Category Archives: Sports

Take a Deeper Breath

I’m huffing and puffing my way up the steep rocky path toward the gorgeous mountain lakes my companion has promised lie ahead. It is Rocky Mountain National Park, after all. It’s no surprise that the air is thin, but this doesn’t hamper him. He lives a mile high and trains for triathlons in the parks, reservoirs and along the roads nearby.

“I could use a 10 second break,” I plead. He obliges and we step aside to let the nimble and altitude-acclimated bound on by. A few who pass by on their downward trek offer us an encouraging, “You’re doing great!”

As I pause, my friend says sympathetically and so simply, “I find it helps to take deeper breaths.”

At the suggestion, of course, I inhale a deep breath and then draw it deeper. And you know what? It worked! As we continued, when my breath quickened and my heart started to race on the steep parts, instead of huffing and puffing and pressing on so I wouldn’t seem like a wimp, I just expanded my lungs a bit deeper on each breath.

Deeper. Slower. Stronger. I’ve heard they call this combat breathing. I call it respite in the Rockies.

And, me being me, I find myself mind-meandering through my long-ago (and mostly far away) respiratory physiology classroom training. How does that work again? At higher altitude the partial pressure of O2 in the air and my lungs is lower… the sign at Pikes Peak said 60%, I believe, much lower than the 98% I am used to at sea level … which means that there is plenty of room for more O2 saturation in my blood stream. More inhalation means more air available which provides more O2 available to be exchanged. Right? And with lots more blood coursing through that pulmonary circulation thanks to my hardworking heart which was pumping fast and faster, my deeper breaths were DOing something!

Ok OK. Miraculous and scintillating as that science-speak is, what I am captured by as I look back on this trek that, yes, I survived, is the simplicity of “Take a Deeper Breath.” It reminds me…

You have reserves you don’t realize.

You have untapped flexibility and capacity you can call upon.

And BONUS! One good thing leads to another! Deeper breathing activates a whole (parasympathetic) neural reflex that triggers calming.

All this flies in the face of the push harder, exert more, breathe faster-shallower, hyperventilation scenario it seems our world inclines us to visit these days. Sure, quick, shallow breaths may work in a pinch (like in a panic attack) because, by allowing us to blow off extra CO2, they trick our brain into thinking we don’t need to breathe. Underwater divers make use of this at their own peril.

Pikes Peak Summit
Yes it does take your breath away!

But we, the anxious lot of us, adopt it in error and to our own disadvantage. We need to breathe. And rather than shallow, we need to go deeper. Rather than faster, we need to go slower. Deeper. Slower. By choice.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30

How much of my day is spent reacting and responding with faster, faster? How much more capacity would I find if I replaced shallower with deeper? Faster with slower? What if I trusted that My Maker had already provided the means for me to climb the mountain? Any mountain? If only I listened to the voice of my capable companion?

As we ascended and came nearer to the mountain lake, those returning from their trek greeted us with smiles and happy shouts of, “You’re almost there!” How can you not smile at encouragement like that?!

Oh and the vistas did NOT disappoint.

Take a deeper breath. So simple.

I wonder what other resources one might discover in listening and complying with the voice of Wisdom and Experience while we climb this steep, rocky path called life…

How do you expand a mind?

Mind you, I’m not plotting to expand yours. You may keep reading free of the fear of that.

What I am considering here is my own mind who wants expanding regularly, but rarely gets the chance. Because I am very busy confounding its attempts by confining it and pointing it in its rightward direction. Any veering off course is met with a swift kick to get back on track…This you know. This you do. This is yours and not theirs. This is the pattern we have established here. Stop being silly and get on board.

So, I am asking myself, what expands a mind? And while we’re thinking about it, how about its alternative: what constricts one?

Oh, I’d like just to invest in a prescription. Dole me out some prednisone to reduce the inflammation, and NOW the blood will flow more freely to those cerebral spaces. But that’s too chemical. Too controllable. Too directed. Can a constricted mind even unconstrict itself? No, I think expansion desires a different way.

One might consider, here, today’s popularly proffered solution: seek out “opposing points of view” and listen “with an open mind.” This generally doesn’t work for me. My sit and listen tends to spin off and spiral into ways I can defend my position just as soon as you are through.

