The Dynamics of Response

Michael Sky, from Breathing: Expanding Your Power and Energy

Feelings derive from energy, and our capacity for feeling develops as a function of energy flow. Our breathing provides a primary source of energy, and our manner of breathing influences the flow of energies.

This interrelationship between breath, energy, and feelings proves fundamental to the way in which we experience ourselves and to our powers of creation. Learning to unleash the full creative force of our feelings through breathing turns the key to a healthy and fulfilling life. Unfortunately, we typically learn to do precisely the opposite.

Remember how you breathe when very sad but trying hard not to cry. You will constrict your breathing, making it very shallow and preventing movement in your upper chest especially. You will also attempt to hold your lips tightly together, cutting off the flow of air along with any expression of sadness, though others may be able to detect a quivering in your chin.

Now remember how you breathe when trying hard not to get angry at someone you love. Again, a tightly controlled and contracted breath; usually along with a knot of tension in the solar plexus, tight bands of contracted muscle along the shoulders and neck, a clenched jaw, and a stiffened brow. Tense yourself in this way when feeling good, and then try to breathe. You cannot even approximate a good, free flow of breath once you have become so contracted.

Now remember how you breathe when trying hard not to laugh at an inappropriate moment. Yet more tightened muscles and stifled breath. And remember sitting through a tension-packed horror film. Or anticipating bad news at the doctor’s office. Or sitting in a dentist’s chair. Or late, and stuck in rush hour traffic. Or watching the final moments of a nail-biting sporting event. Or attempting to suppress sexual excitement.

Once we begin to pay attention to our breath, and especially during moments of strong emotion, we notice that we stop and contract the free flow of breath [all the time]—that, in fact, tightening the body and constricting the breath occurs as the most basic and automatic of human reactions to aroused feelings.

We do it because it works as an effective short-term strategy for dealing with unwanted feelings. Feelings derive from energy, and energy flows through breath. When in the midst of feelings we do not want to experience, we can stop feeling by stopping the movement of energy—by stopping the breath. Anytime we constrict our breath even slightly, we diminish the movement of energy throughout all levels of self. When we “turn down” the volume of energy, we also turn off our awareness of feeling.

Let’s return to the traumatic event. Faced with an urgently unwanted experience, we contract on all levels away from the event. We constrict our breathing and withdraw energetically, literally making ourselves as small as possible and reducing our vulnerability. We also reduce our present-time ability to feel the pain of the moment. This natural psychophysical reaction thus both protects us, somewhat, from further harm, while also relieving us, somewhat, from painful feelings.

Temporarily stopping such painful feelings, however, does nothing to heal the injuries that caused them. If we suppress our breathing until the event has ended, the pain has subsided, and we have gratefully begun to forget the injury, then we have only [suppressed] the pain—we have not resolved it. We will still carry it within as a contracted energy scar—an “energy becoming mass” wound in our emotional body.

When we fail to resolve such contractions—by breathing deeply, allowing our energies to expand, consciously feeling the injury, and opening to the necessary healing—then we carry the contraction as a part of ourselves, quite possibly forever.

These contracted energy patterns affect us on all levels. They can manifest as mental neurosis or physical disease. They become interfering influences in all of our relationships. They define our perception of the world and greatly limit our possibilities.

Furthermore, they forever retain, as contracted energy, the original unresolved feelings. Since breathing deeply and fully will always put us in touch with such unresolved feelings, we instinctively develop shallow, contracted breathing as a continuing condition in our lives. We learn to stay away—as breath, as energy—from these old hurts. When a present-time event in any way reminds us of an earlier, unresolved hurt, then we immediately and habitually contract, breathing less, thus adding injury to injury.

Since breath is life, this short-term solution to unwanted feelings amounts to slow suicide—an unconscious, moment-to-moment choice to feel less and to be less than fully alive.

The Formation of Primary Patterns

We learn to breathe at birth. Those present—doctors, nurses, parents, and friends—teach us how to breathe, though they rarely understand that they are doing so. Because birth unfolds as such a powerfully challenging event, bursting with emotional energy, the quality of our breathing lessons has great impact: we have passed through our first experience of stress, we have survived it, and within the first hour of life we have established a fundamental relationship among energy, breath, and feeling.

