Just Breathe

My friend Kari has been on a journey with her breath, and she has graciously allowed me to share some of our recent conversation about this journey. As a result of practicing yoga and going through massage therapy school, Kari has become more aware of her own breathing.

Breathing is unique among the bodily functions – it is both an involuntary and voluntary action. Without thinking about it, you can go on breathing, yet, if you think about it, you can change how you breathe, or stop breathing altogether.

Kari started noticing times when she was involuntarily holding her breath, and, as she remained attentive to this, she realized it happened when she was anxious or fearful about something. As she named her emotions and intentionally resumed breathing when she realized she had stopped, something else started to happen. She began finding it harder to breathe during the rest of her day. It was as if holding her breath had been her unconscious way of compartmentalizing her fear and anxiety into little segments. Now that she was overcoming that compartmentalizing tendency, those emotions were released into the rest of her life, affecting how she breathed overall.

Kari’s journey is such a powerful witness to how, if we attend to our bodies – even to something so mundane as breathing –, we can begin to recognize patterns and tap into a deeper flow of signals that reveal glimpses of our true state of being. We can also begin to work in the other direction – working through our bodies to affect change at those deeper levels.

As Kari’s story shows, breathing intentionally is a powerful way to do this. In yoga, which I taught for a period, I reminded people to keep breathing during challenging poses. The tendency to hold our breath when things get difficult seems to be universal. Ironically, it makes us less capable of handling the challenge, because we are not nourishing the body with the oxygen it needs.

Yoga instructors also teach people to take deep, full breaths through the nostrils and slow exhalations from the very pit of the lungs. When pressing deeper into a stretch, I told people to release the stretch slightly during an inhale and then go in a little deeper during the exhale. By working in tandem with the breath, we are able to access places – physically and perhaps also emotionally – that were previously inaccessible.

I never quite understood how this worked on a physical level until recently, when getting acupuncture at a local clinic. The acupuncturist asked me if I wanted to “work with my breath” while getting needled (weird phrase, I know!). She explained to me that for a split second during an exhale, your muscles release. If you insert during that involuntary release, it can ease any pain from the needle.

As Kari and I talked about the breath, we struck upon an interesting little paradox. The word “spirit” originates from the Latin word spiritus (soul, courage, vigor, breath) and spirare (to breathe).[1] Thus, our definition of the spirit is very much rooted in the embodied action of breathing. You can see this more clearly in the book of Genesis, where God breathes into Adam’s and Eve’s bodies of dust to in-spire them with life. C.S. Lewis also takes up this imagery in The Chronicles of Narnia. When Aslan, the majestic lion, breathes onto the children in those sharp, short moments of encounter, they somehow feel stronger, braver, more themselves. The impartation of life, in both cases, comes through the very physical, very bodily medium of the breath.

Yet, in contemporary thought, we usually think of the spirit as dis-embodied. The connection between body and spirit has somehow been severed.

Perhaps we need to re-attend to our breath and our bodies in order to gain a fuller understanding of our spirit. I love what a teacher of mine, Fr. Stephen Gauthier, repeats to us faithfully, “Your every breath is a testament to God’s confidence in you. Whenever you feel discouraged and purposeless, remember that you are still breathing. It means God still has a reason for you being on earth.”

(To hear a lovely song about breathing, get a free download of Bonnie and Trevor McMaken’s worship song “Breathing with Both Lungs Open” from their album In Wilderness and Glory.)  


[1] Online Etymological Dictionary, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=spirit


Broken Wholeness

For some people, wholeness means being complete and put together. For others, wholeness equals perfection. Parker Palmer, a respected educator and life guide, speaks these words which challenge my idea of wholeness:  “Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.”[1]

Paradoxical, isn’t it? When I picture wholeness, I often think of it as a state of having nothing wrong with you, no life messes to deal with, your internal landscape swept clean. But Palmer’s definition allows for messes. In fact, he embraces them as a space for new growth. How can wholeness and brokenness exist together, even complement each other, in the space of one person?

We can understand this paradox when we read further on in Palmer’s writings. Palmer understands wholeness as living a life of integrity. This isn’t just living up to ethical standards – it’s much deeper than that. It means embracing the truth of your deepest self, being fully yourself in a world where it’s much easier and safer to wear a mask and play a role. But living this kind of divided life slowly saps away our passion for living and cheats the world of the gift of our selves.

So what does this have to do with brokenness? As I reflect on this question personally, I realize that brokenness is a part of who I am. In the past couple of years, I have come up time and again against the sense of being incomplete, of missing out on some important part of life. In particular, this is related to some chronic ankle pain which has kept me from fully engaging in some of my most beloved activities – dancing, taking long strolls with my husband, hiking in the woods. The fact that I am a broken, fragile, very vulnerable person/body has been unbearably intense at times.

