level. When we are unable to relax into the support of our postural system it becomes harder to connect with others. It may feel that we subtly keep people at arms length, or find it hard to fully settle and relax into each other's company. One reason that alcohol is so enjoyable for many is that it temporarily releases the muscular holding we carry with us and allows us to respond more freely to others—albeit often with a diminished level of consciousness and presence!

Support for the journey

Changing our patterns of trust, support and relating is a challenge and a journey. We may need to both look at our relationship to ourselves and our internal sense of support, and grow into new ways of finding trust and connection with others. We may need to let go of feelings and beliefs from the past which cause us to feel unsafe and unsupported and which no longer serve us. As our physical sense of support increases we find that our relationship to other people changes too. Increasingly we are more able to respond to and be supported by others while having a greater capacity to respond to them and offer support in turn. And as our relationships become more mutually trusting and supportive we find a deeper level of belief in ourselves and are more able to relax and let go so that we can gently ‘lean’ on the natural physical support our organism offers. As always, change in one aspect of a pattern is reflected in change in an other. Step by step life becomes easier, we feel more secure, and life begins to flow....

The Breath of Life (Part 4)

In previous parts of this series [see 1, 2, 3] we have have been looking at the anatomy of breathing and how the process works at a physical level. We will now look at some common ways in which this mechanism can get upset and out of balance, both physically and emotionally (the breath is intimately connected with our feelings — in fact it is not really possible to make lasting changes to the way the body breathes without corresponding changes in our emotional responses and behaviour). 

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Postural Factors

In order for breathing to work freely and easily, the muscles of respiration need to be available to do their job. When we are physically out of balance and alignment then muscles which are best left free for breathing may have to be co-opted to help out with maintaining our upright posture. This limits and constrains the breath.

Breath Holding and Body Image

A common psychological impact on our breath is when we are shamed into a negative image about our body, and so habitually hold our stomach in and attempt to look thinner than we are. This pattern is very common in our culture ad can cause problems because, as we have seen, the belly muscles must be able to release on the in-breath to allow the diaphragm to descend. When we habitually hold these muscles it restricts the breathing, which has knock on effects for posture, alignment, self-expression, and energy flow throughout the body.

Fear and the Breath

One of the most potent emotions to impact on the breath is fear. Breathing is intimately connected with our basic survival systems. Because of its links to the autonomic nervous system, breathing is related to our flight/fight and freeze responses to danger. At one end of the scale we have the basic response to fear which is ‘fight or flight’. In this situation the organism prepares to flee or attack whatever is threatening it, and it increases the depth and speed of breathing in order to charge the system with oxygen for any necessary action.  Alternately, in situations where the autonomic nervous system does not feel that it has a viable flight or fight option, the organism will shut down and go into a self-protective ’freeze’ response. In this situation the breathing becomes very shallow and may even stop completely for some time. 

Because the body’s ‘alarm system’ doesn’t know the difference between a physical threat and an emotional one (meaning anything which threatens our relationships with valued individuals or groups) it will tend to react to uncomfortable emotional events in a similar way to physical threats. If we have experienced intense or prolonged periods of emotional or physical threat or worry in our lives then some level of flight/fight or freeze response can become ‘locked in’ to our system. For example we may exhibit the shallow, collapsed, lifeless, breathing of someone who has tended to ‘freeze’ in the face of challenging life events. In this state we may find it difficult to take a truly full and free breath and thus we get stuck in in a small part of the lower end of our potential breathing range. 

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Alternately, we may be stuck to some extent in the high intensity breathing of an organism preparing for flight or fight — but be unable to fully express or discharge the pattern due to social pressures and norms. In this case we may ’tamp the response down’ with muscular tension, so that we end up breathing rapidly and shallowly high up in the chest, while preventing a full out breath by holding on in the belly and diaphragm. In this case our breath is trapped in a small zone at the top of our full breathing range and — because we have lost the ability to exhale fully — we no longer have access to the full range and ease of our breath.

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Positive Emotional States and Emotional Suppression

Of course, changes in breathing are also associated with positive emotional states. When we feel free and expansive this tends to be reflected in the breath. It’s hard to imagine feeling joy and lightness while tightly holding or constricting our breathing! Enjoyable activities like laughing, singing, expressive communication of different kinds, making love etc. all require the freedom to breathe expansively in order to be fully experienced and enjoyed.

However, if at some time in our lives we have come to believe that it is shameful to fully feel things, or that we are ‘not allowed’ to express ourselves, or that there is something selfish or not quite right in fully enjoying ourselves, we may feel a need to block the body’s normal tendency to want to experience such states. One of the most effective ways to do this (which is usually unconscious) is to hold on to the breath. This has the effect of shutting down the body’s ability to express and feel. It creates a (false) feeling of safety by dulling the threatening feeling — though at the expense of an ability to express, feel fully alive, and to experience a sense of joy and freedom in life.

