Holding My Breath

Driving over the Ko’olau mountains on Oahu with a guest from Europe, we came to the Tetsuo Harano tunnel and I felt the old childhood impulse to hold my breath. All my youthful friends and neighbors adhered to this custom, so I assumed it was a common practice. I asked my friend if she and her family held their breath in European tunnels. She gave me a confused look and responded, “No, why would we do that?”

Why indeed? For the first time, I questioned this ritual. As a kid, the challenge endlessly intrigued me and I strived to reach the far end of every tunnel without breathing. However, driving with my friend in the tunnel, all at once, I realized that my parents probably treasured a few moments of silence, rare with three loud, usually arguing kids.  

Holding my breath in a tunnel was self-induced stress, a fun childhood game. As an adult, I noticed I also stopped breathing when I felt nervous or frightened.  Because I rarely admitted fear or anxiety, the only clue I had about my true emotions was to become aware of holding my breath or gasping. Breathing didn’t lie. When I tuned in to my breath, my feelings arose and I could no longer ignore them.

Today, with the help of meditation teachers, I do breathing meditation. When I focus on each breath, the truth of my mental state immediately becomes clear to me. If I’m afraid to see someone who had disrespected me in the past – a problem I used to ignore, creating inner anxiety – this truth comes up while I’m aware of my breath. I accept the issue as real, admit my vulnerability and decide to face it with compassion for myself and the other person, while setting appropriate boundaries if needed. 

Over my lifetime, awareness of breath has evolved from a game to being a profound teacher.

Cate Burns is the author of Libido Tsunami: Awash with the Droll in Life, in which she unearths the ludicrous in the emotional live traps surrounding us — in families, friends and disastrous romances. Get it on Amazon today.