Breathing Your Way to Wholeness

Born Whole

happiness-1866081_640Breathing, the most fundamental function of the human body, has never come easily to me.

My cleft lip and palate meant that I also had an impaired nasal airway and while subsequent rhinoplasty left me with a somewhat less wonky nose, it did little to improve my ability to breathe through it.

As is common with children born with cleft, I developed a habit of breathing through my mouth, and despite numerous attempts in recent years, by yoga instructors, personal trainers, and meditation coaches to teach me to breathe through my nose, I’m still a mouth breather.

For a long time, I didn’t pay much attention to my breath, until about two years ago when three blood clots lodged themselves in my lungs, making it very painful to breathe at all.

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Harder to crack than an atom

As a student of political science and international relations, I once had to take a statistics course, and it’s nothing short of a miracle that I managed to get as much as a C grade. I never could figure out how to do a spreadsheet, let alone compute the numbers. Perhaps the teacher didn’t have much faith in us, to begin with – a bunch of social scientists-in-the-making – for one of the texts he’d set us was Statistics for Dummies.

Fortunately for me, the international relations department of the university where I did my PhD didn’t care much for quantitative analysis, or hard facts to support a thesis. It was all about being able to make a good argument.

question-mark-2153518_640 (1)Statistics, I’ve since discovered, aren’t always the hard facts they’re made out to be. There’s subjectivity in numbers too; data is often interpreted in such a way as to support people’s theories and preconceived notions about the state of things. Used skillfully, the same set of data could end up being interpreted very differently, depending on the agenda they’re supposed to serve.

That’s not to say that statistics are unimportant, far from it. In a world where fake news and alternative facts are permeating almost every aspect of our lives, we need hard facts, and we need numbers, we need empirical studies.

There’s plenty of data telling us that the world is a better place today than it was 10, 50, 100 years ago, and in some ways that’s true. Child mortality is down, global living standards are going up, more children than ever have access to education, etc. That’s all great news. So why does the world look so gloomy when I open up the newspaper in the morning?

I think we forget one huge factor when assessing progress and development: human perceptions, attitudes and behaviour.

For, while we’ve sought to legislate away racism, discrimination, antisemitism, hate crimes, etc, the underlying attitudes and perceptions of people vis-a-vis ‘the other’ haven’t changed all that much.

The recent Windrush-scandal, for example, has laid bare the racism that still affects policymaking at the highest level of the British government. Similarly, antisemitism is too prevalent for comfort within the Labour party.

Over in Scandinavia, Sweden – which prides itself on being one of the most gender equal countries in the world – is reeling from a sexual harassment scandal involving the Swedish Academy, the crème de la crème of the nation’s literary elite.

Legislation alone won’t do away with racism, antisemitism or misogyny. Prejudice, as Albert Einstein said, is harder to crack than an atom.

But discrimination, hate crime and prejudice extend beyond race, religion and sex. People with disabilities have long been subjected to all kinds of discrimination and abuse, and this week, Changing Faces, the UK-wide charity that supports people with facial disfigurement, launched a new campaign to raise awareness of appearance-related hate crimes. For, while hate crimes against people of different colours, ethnicities and religions are well-documented, it’s lesser known that abuse, threats and intimidation against a person based on their appearance, may also constitute a hate crime.

 During my time as a volunteer for Changing Faces, I came across many people with a facial disfigurement who reported being abused and harassed on the street or public transport because of their appearance. As a child and teenager, I too suffered such abuse, and to this day I get very nervous around groups of teenagers on the underground.

Anti-discrimination laws and policies, aside, genuine human progress will only be realised the day when skin colour, ability and appearance no longer determine people’s place in society.

Better than an A*

I’ve been spending quality time at my dentist’s this week, having some ‘maintenance’ work done. My dentist, a lovely man whom I’ve written about before, never speaks of ‘cavities’ or ‘tooth decay’ when discussing the state of my teeth, although no one could fault him for using such precise language.

Instead, he refers, euphemistically, to the ‘wear and tear’ that comes with age, and which requires a number of marathon sessions in the dentist chair.

I never moan or complain when the drill goes a little too deep for comfort, and I certainly don’t cough when the nurse chokes me with the saliva ejector, for I am an A* patient. If I’d been a child, I’d been commended for being ‘such a good girl’ and had my pick of colourful stickers at the end, but instead, I get a bag full of toothpaste for free, and another appointment in my diary.

