Three Deep Breaths: Finding Power and Purpose in a Stressed-Out World

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9781576756300: Three Deep Breaths: Finding Power and Purpose in a Stressed-Out World
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Does life have you feeling stressed out, anxious, or filled with conflict? Three Deep Breaths will help you achieve calm in the midst of chaos and transform all that stress into positive energy. You’ll find a relatable hero in Angus, a harried worker struggling to achieve that ever-elusive work/life balance, whose story illustrates this deceptively simple, extraordinarily effective technique in action.

This technique takes just minutes and can be practiced just about anywhere—while you’re driving to an appointment, commuting to work, walking to a meeting, or sitting at your desk—but it will have a profound effect on every aspect of your life. It will help you transform even the toughest situations from stressful to energizing, from anxious to centering, and from worrying to inspiring. Practice it regularly and you’ll achieve the calmness and presence of an aligned, centered state of being.

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About the Author:

Thomas Crum is a popular corporate speaker and is the president of Aiki Works, Inc. His clients include Sony, Disney, Nestle, the United States Air Force, Kaiser Permanente, Washington Mutual, Raytheon, and many others. Tom is also an Aikido master and uses many of the techniques and knowledge from this sophisticated art in his work with clients.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The First Breath

Hanford Park was unusually empty on this crisp fall morning. They left the car and Angus followed the old man to a little opening among some aspen trees, adjacent to a pond where ducks happily paddled about before they headed south for the winter.

“I am a small, elderly man, wouldn’t you say?”

Before Angus could answer, the old man continued, “And you’re a big strong guy. I want you to lift me up off the ground.”

Now what have I gotten into? worried Angus, checking around anxiously to see if there were any observers.

“Use your legs so you don’t hurt yourself and lift me up.”

Angus glanced at his watch. What possessed me to listen to this guy?

Angus was a good six inches taller and seventy pounds heavier than the old man. He put his hands under the old man’s arms and easily lifted him a foot off the ground.

“Thank you. Now place me back down.”

Angus did as he was instructed, wondering about the sanity of the little man.

“I was right. You’re very strong! Now I’m not going to change anything physically, and I don’t want you to change how you lift. Simply pick me up again.”

Annoyed, Angus repeated his procedures. This time, to his amazement, he couldn’t budge the old man. It was like trying to pick up the front of the old Chevy. Or pulling up one of the aspen trees. It would have been ludicrous to continue trying. This little man had suddenly become like a mountain.

Flustered and challenged, Angus’s competitive instinct took over.

“I wasn’t focused,” asserted Angus. “Let me try that again.”

Angus lifted. Nothing moved.

After a third try, Angus felt his frustration change to curiosity. He nervously looked around the park to make sure he was anchored to reality.

“What happened?” Angus was confused.

“I got centered,” the old man said, as if it were a natural thing.

“I don’t know what that is, but you felt twice as heavy.”

The old man laughed. “Did you see me pour a slab of concrete down my pants? Centering is not about weight. It’s about relationship. If I am separate from this earth, I’m easily lifted off of it. If I am connected to it, ah, then it is the whole earth you have to move.”

Angus wondered who had dropped the hallucinogens in his coffee that morning.

“Now, stand with your feet about shoulder width apart. Look straight ahead.” The old man lightly placed his hand on Angus’s chest, and gently pushed. Angus wobbled backwards.

“This is how people are most of the time. Wobbly, at the effect of every little pressure, every little stress, with no center. Right now, you have no center.”

“How do I get one?” asked Angus, his cynicism melting into sincerity.

“It’s a journey,” the old man responded. “It starts in a very natural place: with your breathing.”

“My breathing?”

“Yes. See if you can relax and simply notice your breathing. Put your hands on your belly. Now watch and feel this area. You will notice it is vitally alive! In your natural state you will be breathing deeply from this area. On inhalation your belly will expand outwards. On exhalation the belly will recede toward the spine.”

Angus focused on his belly. Yes, it seemed to be moving. But his mind kept thinking about it rather than feeling it.