By God’s grace, the weight of that realization has lightened and I have also made some progress toward physical and emotional healing. But this painful period of my life has left some scars – literally and figuratively. I can’t really go back to the person I was before. And while in some ways that person seemed more whole (i.e. less broken) than the person I am now, when I let the truth of Parker Palmer’s words sink in, I begin to see that, in reality, the person I was then wasn’t any more whole than the person I am now. And wholeness won’t come from wishing myself back to an earlier, simpler time.

Wholeness will emerge as I embrace my brokenness and my scars and let the truth of who I am – scars and all – speak out. I trust that offering up my broken wholeness to the world will be more life-giving and substantial than striving for a “perfect” wholeness that doesn’t exist.

Let me end with a word from Brother Roger of Taizé: “When trials arise within you or misunderstandings arrive from without, never forget that in the same wound where the pangs of anxiety are seething, creative forces are also being born. And a way opens up that leads from doubt toward trusting, from dryness to a creation.”[2]

[1] A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life (2004, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, p. 5).

[2] The Sources of Taizé (2000, GIA Publications).

It’s Normal to Be Abnormal

A friend who also experiences chronic pain recently shared with me her discouragement when people tell her, “You’re too young to have these issues!” I know how she feels. Although I appreciate people’s care and concern, telling me that I’m too young to have health issues implies that what I am experiencing is abnormal. “Normal” young people shouldn’t have health issues. I disagree.  I think it’s time we all embrace our abnormality.

Having a “norm” or an “ideal” is not always a bad thing. The Bible obviously sets out values and role models – “ideals” that we ought to model our lives after. But are Biblical values really informing our ideas of what is a “normal body?” Or are these norms coming from elsewhere?

In actuality, the Western medical model is one key source from which we measure what is normal for our bodies. Western medicine identifies illnesses, disabilities, and pain as symptoms of dysfunction, thus categorizing these conditions as “abnormal.” Western medicine quantifies bodily symptoms against measurable standards. Your blood pressure, weight, flexibility, platelet count, etc. should all be within a certain range, otherwise there is something wrong. This logic seems natural, but if we take a step back outside of our Western-centric view, we see that there are other ways of thinking about the body.

Chinese medicine, for example, views the body as a constant interplay of Yin and Yang forces. One writer describes the balance which Chinese doctors seek as “a dynamic equilibrium that is appropriate and specifically possible in the particular circumstance and development phase of a person’s life. There is no standard or absolute – what is health for one person may be sickness in another. There is no notion of ‘normal’ Yin-Yang – only the unique challenges and possibilities of each human life.”[1] In other words, Chinese medicine takes a contextual approach to health; it does not measure individuals against an outside standard.

Deborah Beth Creamer, a theologian and disability scholar, provides yet another perspective with her “limits model” for understanding bodies, disability, and health.[2]  Creamer’s model arose out of reflection about what disability can tell us about the human condition and about God. If we take a Western medical approach and label disability as a simply a deviation from “normal” bodily functions, then we are effectively closing off any opportunity to learn from the experience of disability.

But disability can teach us a lot about ourselves and about God. As Creamer explains, disability reveals the limitedness and dependency of all human beings, physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. In her model, she asserts that limits are 1) unsurprising characteristics of humanity, 2) an intrinsic aspect of the human experience, and 3) good, not evil.

Seen from the “limits” perspective, disability, illness, and pain are not “abnormal” but a normal part of life. The experiences themselves may not be good, but the fact that we have limits, that our bodies are sensitive and react to negative inputs, and that we cannot push our bodies to do everything we wish they could is definitely good. All of these things are part of being human.

Furthermore, suffering – physical and otherwise –  is totally within the Biblical norm – Jesus predicted it for his followers and the early Church was born out of it. This is not to say that we should go out and seek suffering, but, if it comes, we should not be surprised.

Likewise, when our bodies exhibit pain, illness, and limitation, we should not be surprised. Instead of thinking that the health issues we encounter are abnormal and lamenting them, perhaps we should take a moment to reflect on our shared human limitations, realize our dependency on God, and thank him for the ways he sustains our lives and bodies.

[1] Ted Kaptchuk, The Web That Has No Weaver (2000, Contemporary Books, p. 19).

[2] Debora Beth Creamer, Disability and Christian Theology (2010, New York: Oxford University Press).

Fellowship Without Words

What does your idea of church fellowship look like? Gathering around a living room for a Bible study? Munching on cookies and sipping coffee after the service? I was privileged at one of my former churches, Bridgeway Community Church, to facilitate a different kind of church fellowship – a fellowship without words.

I had the idea after being inspired by a couple workshops on my college campus – one sponsored by the dance group and the other held by a communications class of women exploring issues of embodiment. What if I could help people in my church to communicate with their bodies – not just with their minds and with words? How would that change the nature of our communion with each other?

This was not intentional, but the timing of our church’s “body workshop” coincided with what would turn out to be the last few weeks of our official fellowship with each other – we had been through a season of painful church issues and now the leadership had discerned that the wisest and most gracious response was to release the congregation from their commitment and dissolve the church.