It’s true I’m a good patient. Just ask the gastroenterologist who shoved a camera down my oesophagus to check for abnormalities. Or the other dentist who once performed a three-hour long root canal without anaesthetics. As always, I was the quiet, accommodating patient, who never make a fuss.

Admittedly, my pain threshold is quite high, but more importantly, years of having to put up with doctors and nurses prodding every part of me, invading my integrity as a whole person, taught me how to take myself out of my body when necessary.

It’s nothing to brag about, of course, it makes me somewhat sad reflecting on how, as a young child, I first learned to separate myself from my body to avoid pain. And I’ve since spent decades trying to reclaim my body as an integral part of myself, learning to live in it instead of constantly seeking to escape. It’s not easy, and to this day, my default reaction to pain, be it physical or emotional, is still to split off.

Giving birth went some way towards reconnecting myself to my body; labour pains were of such magnitude that there was no way my mind could take leave of my body. The awfully idealistic birthing plan I had devised while pregnant and which stated that I wanted an as ‘natural’ birth as possible, was all but forgotten as I screamed, anguished, for an epidural.

shutterstock_648237439 (1)It took me many years to start questioning the utility of being able to escape my body; after all, if it meant less pain, what harm could it do? Well, for starters, it left me in a perpetual state of survival mode, and by the time I’d reached 30, it had made me both miserable and ill.

As long as my body and mind remained divorced from each other, I was also living life disconnected from the reality of my innate wholeness.

I’m not going to pretend that I’m all 100% integrated now, and I may never be, but I am learning to live in, and love, every inch of my flabby, cellulite-affected body to an extent I never did before. And no A* grade can beat that.

Automated Life

I am no Captain von Trapp, but I do appreciate order and efficiency. Years ago I travelled from London to Oslo for a meeting about a job, and I was terribly impressed with the express train taking me from the airport into the heart of Oslo. It was fast, clean and all-around convenient. I was ready to move to Oslo in a flash.

robot-1214536_640.pngGiven my love for all things speedy and efficient, you might think I am a great fan of self-check-out tills in the supermarket, self-check-in at the airport and automated services on the phone. I am not.

I emphatically detest self-check-out tills because more often than not they fail at the one thing they’re supposed to be good at, efficiency.

Having only scanned the first few items in my shopping basket, a red warning sign invariably lights up on the screen, and an automated voice calls out: “Unknown item in the baggage area.”

Except there is no ‘unknown item’ there at all, but I still have to wait for a shop attendant to come and punch in a code to allow me to continue scanning my items. By the time I’ve finished, it’s taken me twice as long as it would have if the till had been manned by something as old-fashioned as a human cashier.

Similarly, flying is supposed to be more efficient now with online check-in and various self-service stations at the airport, and if you travel alone and with nothing but hand luggage, that may be true. But when you’re flying with family and a host of suitcases, self-service invariably results in delays and frustrated exchanges with your spouse and children.

When I recently travelled abroad with my husband and children, I checked in online the day before and printed out the boarding cards at home. That way we’d only need to drop off our suitcases before heading to security. But oh no.

On arrival at the airport, we were directed to a self-service kiosk to print out luggage tags before queuing up for the bag drop. Once there, we still had to produce all our documents and I couldn’t help wondering if it would have been a much speedier process if the man at the bag drop counter had printed our luggage tags in the first place. At least he didn’t object to the fact that one of our suitcases was heavier than prudent, so long as the other suitcase didn’t weigh as much.

Last year, when flying to Tenerife from Gatwick, there was no human to receive our luggage at the airport, but a self-service bag drop that was programmed to refuse any suitcases weighing an ounce more than the 23kg limit. We weren’t the only ones flinging our bags open and frantically redistributing the weight between our luggage; there was mayhem all around us, chaos that could have easily been avoided if the bag drop had been staffed by human beings.

The ever-expanding areas of self-service have, somewhat ironically, has made me appreciate the fleeting human contact that food shopping and travelling once required. I quite miss exchanging a few curtesy words with the cashier, and that’s saying something since I’m not the talkative, sociable type.

It may seem I’m grumbling about trivial matters, but I believe there is a bigger issue at stake here: what kind of society are we heading towards as machines and robots increasingly do the jobs that once provided employment for people? And what will humanity look like when the most basic human tasks are taken away from us?