“I’m not sure I’m getting it.”

“This is a common difficulty. Most people breathe shallowly from the chest. Simply notice the process without trying to do anything. It’s like watching the ebb and flow of gentle waves on a beach. Try breathing through your nose. It will slow and deepen your breath. It might also help if you listen and follow the internal sound made as you breathe.”

After a few breaths, Angus began to relax and pay full attention to his breath without hurrying.

“I think I’m getting it. But I’m not sure what ‘it’ is.”

Angus couldn’t imagine that simply breathing this way could be so fulfilling. However, he was aware that he rarely breathed this way, deep and full.

The old man smiled.

“That is the beginning of your Centering Breath. When you do deep, centered breathing, breathing with awareness, you will bring vital oxygen to every part of your lungs, particularly the lower lobes of the lungs where the oxygen-to-blood transfer is most efficient. You bring balance and health to your entire nervous system. Continue for another minute or so, with full attention to this Centering Breath.”

After a few moments, Angus became acutely aware of his surroundings.

“Have those ducks been quacking since we got here?”

The old man smiled. “I can see by that question that you’re understanding more about this Centering Breath. It’s not just physical, not just relaxing and balancing the body. It’s also mental, bringing you greater awareness and mindfulness. You are becoming more present.

“Look at those aspen trees. Listen to the ducks. Feel this gentle breeze. Nature is presenting you the gift of its beauty. Breathe all of this in—the oxygen and the experience—all the way to your center.”

As he was saying this, he was lightly applying more pressure to Angus’s chest, but this time, Angus was balanced.

“This is the amount of pressure that made you wobble the first time.”

“No way!” Angus felt like a mountain. “I hardly feel any pressure now! Why? What am I doing?”

“You are becoming centered!” The old man let out another hearty laugh. “You don’t feel the pressure when you are centered. Now take whatever it is you were doing or experiencing—a feeling, an image, a sound—and capture it. Increase it. If it’s a picture, have it become more colorful and vivid. If it’s a feeling, deepen it. If it’s a sound, let it resonate at a higher quality. Simply intend, consciously choose, a more centered state.”

Angus clearly felt more stable than he had for some time, but his doubt overruled him. It can’t be this easy, can it?

“When you are ready, indicate with your hand and I will apply more pressure. I will apply it only gradually.”

Tentatively at first, Angus began to wave in more pressure. Within seconds the old man announced, “Now I’m giving you twice as much pressure. Now it’s three times. Now at least five times!”

Angus was not aware of the increase in pressure. He was too absorbed by the state of calm and presence that he felt. Moreover, he recognized that this feeling was not entirely new. It had occurred many times, in the simplest of moments, throughout his life. Simple images flooded back: he was a young child running through the shallow waves at the beach, or a young adult lying in a sleeping bag watching the Earth turn through the infinite starry canopy above. In those moments of mindfulness, as in this one, his analytical racing mind was less in the forefront of his consciousness, leaving his awareness clearer so the world could appear in the present moment, as it really is, fresh and vibrant. He was captivated by the revelation that he was an integral part of the world, not separate from it.

Centering Is a Journey
That Starts with Breathing

Finally, Angus said softly, “This is hard to believe. And all I’m doing is breathing deeply with awareness and looking at ducks.”

The old man laughed again. His laughter didn’t come superficially. It came from somewhere deep, an openhearted, open-minded laugh, and the ducks and the aspen trees seemed to laugh with him. For the first time in a long time Angus felt relaxed and calm. The deep, full, deliberate breathing was surprisingly enjoyable.

After a while, the old man continued.

“Watch that cat sneaking up on that duck over there.”

Angus looked toward the pond, where a large cat was crouched twenty yards away from the duck resting in the grass.

“The duck and the cat, like all of us, are blessed with autonomic nervous systems, involuntary systems that keep the heart beating, the lungs breathing, the stomach digesting. The autonomic nervous system is made up of two complementary systems. One is the ‘fight-or-flight’ system and the other is the ‘rest-and-digest’ system.”