Patterns of Disturbance

Disturbed breathing patterns take different forms depending on their cause, and the history and habits which have lead to them. Here are some of the more common ones:

Chest breathing. As we have seen, we may ‘hold on’ with our belly, pelvic floor and diaphragm, so that breathing happens mostly high up with the ribcage. This may be associated people who don’t feel safe to be fully in touch with their basic feelings and energy (which are experienced mostly in the belly). This pattern can result in tension and pain in the shoulders and neck.

Collapsed breathing. This is a different form of chest breathing where the shoulder, neck and upper chest ‘collapse’ and pull downwards — draining energy, spontaneity and expression. It tends to be associated with feelings of depression, stuck-ness and unfulfilled needs.

Frozen breathing. This is often found in people who have been exposed to a lot of fear, and is characterised by the outer musculature of the torso contracting and squeezing so that breathing is almost immobilised.

Gasping or ‘grabbing’ the breath. This is is when we gasp for the next breath without allowing the natural pause at the end of the previous exhalation. This sort of breathing can sometimes indicate someone who is always in a hurry and striving for the next thing, who can’t ever relax and allow life to come to them.

‘Throttling’ the breath. This happens when we constrict our airway through muscular tension in the throat. This is often found in people who have difficulty expressing themselves, or speaking what is on their mind.

Returning to Balance

It’s probably clear from the above that for many of us breathing in a more free and natural way is not simply going to be a matter of trying to do it differently! The way we breathe is a complex reflection of who we are, the experiences we have had, and the physical habits which have arisen as a result. Fortunately, however, the human organism is immensely adaptable and able to change. In the final part of this series we will be looking at ways in which we can gently start to undo any tangles we have got into and allow the breath — and hence ourselves as a whole — to return to balance and wholeness.

You can find the final part in this series on breathing here >>

Letting Go of Stress: a Contradiction and a Misunderstanding.

Do you ever wish you could be less stressed, tense and internally ‘noisy’? Have you ever tried to de-stress and quieten yourself down but without much success? 

When we want to quieten down but find it difficult there are often two things which are getting in the way: the first is that there is a contradiction in the way we are setting about things which we may not be aware of. The second is that there is often a specific faulty belief about the situation which — even if we understand the contradiction — can stymy our best efforts to change.

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The Contradiction

Being caught in a feeling of stress and tension is a bit of a ‘double bind’. If your nervous system is in a buzzy, over-stimulated state (which for many of us is the case a lot of the time) then you tend to lose touch with your innate ability to stop. When an organism becomes over-stimulated it becomes excessively hooked into that function of the nervous system which is to do with ‘action’ — with instigating and initiating things. The nervous system has another, complementary function, which enables us to ‘stop’, withhold consent or refrain from acting — but when we are in a highly over-stimulated state it becomes much harder to access this.

Take a moment now to think about quietening down and notice the response to that idea. I’ll bet at some level (perhaps quite subtle) there is a feeling of effort or strain. We want to do something to quieten down — but that doing is in itself not quiet. Our contradiction is that we want to be quieter but because we are over-stimulated the only mode of action which seems to be open to us is to do more — to chase this quietness; and the chasing is in itself more noise.  Though we believe at some level that our efforts will help (or we wouldn’t do them) we are actually putting even more stress into our system.  This compulsive wish to do something to get the result we want is like an endless chain. Noticing that we are doing it we probably then want to do something else in response. And again in response to noticing that! 

So what is the way out of our conundrum? How can we be more present and quiet without the search itself causing internal effort, noise and stress? There is a clue in a very old Hindu practice called ‘net-neti’. Neti-neti is a Sanskrit phrase meaning ‘not this, not that’. It forms the basis of a form of meditation in which ultimate reality is seen as something entirely beyond our everyday experience. Being beyond what we know, this reality can only be sought indirectly by noticing everything that it is not. When all these other things have been removed (negated) then what is left is the thing we are seeking. 

At a more down to earth level, neti-neti can help us in our wish to quieten down because we have a similar problem to the meditator: we want to approach something (quietness) but the only tool it seems we have at our disposal (‘doing’, effort and trying) are the opposite of what we want. So we need to change our focus from chasing the desired result (i.e. a quiet nervous system) to simply noticing the responses inside us which are not quietness. As the philosopher Krishnamurti noted, when we really see what is going on, the seeing is itself intelligence and right action. Our actions are always a reflection of our understanding. As we begin to notice and understand that our search for quietness is, in fact, more noise, this greater understanding allied to a general intention or ‘wish’ to quieten down, is itself enough to start things changing. Furthermore, as our organism quietens down a little it has more and more access to that function of the nervous system which enables it to ‘stop’, or refrain from doing things. As we notice and understand our habitual, effortful responses it is easier and easier for our system to ‘not go there’. A virtuous cycle is established.

