In the Fullness of Emptiness
Calm down using the breath and slow down your exhale.
There is a yogic breath practice called kumbhaka that involves pausing the breath at the top of the inhale and the bottom of the exhale. Many people find it very calming, but for me, pausing at the bottom of the exhale has always been an exercise in panic.
Ask anyone with training in working with the nervous system how to calm down using the breath and they’ll tell you to slow down the exhale, to make it longer than the inhale. The parasympathetic nervous system, the rest and digest state, activates a little bit more on the exhale while the sympathetic nervous system, the fight-or-flight aspect, activates slightly on the inhale. Inhales feel like a beginning, like an internal way of saying, “Okay, let’s go!” while exhales act like an ending, as if to say, “okay, we did it, we can relax now.” That’s partly why a sigh is so effective—the long, slow exhale helps us calm down internally. I do like a nice sigh, but something about pausing at the end the breath makes me feel like I’m going drown on dry land.
This is certainly a metaphor for my life. I like to be full, to be busy, and downtime can make me squirrelly—the weight of the meaninglessness of life starts to creep in, perhaps, when I’m not knee-deep in emails. This year, especially, I’ve been working to slow down, to give myself space, to stop planning every day to within an inch of its life and sit for a minute with the discomfort of not being particularly productive. I doubt I’m alone in my addiction to busyness: many of us don’t know who we are when we’re not actively working towards a goal or building a relationship. In a capitalist culture, we can get the message that unproductive rest is shameful.
The late yoga teacher Michael Stone once explained in a lecture what’s so scary about the bottom of an exhale. We live our lives as storytellers, making up narratives about who we are, what we should be doing, what the others in our lives represent. The bottom of an exhale represents the end of a cycle, a tiny microcosm of the many cycles we experience in our lives. On some level, it reminds us of the Big Ending that’s coming for all of us: death. At the moment of death there is a final exhale, one last release of breath, and no more inhale ever again, no more new beginning, no more stories. The fear of death, Stone says, is not a fear of pain but a fear of a loss of meaning: when I die, what will happen to this story of me?
New moons, sunsets, and the winter solstice are our natural ending cycles. The light disappears and seems to pause in the sky—the word “solstice” actually means “sun- stillness.” There isn’t a rush to a new beginning, there must be a pause first, an acknowledgement of the ending of the last cycle before the new one can begin. It’s a time for grieving and letting go and ending the stories we need to end so new stories can be born. Inevitably the light grows again—at least, as long as we are alive to inhale with it.
For me, spending a little time with the end of the exhale has been a tentative practice in befriending my own existential panic. It feels like touching nothingness, and finding out that nothingness is okay. It’s also been a practice in trust—that I will inhale eventually, that the sun will rise, the moon will wax, summer will return. And even if it doesn’t, that’s okay. There’s a certain fullness in the emptiness, too.
Bonus: Explore this breath with a guided meditation led by Julie Peters.