Suddenly the cat leaped into action—from total stillness to startling speed and power. Almost simultaneously, the young duck exploded from complete relaxation into a full sprint, running and flapping its wings furiously, barely making it to the pond, short a few feathers.

“A perfect example of the fight-or-flight system in action!” noted the old man. “It took hundreds upon hundreds of biochemical and neurological reactions to give them the endurance, strength, and power necessary to fight or flee. But look now.”

Angus observed the duck peacefully paddling about while the cat lounged under a tree.

“Now, the rest-and-digest system is turned on to rebuild and rejuvenate. When one nervous system is turned on, the other starts shutting down. Full recovery is possible.”

Angus nodded toward the road where they had met earlier and snarled, “It’s just the opposite with the madness over there.”

They watched the commuters in rush-hour traffic.

“You’re right, Angus. Some are late for work or consumed by negative thoughts and worries. They get fixated on some fear or imagined catastrophe, and at least metaphorically they think that their lives are at risk. They speak to their bodies in dire language like ‘I’m finished’ or ‘it’s all over’ or worse. The part of the human brain that is the headquarters of the autonomic nervous system has not evolved enough to make a distinction between death by saber tooth tiger and death by imaginary thoughts. So on goes the red alert switch—the fight-or-flight syndrome. Perspiration flows, eyes dilate, the sphincter and anus lock (which is a good thing!), the heart starts beating fast and hormones flood into the bloodstream preparing for the fight or flight. And the commuters just sit there! Hey! It’s useless to leap out of your car and bite the fender of the truck in front of you. And yet that is what the fight-or-flight nervous system is preparing you to do.”

“Is that why I get neurotic and a whole bunch of red flags on my blood test, while the animals over there by the pond don’t? Because I don’t get to burn off the chemicals in the fight or the flight?” Angus asked.

“That’s only part of the answer. Let’s say that despite all your rush-hour negative thoughts and distress, a miracle happens. When you get to your workplace, you find that everything is okay. You sit down at your desk and technically you could relax. The rest-and-digest system would get turned on, and it would rebuild and restore all of those chemicals released into the system. But the problem is that you don’t relax, do you?”

“Heck, no. I’m only in the office for a few minutes before I get some call from a major client canceling her contract.”

“Red alert!” smiled the old man.

“And then, just when you reconcile that, you get a memo from headquarters saying there is a company-wide layoff ahead.”

“Red alert!” chuckled the old man. “And maybe you get through all of that mess successfully and can go home to relax. But you find yourself right back in rush-hour traffic. Red alert.”

“Yeah, and then I finally make it home and there’s spam in my mailbox, my daughter’s sound asleep, and my wife has a headache! Red alert! Red alert! Red alert!”

“You got it. So what’s the real problem? It’s not the stress. Stress just is. Stress occurs when a significant change happens—mentally, physically, environmentally. It’s part of our daily life—a river of change. The problem is that people today lack balance between the fight-or-flight system and the rest-and-digest system. We are on red alert far too much of the time.”

“That’s where centering comes in,” the old man continued, with riveting intensity. “The autonomic nervous system is, for the most part, involuntary, meaning that it operates without your conscious involvement. For instance, it is difficult to consciously lower your blood pressure or immediately control your perspiration. But breathing is both involuntary and voluntary. Therefore, choosing deep centered breathing is one of the most powerful ways in which everyone can consciously and easily affect the autonomic nervous system. This centering provides you with a conscious choice. Deep centered breathing enables you to respond appropriately and mindfully, rather than react in a knee-jerk fight-or-flight manner when life doesn’t go the way you want it to. Whenever you use this Centering Breath you bring balance and healing back.

“Now let’s get you back to work.”

Work! Angus marveled at the thought.

“This is the first time work hasn’t preoccupied my mind and made me crazy since I woke up this morning,” he said.

The old man put a hand on his shoulder and looked at him with compassion. “Work doesn’t make you crazy. You choose that state.”

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