Breathing as a Way of Life — Part 1

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
Winsights No. 28 (April 1999)

Many years ago, when I was still studying to become an educator, I used to marvel how despite the fact that most people had children, and despite the billions of parent-child relationships already experienced thus far by the civilized human race, no one until Jean Piaget, researching in Switzerland, ever really looked at his own children. (Piaget, subsequently all the rage in American educational circles, was not even a psychologist; he was a biologist, trained to observe, and his first papers were records of his observations on the behavior of oysters!)

All those billions of parent-child relationships, I used to marvel, yet only one looked closely at what’s right there in front of everyone! What else, I mused, could we be overlooking today that’s equally common to experience?

I used to rhetorically pose that question to my students, back in my college-teaching days, but never really paid it much heed until much later when other, similarly obvious/overlooked matters made themselves apparent. One such discovery (or re-discovery, it seems) has to do with something even more common-to-experience than are children: the breath—your breath.

What a shock to realize that, in retrospect, every experience and every kind of experience has its own breathing pattern attached to it. Not just physically exerting experiences, but intellectual, aesthetic and emotional experiences as well. We all breathe differently when glad, sad, bad, mad, bored, frustrated, relieved, happy, having an insight, experiencing beauty, giving or receiving affection, thinking well of ourselves or poorly, when things are going well or badly for us, and so on!

In retrospect, the reader will also find this true for himself or herself. So much so, in fact, that most of us will discover that each of us has unconsciously been steering our own interactions with other people according to the changes in those other people’s breathing that we unconsciously detect!

The significance of this discovery, other than its being such a universal of human experience, is that human affairs and human organisms are so intra-active that no human situation is only one-way cause-and-effect. Not only do various types of experience cause various types of breathing; various types of breathing can be used to predispose various types of experience!

You may use your breath to predispose your system toward:

  • arriving at insights;
  • taking in beauty;
  • getting calm and comfortable about situations which had been bothering you;
  • being well-received by others;
  • being creative;
  • getting clear about problems which had been confusing;
  • getting well . . . and so on.

In a way, this is not a new discovery: Yoga breathing techniques go back thousands of years. But there the basic insight was lost amidst the clutter of detailed trappings which accumulated during its transmission through the centuries of a high but long-ruined civilization.

In the 1910s and ’20s, the French obstetrician LaMaze observed animals giving birth and abstracted from that a system of relatively painless childbirth based on breathing patterns.

Occasionally, political prisoners and prisoners-of-war, under torture, have reportedly discovered that so long as they were able to keep their breathing slow, calm and deep during that torture, they were able to remain pretty o.k

And since I started talking about the matter, several participants in our workshops have mentioned that they discovered this principle in the dentist’s chair—but that it had not occurred to them to apply the same principle and practice to other situations of discomfort elsewhere!

Breathing in the pattern we use when experiencing great relief predisposes our system to become relieved of whatever had been bothering it. Instead of training people in the technical details of moving which ribs whichever way, we find it more effective to use mental images and remembered feelings (to which one responds automatically in the appropriate breathing pattern).

Relief Breathing

Imagine wearing a hot, heavy, clammy, burdensome suit of armor. Really get into imagining that armor, really feel it compressing and weighing …

Now imagine taking off that suit of armor, and make your next breath the first breath you breathe free of that armor ….

For the next minute or so, breathe each breath as if it were the first breath you are breathing free of that suit of armor …

Now study the differences you feel, deep within your system.—Whatever it was you’ve felt some need of relief from, your “relief-breathing” pattern has predisposed the automatics of your system toward finding relief from it.

You formed the correct pattern for this purpose (of creating relief), simply by breathing in response to the imagined experience of taking off that wearisome armor.

Next time you experience something worth finding relief from—a hassle, a difficult circumstance, a headache or even illness—reconjure that suit of armor, shuck it as vividly and with as much feeling-experience as you can. And thereby explore what “relief-breathing,” working through the automatic response systems of your mind and body, can do for you.

Calm-Breathing Patterns

Breathing in a way associated with profound insight or in the ways associated with profound experience of beauty, can enrich living more than most people could dream is possible. (There is a little of this involved with the “Innate Learning Methods” of Project Renaissance, which help to speed some forms of learning, especially understandings and skills, by a hundred or more times.)

Breathing in a calm pattern, with a (real or imagined) deliciously satisfying aroma rewarding each deep slow breath, has the most profoundly calming consequences, not only for dealing with situations, past or present, which until now were distressing or disturbing, but for people whose distresses have generalized to the point where they are emotionally disturbed.

It is this aspect to which we intend to bring the attention of therapists generally, for one of the uses of these simple breathing patterns is to enable people to clear themselves of emotionally involved problems so quickly and easily that it contradicts all current therapeutic experience in such matters, yet which is easily tested for oneself or on volunteers or on patients who have enough attention resources available to follow simple instructions.

A calm-breathing pattern we have named noise-removal breathing is an easy way to get comfortable with any pain, discomfort or distress, present or past. Scripts instructing in “noise-removal breathing” will follow, and can also be found in various other readily available Psychegenic publications, presenting step-by-step the ways we have thus far found best for enabling two totally inexperienced individuals to train each other in the skill.

