I PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE TO MY BREATH

This fall I began working with an eight-year-old girl named Luz with a history of anxiety, who was experiencing crying spells, restless sleep, and intrusive thoughts, especially of death. This was making daily life a challenge for her. It was hard to concentrate in school while worrying what heaven would be like. For her parents, too, it was challenging, when she didn’t want to let them out of her sight.

I knew immediately that much of our time together would involve mindfulness and relaxation techniques. The first was the easiest and one of the best, a particular method of controlled deep breathing that I learned from the Medical University of South Carolina’s online TF-CBT training. It involves laying one hand over the heart, the other above the bellybutton, breathing deeply in through the nose to swell the belly and move that hand, then breathing slowly out through the mouth, all the while keeping the heart-hand still. Diaphragmatic breathing, in other words, but with an added component that is meant to stimulate oxytocin release in the body.

To explain the technique in terms familiar to Luz, I referenced the Pledge of Allegiance. Doing things by rote tends not to foster deep thinking, so despite my own childhood experience of that rituala daily recitation in school made with one hand on the chestit’s only now, thinking of this breathing technique, that I’m struck by the symbolism of the gesture. True patriotism would seem, indeed, to involve the heart, and deeply I do love this country, meaning the landscape itself, its original contours and ecosystems and the wisdom we might glean from them.

But I digress. With the sweet alacrity of children, Luz not only adopted this method of breathingwhich her parents prompt her to practice before bedbut she gave it the name that made sense. Now when we talk about her therapeutic homework, and all the skills she’s learning, she refers to her breathing as The Pledge. She recently made a drawing depicting it, which I will cherish for years to come: a girl with two ovals for feet; long lashes above wide-open eyes; a broadly smiling mouth, as if singing; hair flying out in happy wings; and a chubby hand over the heart. Calm and confident. Luz’s breath, a pledge worth making and keeping.

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To maintain confidentiality, “Luz” is a pseudonym.

MINDFULLER THAN THOU (Part 1)

Almost before I’d even begun this project—which is still very much taking shape, finding form and direction, its raison d’être—I knew I would need to address my own ambivalence toward the language of mindfulness. That the word itself doesn’t appear in the name of this site is no accident, and not only because I thought it too limited for the eclectic approach I hope to take. I have an aversion to trends as such, and to what an acquaintance recently referred to as “spiritual materialism.” If I do yoga now and then, it’s not because I find it “karmalicious.”

It’s all too easy to sound highfaluting, insubstantial, or glib when writing about things like the mind–body connection—when what interests me is substance and an honest and grounded experience of living. I care about integrity, which, like its relative “integer,” means “undivided, whole.” A state in which feeling, thought, word, and deed resonate. I care about these things—but am I an exemplar?

That was a rhetorical question! Just when I think I’m making progress, life has a way of humbling me. This evening’s lesson came in the form of a five-year-old boy who had no interest in my therapeutic gambits on his behalf. (A quick look at the word “gambit” perhaps holds the answer; he may have felt he would be giving me some advantage.) I asked, for example, “If you could be an animal, what kind of animal would you be?” He made no bones about it: “I don’t want to be an animal!” But what do I mean by “progress,” anyway? That’s a fertile subject in itself. If “humble” is related to “humus,” there is rich matter there in the decomposition—the makings of new growth and the thrilling possibility of eventual flowers, honeybees, and fruition.