Connection, as described previously, is simply being connected to the moment you’re currently in, rather than being mentally distracted, or carried away, by your thoughts. This next section of The Happiness Trap describes a powerful aspect of connection that people can tap into whenever they want and wherever they are. The title of this section is “If You’re Breathing, You’re Alive”. Dr. Harris writes, “Breathing is wonderful. Not only does it keep you alive, it reminds you that you’re alive.”
Deep breathing is suggested in nearly all of the exercises in this book. Most other mindfulness techniques: yoga, meditation, and the like also focus on deep breathing. Many people don’t breathe deeply which contributes to feelings of anxiety and stress. When I was on the phone with the counselor who suggested The Happiness Trap to me, she walked me through a deep breathing exercise. Brenda was a little shocked to hear how shallow my “deep” breath was compared to hers. Anxiety certainly had me breathing quickly and shallowly.
Dr. Harris describes a technique he calls “Breathing to Connect”:
Take ten slow, deep breaths. For the first five, focus on your chest and abdomen; connect with your breathing. For the next five breaths, expand your focus, so that as well as being aware of your breathing, you’re also connecting fully with your environment; that is, while noticing your breathing, also notice what you can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell.
This exercise allows people to feel more present and connected to where they are and what they’re doing in the moment. This awareness then sets the stage for one to take effective action to change their lives for the better.
Breathing to connect is most helpful and meaningful when facing an emotional crisis. Dr. Harris provides an example through his personal experience as a psychiatrist. He describes how he uses breathing to connect and expansion to deal with the natural surge of anxiety that occurs when clients share their intentions to commit suicide:
… I immediately take one slow, deep breath, and during those few seconds I make room for my anxiety, allow my thoughts to fade into the background, and focus my attention firmly on my client. And until the crisis is resolved, I keep breathing slowly and deeply, allowing my thoughts and feelings to come and go as I remain fully connected to what I’m doing. In this way my breathing acts as an anchor. It doesn’t get rid of my anxiety, but it stops me from getting carried away. It’s like a constant, soothing presence in the background, while my attention is focused on taking effective action.
Breathing to connect, then, provides the atmosphere in which defusion of thoughts and expansion of feelings can occur most successfully.
In two separate places within this brief section, Dr. Harris cautions readers not to start using breathing to connect as a control strategy (apparently this is a common issue!). Connection and particularly these deep breathing exercises often cause pleasant feelings like calmness and peacefulness. But, if you use these techniques in order to get rid of unpleasant emotion or to “feel better” instead of as acceptance strategies, you’ll be right back in the vicious cycle of control.
In my experience, breathing to connect did provide me with an anchor to weather emotional storms. There were several weeks back in early fall where I practiced these exercises for ten minutes or more on a nightly basis. It helped me to practice staying connected to the moment and get used to letting my thoughts come and go without connecting (or fusing) with them.