In the form of the procedure given later, one totally inexperienced individual, working wholly alone, can readily train hirnself in the skill. Once “noise removal breathing” has been made so practiced in experience that it is virtually reflex, it can serve as a very superior form of anaesthetic (or, if chemical anaesthesia has been used, this breathing pattern can very rapidly clean up the resultant damage and after-effects).

Cleaning up emotionally involved difficulties (and sometimes physical ills created by those difficulties) is a broader experience common among various graduates of our earlier workshops of the 1970s and 1980s, in which we were training such patterns.

Repeat orders for the book, Beyond O.K., which contains the most detailed published scripts of instructions for such breathing patterns, have come from some therapists and clinics, and from various groups of their patients. One reason why: the breath is part of the “automatic” response system of your body. You’ve been breathing all this time since you started reading these pages, for example, without your consciously having to “make it go.” Yet, your breathing is also part of your “voluntary” response system in that you can deliberately, intentionally, breathe high, low, front, back, left. right, fast, slow, or whatever. In other words,

Your breath is a bridge connecting across to the automatic response system of your body, through which you may communicate with and direct the various “automatic” response systems of your body.

Several interesting hypotheses suggest themselves at this point:

  • Could a major part of the reward and comfort of smoking, for cigarette smokers, merely be the breathing pattern induced by that act? After all, millions of non-smokers are constantly exposed to smokers’ nicotine clouds without becoming addicted thereby. One wonders if certain select patterns of breathing might contribute to a more effective way of stopping a habit not as chemically addictive as we had been led to believe?
  • Could bakery aromas, vanilla, mint, and other pleasing smells, piped in close-order succession over and over again through a hospital’s ventilation system, improve chances and speed recovery in patients through the changes those aromas would induce in patients’ breathing patterns?
  • Could the main stress of air pollution be not so much the chemical insult to the system as the breathing patterns which the foul air induces? —Short, high, shallow breathing is physiologically almost identical to that of chronic tension, anxiety, discomfort, repulsion and constant relentlessly restless activity.

Not only do mind and brain run every process of the body; the processes of the body affect brain and mind. A good example of how body processes run brain and mind is in the instance of extreme stage fright—an anxiety so pervasive that consciousness narrows down to pre-occupation with minutiae and scant awareness is available to the victim with which to deal with the vast remainder of the situation.

At the other extreme is the experience and response-repertoire of the person who, unlike most people, has gotten “beyond O.K.,” who has gotten comfortable with most of the matters which previously, unconsciously, had been bothering him. This excellent-feeling, highly competent, zestful and creative state of being is easy and swift to attain through use of the breath.

If one is agoraphobic, for example, afraid of open spaces, he can hold to a calm breathing pattern while dealing directly with (or even just thinking directly about) being out-in-the-open! We have found that no matter what is going on (with the occasional possible exception of bronchitis and/or other such respiratory difficulties, of course), one can keep one’s breathing slow, calm, deep and deliberate and rewarding (or in whatever other pattern, for that matter).

Panic, pain or other distress or undesirable emotion simply cannot co-exist for long in the same psychological space, or frame of reference, with such calm breathing. The breathing can be kept going. The distress has to go away. And it does!

Once one has developed several of these calm-breathing patterns to the point where these are sheer reflex, one can “go in after” anything and everything which had been a source of distress, face each such present or past distress directly for several minutes while continuing this calm-breathing—and apparently free oneself entirely and permanently of discomfort in relation to each such confronted experience. For this purpose the best two thus far known are the patterns, presented in this column next month, which we call noise-removal breathing and satisfaction breathing.

Behaviorists will contend that such breathing simply reconditions the responses of the system relative to the once-distressing stimulus. NLPers may recognize an especially powerful form of “anchoring.”

Other branches of therapy and psychology may contend that there are other reasons why such simple breathing patterns can be used for such profound effects. Discharge therapies such as “Primalling,” for example, may find (if they can surmount their conviction that one must really re-suffer in order to get well!) that this “noise-removal breathing” literally removes distresses as if such distress were a form of noxious substance clogging up the system.

In information systems—and the human organism itself is an information system—”noise” acts in ways precisely, mathematically, structurally identical to such an interfering substance. And in our own thinking, as in information science, distress is a major form of “noise.”

Analytic and/or insight-based therapies will contend that the calm breathing is a way to bridge gaps in internal communications without the customary emotional pyrotechnics, and that in any case it is the bridging of those gaps with insights which enables the system to normalize its flows and functions and levels of development.

(Editorial prefix, added 2009:)
“We breathe the way we feel, and we feel the way we breathe!”
The way we breathe, builds the associated state. Continuing that and maintaining or building that state while focusing on a situation, re-conditions that situation to fit that felt state. A third thing that breathing does is to enable you to redirect the autonomic processes of your system, an interesting point of leverage from which to clear away obstacles to clear and vivid perception, understanding, optimal health or optimal outcomes – by the physical metaphors I’ve suggested for such purpose, later in this article, in the Breathing as a Way of Life — Part 2, and in winsights articles #s 698298, and You Are How You Breathe later in this column. Each of these points bears a lot of major consequences, once you think things through…