June 26, 2014

Breath, Fear, and Conflict

“Agitation and anxiety caused by the presence or imminence of danger,” is the dictionary definition of fear. But why should danger cause us agitation and anxiety when many people do dangerous things everyday? Driving a car is one of the most dangerous things anyone can do – over a five year period more than 25% of drivers will be involved in an accident, roughly one out of four. Yet among the public there is a much greater fear of flying, which is statistically far safer, than of driving. So what exactly are we afraid of?

The ancestor of the word fear, the Old English “fǽr,” meant calamity or disaster. Modern synonyms of fear, such as trepidation, consternation, and dismay, mark the hesitancy, paralyzing helplessness, and the robbing of courage to act. So, whereas “fear” characterizes an emotional response, it seems the consequences of inaction, hesitancy, and helplessness may be its cause.

Feeling we aren’t capable enough, or strong enough, or smart enough to make it, to finish, to “win,” are primal fears – of first importance - indicative of our notions about survival. Fear is a survival instinct. Our own genetics are collectively infused with 10,000 years of cautious living - fearful survival. Fear, and our respect for it, has kept our species alive and as much as we may try, it’s not about to disappear just because we get a Yahoo! account. But it does fade.

Our reliance on technology and modern society’s conveyances and security tries hard to reduce fear’s gift to us. So much so, that many folks seek out fear-inducing thrills – scary movies, thrilling physical feats like skydiving or bungee jumping – in what I believe to be an unconscious attempt to sharpen, even reinvigorate their instinct of fear. 

Unless you’ve been to war, or perhaps serve in law-enforcement, I suspect not many have much use for fear as an instinct of survival. Most don’t believe they live “day to day” and don’t actually have to deal with the circumstances of aggressive conflict. They’re citizens, who have jobs, families, a lifestyle, money, resources – security. They probably feel secure enough inside the lives they lead, so as not to need to live fearfully - read, carefully or even respectfully.

Animals don’t live fearfully or fearlessly, they just live. They’ve learned to walk that line between the two because they have to – their very lives may depend on it. Humans shared these instincts long ago much more than we do today. Our remarkable progress in human endeavor has ensured our mastery of the Earth, but it has inevitably segregated us from nature, making it possible to insulate ourselves from any reliance on fear to assist us in living. What we have lost is our sense of awareness - acute observational vigilance – critical to our very survival. Awareness also has to do with our capacity to understand the depth and scope of what we might face, which gives us a leg up on how to meet and diminish it, not letting it destroy us. 

We learn to drive, and drive effectively, without being afraid, yet there may be times while driving we become fearful, such as in inclement weather, chaotic traffic, or unpredictable circumstances. Yet the more experience we accrue driving, the more we find we can tolerate – the more confident and unflappable we become of our own and others’ survival. I wouldn’t call this “fear inoculation,” but rather learning to mitigate our fears through proper training to formulate “good habits.” 

The training of martial arts for good habits can likewise reduce the threat of the consequences of hesitancy and helplessness, so we can act in spite of being afraid in the face of imminent danger. Training provides access to a knowledge base that is thousands of years old and contains options to age-old problems of conflict. By studying these options, we begin to demystify the problem, and gain answers that offer a glimpse into the martial perspective.

Consistent training in a relaxed manner, free from anxiety and tension is one of the best ways to achieve the confident composure required to deal with conflict and danger. This is not only the key to gaining ability in Taijutsu, it also provides us a physiological advantage in the awareness and command of our body under the conditions of stress.

Our autonomic nervous system makes up the physiological aspects out of our direct control, like heartbeat and perspiration. When its sympathetic response, like the emotions of fear and anger, unleash themselves it is our breath that can bring them back into alignment and control. Thus the study and command of proper breathing is another good habit everyone should strive for.

Lie down and draw the feet in, so the knees raise up. “Lengthen” the body by activating the posture – have the feeling of trying to touch the top of one’s head to the wall. Begin breathing by inhaling through the nose to the fullest extent. Fill the lungs to capacity and exhale through the nose.

On the second inhalation, inhale again through the nose as if filling the entire body cavity with air - like a balloon. Exhale through the mouth with the distinctive sound, “HAAA.” The belly should rise and fall with each breath, in and out. The back should also expand, closing the gap between the small of the back and the floor on each inhalation (this expansion is also true while in a seated position).

This belly breathing can become the natural way of breathing. It is how most babies breathe and can be very useful with Taijutsu. Once comfortable with the manner above, begin to push the belly outward, expanding it like a balloon on inhalation, and then draw it in, contracting it, on exhalation. Push the muscles out to make the belly round, creating space inside the body cavity, and then pull the muscles in, as if trying to touch the spine with the stomach from the inside. Hold for several seconds, before and after inhalation. This is not only worthwhile training, but also serves as a massage for the organs and can assist with problems of digestion.

Tactical Breathing
Throughout the Law Enforcement and military community there exists a manner of breathing for stress reduction commonly known as “Tactical Breathing.” It is well known that stress affects the body in destructive ways over short and long periods of time. Conscious and sustained breath control during periods of stress and post-stress (when vulnerability may actually be highest) calms nerves to regain focus and control. The widely used technique is an “inhale-hold-exhale-hold” method most often based upon a count of four: 
Inhale through the nose and into the belly for four counts
Hold for four counts 
Exhale through the mouth for four counts
Hold for four counts
Repeat as needed
On Breathing
When trying to fit arbitrary breathing methods into various positions, movements, or endeavors we may find them cumbersome and intrusive. There are methods of deep breathing, belly breathing, and chest breathing, but none of them may seem to be appropriate all of the time. In some cases, belly breathing may be best, in others, higher up, chest breathing. Knowing how breath “fits” into the actions being performed is better than relying on any single method.

Shizuto Masunaga writes about breathing and the use of imagery at length in his book, Meridian Exercises: 
In ancient times Chinese said that people near death breathed through their nose only, while sick persons breathed with their shoulders, and ordinary people breathed with their chest. Wise men were said to breathe with their belly, and masters from the soles of their feet. This means that the lower the focal point of one’s breathing, the more an individual has ochituski (Japanese for settled or stable Ki) or composure, and the more one can breathe with his whole body. Abdominal breathing is what wise individuals strive for, but even this is not the ultimate way to breathe. The ideal to work toward is a mental image of drawing in and sending out Ki from the tips of our fingers and toes.    
Integrating the principles of Hara Kokyuho, deep breathing methods, including activation of the posture, into everyday life is a terrific way to maintain superior breath and give us a pathway toward better well-being and awareness. This also increases our chances of understanding the way breath can and should operate naturally whether training, fighting, or resting.

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