Developing the skills to calm the breathing to calm the mind and the body is within your grasp. The best way—some say the only way—to change habits this deeply ingrained is to enact the conditions that would lead you to need these skills.
In the latest episode of the Hidden Brain podcast, “You 2.0: In the Heat of the Moment,”* researchers discuss why we must practice developing skills in the face of stress to train the brain’s “muscle memory” to produce those skills when we need them.
A core part of mindfulness training is opening the eyes and seeing clearly. This means clarified vision of the self within as much as the world without. The ancient yogic texts are filled with practices for attaining this. But the path has obstacles.
In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, avidya, or ignorance, is the first of the five obstacles that block spiritual progress and “the cause of all afflictive experiences” (from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: A Study Guide for Book II by Baba Hari Dass).
“Ignorance consists of seeing permanence in the impermanent . . .”
Sutra 2.5, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: A Study Guide for Book II by Baba Hari Dass
What Can’t Be Seen
A large and persistent obstacle standing in the way of knowing ourselves and knowing others is the “hot-cold empathy gap.” In the podcast, Carnegie Mellon University psychologist and economist George Loewenstein discusses this concept, which he coined the term for.
Studies bear out the hot-cold empathy gap. A subject places their hand in a glass of icy-cold water. After twenty seconds, they pull their hand out, unable to tolerate more. A few minutes later, they are convinced that they can leave their hand in the icy water for a full minute. But when they try, the same thing happens: twenty seconds later, that’s all they can take.
Repeating the experience does not lead to wisdom. When we’re stirred up, it seems we’ve felt that way forever, and we cannot relate to our “other self,” the one that’s sometimes calm. Conversely, when we’re calm, we cannot empathize with our “other self” that runs hot and flies off the handle.
This veil of ignorance extends to other people. When they’re in a state we cannot relate to, even if we experience this state ourselves, what they’re going through feels unrelatable.
Slow, Steady Breathing under Slow, Steady, Manageable Stress
The key to increasing tolerance, say researchers, is to train under stress.
In mindfulness-based work grounded in compassion, which is how we present breathwork, we ensure that any stress from the practices are tolerable and always under your direction. Having control over what happens and introducing stress bit by bit, or titrating, lets you build your ability to face stress resiliently.
It’s exactly like weight lifting or cardio training: You have to lift or run to get fitter. But if you start with 250 pounds of weight, if your first run ever is a marathon, your chances of success seem slim. In fact, it would be a wonder if you ever tried again.
“When we activate . . . our stress-response systems in ways that offer controllability and predictability, we can begin to heal a sensitized system. Healing takes place when there are dozens of therapeutic moments available each day for the person to control.”
What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing
Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD, and Oprah Winfrey
We want to give you access to the calmer parts of you whenever you want, not just during sessions. So this training really trains you to continue training yourself, day after day, week after week, until you notice subtle changes.
Then, one day, you look back at where you were when you began and observe clearly that you’ve come a very long way.
*Please note that this episode, while generally hopeful and empowering, includes the voices of women recounting sexual harassment and other content you might want to consider whether you’re up for hearing.