As one who consults on, writes on, trains on and focuses on social justice and equity issues on a daily basis, here’s what I hope for in 2013: that we learn to breathe. More specifically I hope that we can grow in our ability to just take a moment, slow down, and breathe deeply. Sounds simplistic, I know. My students used to quietly refer to this as “human relations hoo-ha mumbo jumbo”. But as I continue to develop training tools and ways to reach wider audiences, I am more often beginning each training, conference presentation, and even key note address with a “grounding in” that has us all breathing deeply and remembering to be here now. And while participants in a training or workshop may have different lives, struggles, and ways of viewing the world, underneath that is a common body of hopes and needs – we all want to be safe, we all want to feel loved, and we all want to contribute to our communities in some way. And I have found that if we pause to breathe deeply, slow down, and take the time to listen and connect with one another, we can see those common hopes reflected in each other and thereby better connect across that which divides us.
Lest you think this is hyperbole, Sylvia Boorstein suggests that breathing deeply does two critical things for us in times of difficulty: first, it relaxes the body. Just as the mind has an impact on the body (stress leads to tightness), so too can the body impact the mind. Thus, breathing deeply and slowing the body down relaxes and slows the mind down. And, it is from this space that we stand a better chance of listening and connecting. Second she suggests that deep attention to the breath stops “the story” for a minute and allows for the possibility of truly hearing someone else over the endless din of the old lines we have running in our heads. In this way, we are able to suspend our old beliefs long enough to see an issue from another point of view. Both of these are essential elements for successful social justice training and why I use them in every training I conduct.
In my trainings and workshops, I see how deeply afraid some folks are when confronted with issues of equity. But I can also see that underneath those fears and often-defensive responses lies the hope that somehow we really can all be okay and all get along. In every tradition, in every heart, in every home there is actually a desire to “get along”. And yet, despite the countless gains throughout U.S. history, our society still tends to lose its way in so far as various equity issues are concerned. But losing one’s way is not the same as having no way at all, and so in this the beginning of a new year for some (acknowledging that not everyone follows the same calendar) I am hoping that we can awaken the common hopes that lie within, breathe and allow them to rise, and in the process let them carry all of us back to what we know to be true – that we are all in this together and that at our best, we are creatures of community not isolation, of compassion not derision, and of love not hate. Many of the world’s best thinkers support this: Jeremy Rifkin, in his RSA Animate video, suggests that we are actually soft-wired for empathy, Karen Armstrong asserts through her “Charter for Compassion” TED talk that we cannot possibly have peace in this world without it, and the Dalai Lama continually teaches that love for one another is an essential aspect of a truly enlightened person. But empathy, compassion, and love take presence, and presence takes connection to the here and now, and connecting in this way is powerfully facilitated by breathing deeply and paying attention to the breath. And thus my hope for this year is that we all learn, myself included, to work toward connection, presence and compassion by taking the time to simply and more deeply b-r-e-a-t-h-e.
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