Under the very best of circumstances, birth is an intensely traumatic event. We have spent nine months in a warm and watery heaven, only to feel quite suddenly thrust into an alien world. The womb that so wonderfully held and nurtured us turns into our attacker. We become forced into a long, arduous, and terrifying labor—an absolute struggle for survival. Our bodies undergo extraordinary pain from wave after wave of crushing contraction. Our psyches experience equally extraordinary pain: we have been violently separated from all we have known, cut off from the source, and, truly, driven from the garden.

Little in our adult lives can even remotely compare to this primal ordeal ([giving] birth probably comes closest—or, going off to war). For most of us, birth marks the nearest we will ever come to dying until the actual moment of our death. Furthermore, it may become the greatest test of our lives—the most challenging set of circumstances we will ever encounter—and the answers we find during such a test will naturally serve as our answers in all future tests; the lessons acquired at birth will become the foundations of our lifestyles and philosophies.

Though obviously preverbal and physically undeveloped, as infants we nonetheless possess great mental and emotional faculties. We see, hear, touch, taste, and smell; we form beliefs about the world based on our experiences; we develop attitudes and preferences; we learn to trust and not trust, to fear and not fear, to love and not love. We have an acute awareness of the world around us, we feel positively and negatively affected by the prevailing qualities of our world, and we grow as unique human beings according to the nature of our experiences.

Western science gives a totally different understanding of birth. It thinks of the fetus/newborn as [pre]conscious and therefore unaffected, in any lasting way, by the circumstances of birth. Because an infant’s brain has not yet fully developed, many scientists reason that the human faculties of consciousness, emotion, memory, understanding, and learning have likewise yet to develop. In an astonishingly profound misunderstanding, they have looked at the newborn and concluded that [there is no one there]!

The human infant: body, but not a person; pain, but not emotion; experience, but not memory; and awareness, but not learning.

Tragically, it follows that it does not really matter how you treat such a creature, so long as you tend to her (or his) bodily survival. Since she has not yet developed into a fully conscious being, she will not take offense nor draw any conclusions from your behavior.

However, a body of research has begun to substantiate what any mother already [[knows]: that the newborn is conscious, intelligent, responsive, and impressionable. Indeed, if anything, we should view the newborn as [hyper]conscious—she has greater conscious awareness of the world in the first few hours of life than she shall likely have at any later time. While she will gradually develop unconscious mechanisms for screening out the vast quantities of sensory input that life imposes—she must do this to survive, to avoid sensory overload—as a baby she remains wide open, totally receptive, and taking the whole world in through all of her senses.

Consequently, the newborn [will] suffer, as surely and meaningfully as any adult will suffer; she will respond to her suffering, like any adult, with the best of her capabilities; and she will learn and grow from such painful (and pleasurable) events—past experiences will influence her present responses and future behavior.

The newborn will obviously experience some bad, unpleasant, and thoroughly unwanted events. However, she has a limited range of responses to such events: she cannot run, fight, verbally reason or intelligibly complain, or move to effectively alter a situation. Faced with a painful event, and unable to take effective action, she does the only thing she can: she constricts her breathing and contracts, [as energy], away from the source of the pain. She pulls herself in—physically, mentally, emotionally, and energetically—disconnecting from the cause of her suffering and powerfully withdrawing from the hurtful world.

For just a moment, picture an emotionally suffering infant, her contraction obvious and easily felt. Though she may burst into crying—as a way of breathing fully, releasing the painfully pent-up energy, and demanding adult attention and assistance—she contracts away from the pain first. And while crying will often fully resolve the suffering—the energy releases and an adult addresses the problem—on too many occasions crying will not work and, indeed, will only make things worse, intensifying the pain and contraction.

Understand that, [for the infant], contraction of breath/energy in the presence of pain occurs as a healthy, innate, and intelligent response—right and proper and critical to the infant’s survival. It makes sense. And, given grown-ups who understand the dynamics of energetic response and know ways to encourage the relaxation and resolution of contracted energies, she will pass through her suffering well, while learning/growing in a healthy way into the future.

When she fails to receive such nurturing, especially after an extremely traumatic and/or often repeated injury, then she will retain the contracted energy as a part of her experience. This fixed contraction of energy will affect her on all levels—as physical tension, as mental neurosis, and as emotional dysfunction. It will become a vital piece of her personality and a primary pattern through which she experiences the world and organizes her responses to future events.

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