Clearly, this is no recipe for expansion. Expansion, I fear, has more to do with letting, and perhaps with its calming companions, lessening and releasing. Instead of breath-holding, these three invite me to blow out that old dead air in order to accommodate some refreshener. To make ample room in my mental meandering for question-asking, what-iffing and perhaps even a bit of wit and whimsy.

Like…

What if gravity didn’t hold? What if humans could walk through walls? What if magic was real? What if stars could speak? What if (gasp) I didn’t have to abide by all the rules of best behavior? I know this is NOT a mind expansion for many of you, but it’s a biggie for me. And it’s my mind we’re investigating here, so come with me …

What if we could be issued an exemption from always having to behave according to expectations? Even a momentary exemption, say the moment when a foul ball came into my possession at a recent pre-season baseball game and everyone in the stadium expected me to hand it over to a kid. No respectable adult would KEEP that ball. Heck, the guy in the NYY hat whirled on me and shouted, “Give it to a kid!”

I didn’t want to. And I didn’t. Yep, that’s what this is all about. Me, reconciling that moment. When my mind — normally constricted by guilting, shaming and shoulding — broke out of that mold. No guilt, shame or shoulds here. Everything dilated to allow a little breathing room. And it was okay.

What, I’ve been wondering since, what if this expansive moment could last?!! What if we could activate it ON PURPOSE?!

Really is this such a stretch? I mean, our eyes do it all the time. When darkness descends, our pupils dilate to help us see. That’s hard-wired into our subconscious. So, why not will ourselves to let more figurative light in to our cerebral spaces? Intentionally, invite our minds to skip freely down new paths opening doors to new ideas, and new ways accessed by new passageways? Dare we suspend the mathematical and equational, even the sensational and emotional, in service of the … mystical? supernatural? Let’s call it super-rational… where, a bit more light might help what’s been hidden to show itself?

Ah, try as we might, we humans only have meager success at controlling the subconscious by intention. A few may be especially capable, but alas I am not one of these. Try as I might to pry my eyes open to let more light in, my reflexes resist and my eyes slam shut, smarting from the effort.

I have more success actually in the darkened room when I shut my eyes tightly, excusing them from trying to extract visual input where there isn’t any. Don’t waste your time; just let yourself see. Somehow that “letting” allows perception to travel through different channels creating a new inner dialog.

Something like… you won’t die if you keep this baseball. (Who told you, you would?!) and… If you let yourself, a giddiness will overtake you every time you look at it. Go ahead… And when you hold it, it will transport you to long ago memories of major league games your mom took you to.

Games when your 8-year-old self wished the big-leaguers would hit it right to you so you could catch it in the mitt you hauled all the way from home. Games at 10 years and 12 years old, when, as a consolation prize, you brought home the game-day-give-away, a Dal Maxville signature bat. (You weren’t bold like the other kids who asked for bats signed by the heavy hitters instead of the light-hitting shortstop. No, you would never ask; you took what they gave you.) Oh, you brought home memories for sure.

And you brought them with you to tonight’s game, so that when you gripped that ball, you tucked it deeply in your pocket. When kids surrounded you awaiting their handout, you didn’t comply. You broke the rules and kept that ball. And gave it, sure as day, to the kid in you who’s been waiting decades for that catch.

Light. A veritable blooming.

Last to Lunch: No one deserves to be first

Honestly, I’m not used to lagging behind when things get physically demanding. I’ve always been more of a front-of-the-pack, encourage-people-up-the-hill kind of a person. But this week was different; this week of bike touring in Columbia Gorge and Willamette Valley, I was the last. Always. Everyday, I was last to lunch.

When my cycling group whizzed by me, I’d shout, “I’m slow but I’m coming,” trying to sound upbeat (and hide my frustration). “Have a great ride!” I would add, as the last of them passed me by. One bemused farmer called out, “Yur falling behind. Better catch up.”

I would have if I could have. But in the rolling hills and quite steep regions of Oregon, I was no match for any of my companions. Neither the “older” cyclists zooming by on e-bikes (motorized bicycles you dial in your level of assist) nor the younger set who barreled through unconcerned about preserving their knees or conserving their energy, were waiting around for me.