In the midst of this jarring news, a group of us gathered in the gym of the community center (where our church met) to process, express our pain, and be with each other. As a preface, let me first explain that I had already led some dance workshops for some of us in the past few months, so we had already had a chance to get comfortable within this space of exploration and bodily awareness. I’m not sure we would have had the same level of openness if we hadn’t already been sharing these spaces with each other previously.

In the workshop, we moved through a series of activities designed to facilitate bodily connection and empathy. In one, I asked the group to sit together in pairs, and then, with eyes closed and without words, to take the other person’s hands and take turns showing how they felt using their hands. Obviously, if you can’t see the other person’s hands, you just have to feel them and touch them. This initiates a different level of interaction, one where you are listening with your body, with the cells in your body, with your skin, not just with your eyes and your ears.

In another activity, we gathered in small groups and mimed. Responding to the non-verbal cues of others, we shrugged our shoulders, furrowed our brows, threw up our hands, and created a generous space for receiving each others’ bodies and bodily reactions. I liked this exercise especially because I realized how sensitive we are to another’s facial expressions. When I frowned, other people followed, and when others broke out into a grin, I couldn’t help but do the same. So much is communicated and received through these minute changes in our facial muscles.

Another memorable activity was body sculpting. No, not lifting weights and toning our gluts. What we did was have a couple people be the sculptors and another person be the sculpted. The sculpted person stood limp while the others moved their limbs, head, fingers and torso, and, in essence, sculpted them into a new position. If I remember correctly, I asked the sculptors to express their response to our church break-up through their sculpture. The results of this activity are similar to what my friend Pam, a massage therapist and counselor, describes when she talks about bodywork – “One powerful opportunity that bodywork affords is the opportunity to experience myself in ways that are different than my own self-generated limitations – and physical often translates into emotional and spiritual realms.” To read Pam’s full blog post on this, click here.

In other words, in allowing ourselves to be “sculpted,” we opened ourselves to be moved, not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually. We allowed our bodies to receive the input of other people and allowed that input to add to our own experience of reality.

Our church body workshop was a powerful time and space of fellowship. The weight and potential of what we were doing struck me in a comment from one of the woman participants, who remarked afterward, “What if we had created spaces like this for expressing our frustration and working through our church issues from the beginning? Maybe we wouldn’t have reached the point of needing to break up the church.”

What if? What if the body of Christ learned to communicate not just with proclamations and doctrinal statements? What if we allowed ourselves to be physically vulnerable, allowed ourselves to be moved? How would that change our fellowship, our service, our witness to the world?

Lopsided People: Somatizing and Spiritualizing

On the website of “Can,” a documentary about a Vietnamese war refugee who struggled with bipolar disorder, I came across an intriguing statement, “Asian Americans frequently somatize their problems,preferring to go to their primary care physician rather than seek help from a mental health clinician.”[1]  This statement rings true for my own family experience.

Growing up, I was never encouraged to give voice to my emotions. My parents and I kept our inner lives to ourselves and I learned to keep any internal distress under wraps, so much so that my friends always joke about my “poker face” and that I am “hard to read.” I never before linked my family’s emotion-suppressing patterns to other things, but as I read about mental health issues among Asian Americans and the tendency to “somatize” mental and emotional problems, other family patterns began to make sense.

My family, like a lot of Chinese families, is hyper-sensitive about our bodily health. My mom always likes to tell me, “Your health is the most important thing you possess. Without it, you cannot do anything else in life.” This is true to some extent, but sometimes this mantra can be carried to the extreme. If we think physical health is our most important possession, we can put so much energy into cultivating this one aspect of our being that we neglect other crucial parts of ourselves – like our emotions and our spirits.

Eventually, like the sadly true statement I read on the website, we can forget that other non-physical parts of our being even exist. We begin to think that only the material exists, thus going to a physician for an issue that also requires the care of a psychologist or pastor.

But this issue of emphasizing one part of our being to the neglect of others can also happen in another way, through spiritualizing physical issues. I experienced an instance of this last year when we visited a church and I went up to receive prayer after the service. I told the woman praying with me about the pain in my ankle and my desire for full healing. After a few minutes of prayer, she paused and asked me, “Do you have any unforgiveness in your life?”

I am totally in agreement with the idea that sin and spiritual clutter can result in physical symptoms. I am still in the process of letting God use my physical discomfort to alert me to larger issues in my life. However, the subtle message I received from this woman’s question, in the context of the rest of the church service, was that people who are spiritually pure should have victory over physical problems. If you have some ongoing ailment, most likely you just haven’t let God into your life enough, or you haven’t let go of something that you should.

This type of reasoning may be true in some cases. But I don’t believe we can say there is a direct proportional relationship between spiritual health and physical health. Carried to the extreme, this logic mutates into the “health and wealth” gospels that mislead so many.

Both somatizing and spiritualizing are pitfalls of over-emphasizing one aspect of our beings to the neglect of other aspects. Though God created us as whole beings, with integration of body, mind, and spirit, we often see ourselves as if through the lens of a carnival mirror, with one part way too large and other parts way too small.