The Misunderstanding

So much for the contradiction. I also promised you a misunderstanding, and there is a big one which, even when we have understood the problem, can still catch us out. This is that we may not understand that an over-stimulated nervous system takes time to settle. We tend to think that change should work like a ‘switch’, when in fact it is often more like a process. The body-mind is a highly complex system of feedback loops, chemical reactions, tension responses, habits etc. Like an engine with a big flywheel all this complexity takes some time to slow down — even after we cut off the petrol! 

Our trouble is that another side effect of our over-stimulated state is that it tends to make us anxious for quick results to prove to ourselves that we are on the right track. In our eagerness we keep checking to see if things have quietened down yet, and then get despondent because it is not happening. But often the problem is that we simply don’t understand that it takes a little time. It may take some days or weeks to allow an over-stimulated organism to calm down. Rather than chasing instant change ‘in the moment’ we need to see ourselves as engaging in a wise process in which we are allowing our bodies and minds to gradually grow in understanding and quieten down in their own time. 

What else can help?

Having a few sessions with an Alexander teacher is a powerful way to help ‘kick start’ this process of quietening the nervous system. The teacher is able to use their presence and touch to help your own system to quieten down. This can really help you to become aware of your responses and can help nudge you out of the cycle of doing and effort that keeps you caught in the trap. As you proceed, a teacher can help keep you on track, and offer guidance to avoid the pitfalls along the way….

On wanting to be different by staying the same.

Whenever we have a problem or symptom our immediate feeling is usually that we would simply like it to stop. Even if we are conscious that there are things we are doing which are contributing to it, a lot of the time what we really hope for—deep down—is that there is something we can do to make it go away so that we can carry on just as we were before. In other words we want to change so long as we don’t have to be different! That’s understandable, but unfortunately things are rarely that simple—we are wholes, and all the parts and aspects of us are linked and work together. A specific problem is often a surface manifestation of a much bigger pattern. Even if we get rid of the symptom that is bothering us, the fundamental cause will still be there and will eventually cause the problem to recur, or a different one to appear in its place.

It’s human nature that when people come to Alexander lessons often part of them is determined to hang on to the way of being which is at the root of the symptoms which have brought them there. We love what is familiar and hate to let it go because it feels safe. “I will do anything”, they think, “so long as it does not involve giving up my favourite habit.” 

I once had a pupil who was a very ‘driven’ type of person. He came to have lessons after many years of working his way up the corporate ladder and was feeling stressed and overwhelmed; in addition his hands had started to hurt from typing and he was worried they would get so bad he wouldn’t be able to do his job anymore. As a result of his worry he was having trouble sleeping. I worked with him lying down for a bit and suggested that, at least during the lesson, he stopped trying to get things right or to achieve anything at all and that he just allow things to quieten down. We carried on in silence for a little while. “How do you feel?”, I asked after some twenty minutes had passed. He looked surprised: “Really good! I feel quite different, calmer and relaxed”. And it was true: a quality of peace and quiet awareness had entered the room.

But then this energy changed. He started to ask for concrete things to do once he had left the lesson—he wanted to know what he could busy himself with to hang on to the lovely feeling of relaxation. I suggested that this desire to be busy and occupied with things to do all the time was a big part of the reason why he was so stressed and tense, and that since overdoing things was one reason he was there, maybe just to be gently thinking about doing less and letting go a little would be a good place to start. But his lifelong habit was to address any problem by frenetic activity. He wanted something to do, whereas what he actually most needed in order to solve his problem was to STOP. But any approach to solving a problem that did not involve busy activity felt wrong to him, and because his problem had become so distressing, doing what felt wrong in relation to it was a frightening thought. 

We talked about this over several sessions but it was some time before he was willing to really try out what I was suggesting. Gradually he came to realise that his approach was self-contradictory. He wanted to relax by doing more and this doesn’t make sense! In time he found that the world didn’t end when he was able to let go of his need to be busy and in control at all times. He also found to his surprise that as he became more centred and relaxed in himself he achieved more, not less. 

A lot of the time when we are compulsively busy we are not accomplishing nearly as much as it feels that we are. Paradoxically as we do less of this we find that there is now more mental space (and more physical support from the body) to dedicate to achieving what we want. We also find that the habit which we felt was such a central part of ourselves is not really part of our core self at all, but is just something which we learned a long time ago and have since hung onto. Letting go of it we feel more like the person we really are.

So the bad news is that sometimes we really do need to let go of something we are attached to if we want to get rid of our symptoms. The good news is that letting go will benefit us in surprising and unexpected ways. It involves a shift in how we act in the world—and it’s absolutely worth it!

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