Letting the air out of fear

November 18th, 2009

Exhalation is the jump. Inhalation is the parachute.

Last week I spoke to a college class – an Asian philosophy class – about Zen. It is a gas to speak about something as simple and straightforward as waking up. The thing is, in this morning lecture to nearly 100 young people, a quarter of them were completely asleep and none of my antics could stir them. If it were an audience of middle-agers, the percentage in deep sleep would spike precipitously, so this was a chance to change the course of lives, to be sure.

Sometimes when I get rolling in a talk, the ocean swells, the surge accelerates and I finish up feeling as if I’d consumed all the oxygen in the room. Pens literally drop, and we hear them. Drop. Drop. There is a cushion of hush that follows, and hardly a murmur comes forth. I was not surprised that the horde rushed the exits, and only a smattering came to the front to see me.

A young woman waited her turn, eyes wide, and when the space between us cleared, I instinctively grasped her palm in one of mine and began tracing circles with my index finger on the top of her hand. She said she wanted to talk to me about something that had happened to her recently. She said, “You tell us to trust our lives . . . “

but I have a problem letting go. People tell me I am a control freak, and I wanted to do something to prove them wrong. Something to overcome my fear.

And so she dove out of an airplane.

She described the experience. The feeling of numb nonchalance, eerie disembodiment, followed about eight hours later by total shrieking hellish recall and paralyzing terror. She’d given herself post traumatic stress.

I said, “Don’t jump out of any more airplanes.”

I’m sure there are some for whom it qualifies as sport or playful pastime, but skydiving is one of those ridiculous things that fearful people do to prove they are fearless, humans do to prove they are superhuman, and mortals do to prove they are immortal.

“Don’t do that,” I soothed, still tracing circles on the back of her hand.

“Just exhale.”

This is what I tell everybody all the time these days, because I’ve finally realized that what all the ancients tell us really is true, and really is that simple, and really is that effortless, natural and ordinary. Just exhale.

Exhalation is the act of letting go, the release, the surrender, the trust, that otherwise seems like mumbo jumbo psychobabble coming from another New Age guru with a book and website. Just exhale, and you’ll realize that all this time you’ve forgotten to exhale. You’ve become tense and constricted in your fearful distractions and your anxious grasping. All this time you’ve been holding onto your breath, choking yourself, and now all you have to do is exhale.

Just exhale: there’s the jump. Just inhale: there’s the parachute. Land in one piece without ever leaving the ground.

You’re safe, you’re free, you’re fearless. You’re dismissed.

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  1. I enjoyed reading this great post. It was a perfect tie in to my post today so I linked it. I wish I lived closer so I could do a workshop. How about coming to Philadelphia?

    Comment by Donna — November 18, 2009 @ 12:40 pm

  2. Lovely, Karen…and here's the rub… breathing is just a quiet act for yourself.. not an act done for bravado…

    Comment by Cori Lynn Berg — November 18, 2009 @ 3:13 pm

  3. thank you thank you. just what i've been figuring out these last few days. thank you.

    Comment by Karin — November 18, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

  4. ah. boy, i could do with some hand holding today… i'll try breathing. 🙂 wonderfully well put together post. thanks.

    Comment by wifemotherexpletive — November 18, 2009 @ 7:29 pm

  5. There are breaths that are courageous bold acts. To breathe for a moment and continue resolutely and calmerly (?) with the needful instead of giving in to a habit of avoidance is not a quiet act.

    Comment by Chris Austin-Lane — November 19, 2009 @ 3:33 am

  6. beautiful analogy, beautiful post, beautiful you.

    Comment by Terri Fischer — November 19, 2009 @ 1:56 pm

  7. Hi Karen,

    Thank you for this blog and your book. I absolutely love it! It is beautifully written and I turn to it during the days when I feel exhausted.

    Best wishes from Finland

    Erja, with the kids Saimi, Aarni and Olavi

    Comment by Anonymous — November 19, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

  8. my guy is always telling me to breathe. he says sometimes it seems I'm not breathing at all. It's amazing when we do, what it sounds like, what it feels like.

    Comment by this new place — November 19, 2009 @ 5:25 pm

  9. I just tweeted this. It is amazing goodness wrapped up into a blog post that reads like scripture to me.

    Thank you for helping me exhale today. Without ever leaving the ground.

    Comment by Terresa — November 20, 2009 @ 1:31 am

  10. Great job writing this post! Love it! Have you written any short stories or novels?

    Comment by one cluttered brain — November 20, 2009 @ 1:34 am

  11. following my breathe as I jump this week. thank you Karen.

    Comment by Meg Casey — November 20, 2009 @ 11:41 pm

  12. Thank you for this. I jumped off and landed here:


    Comment by Nancy — November 21, 2009 @ 7:21 am

  13. So glad to have found your blog. I borrowed your book from our local library and then bought it because it's one of those things that is very good to have around, like band aids, chocolate and advil.


    Comment by 6512 and growing — November 22, 2009 @ 3:24 am

  14. Thanks for this, Karen. It's just what I needed tonight.

    I'm looking forward to reading your book.

    Comment by kate hopper — November 23, 2009 @ 3:46 am

  15. SO TRUE!! And what I love most is that you've taken an already simple idea that is seen/read/shared a lot – "breathe" – and made it even simpler. Beautiful.

    Comment by Swirly — November 23, 2009 @ 4:32 pm

  16. […] If you have read either, you are likely dying to find the link to register for the program.  Well, breathe, for goodness’ sake.  Then click HERE!  HERE IT IS!  (scroll to the bottom, click on the […]

    Pingback by wisconZEN « And Her Head Popped Off — July 23, 2010 @ 6:48 pm

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