The younger set who were traveling together all hailed from Chicago. We called them the Chicago-7, although there were actually 8 of them. Four couples, each with elementary and middle-school-aged children attending the same private school and, at present, all enjoying time away at camp. Good for the Chicago-8, I thought, taking time away as couples and time away from demanding jobs and schedules. This was a high-achieving bunch. Even on vacation, their morning ride was a full-on sprint to lunch at the daily winery, followed generally by a van shuttle back to the hotel for a dip in the hot tub before dinner.

All of my tour-mates were extremely friendly, even when they had to wait for me in order to load the shuttle we all planned to take up the big hill. One brushed aside my apology for slowness saying, “Oh Wendy, you’re in great shape, for your age.”

Oh those words… “for your age.”

But I knew that already, didn’t I? I knew it for SURE when my quads refused to keep pedaling and my gasps of breath barely drowned out the pounding of my heart. Several times over the 6 days of cycling I (gasp!) got off and walked my bike up the hill. This would include on the last day, after riding into a stiff head wind all morning, when I struggled up the pebbled path toward lunch at the Keller winery. I was last by far.

Cresting the hill, I scanned the scene: checkered tablecloths adorned picnic tables which welcomed us into the shade of towering beech trees. Rows of sunflowers bent shyly before the expanse of rolling hills covered with Willamette Valley vines.

My biking companions took no notice of my arrival; they were fully engaged, enjoying each other’s company, smiling and laughing, wine freely pouring, the tables now littered with empty plates, the only remnant of the luxurious buffet lunch they had enjoyed. By the time I got a plate (I had to ask for one because they had run out), my choice was a picked-over cheese plate, some greens and whether or not to challenge the half-dozen bees greedily enjoying the only salad left — chicken salad or tuna — I couldn’t tell.

I took my mostly empty plate to a seat at the last table and guzzled from my water bottle, warm from the morning’s ride. As no one approached me with an offer of wine for tasting, I ventured to the “happy” table to examine the bottle of white everyone seemed to prefer. There was hardly a swish in the bottom, which I declined. The guy looking on drained it into his already full glass. Waste not, want not, I guess.

After the obligatory group photo, they called “First shuttle leaving!” As I boarded, I heard one of the tour leaders ask in a sheepish voice if they could possibly have 2 more bottles of white for the Chicago Table, who would be taking the second shuttle back.

Before you shout SOUR GRAPES, let me say that I don’t begrudge these young professionals their success, good fortune and fun. They work hard, get their kids to all their activities, and still manage to dress in style — showered and put-together — their affect proclaiming their readiness to take on the world. Bike trip or home: same status.

Oh, and my goodness how they danced with technology! Multiple notifications managed, emails caught up, scanned through daily camp photos, even ordered text books for the upcoming school year — all while shuttling to the the morning’s ride. “Look how productive I’m being,” one adorable woman cried with glee. And you couldn’t disagree. She had the most infective laugh I’ve ever heard, and she was a surgeon, to boot.

Clearly I have fallen waaaay behind this group. It’s no wonder I’m last to lunch. But the view from behind turned out to be quite eye-opening, for me who normally leads the way. No, I do not begrudge these “youngsters” their due; rather, I see myself in them. I see the me who was proud of my accomplishments, felt deserving of my rewards, and eager to celebrate my self-sufficiency and productivity.

Graciously, on this occasion, God allowed me to see myself through different eyes.

The me who is often oblivious to the last and the least
The me who, amidst the plenty, helps herself to more than her fill
The me who allows my joviality to dull my sense of proportion 
The me who becomes too easily absorbed in my own revelry 

Suddenly these words from the Gospel of Matthew take on new meaning: “So the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”

I have often interpreted this verse as the promise of a God-assist, proclaiming that in the end of times God will lift the poor suffering ones to the front of the line. This, I presume, helps me feel better about their plight and my distance from it. But in this, my week of perpetual Lastness,* I was introduced in the smallest sense to the nature of Last.

The Last don't want to be "encouraged" with hollow qualifying words. ... 
  ie. You're good in spite of your obvious incapacitation. 
The Last don't want to cut to the front of the line. 
The Last aren't looking for a hand out or a hand up. 

The Last just want us to leave them room.
... a fair share, 
... a proper portion, 
... a helping of what we ourselves have helped ourselves to. 

Because NO ONE deserves to be first. Hard work may earn you a blue ribbon, a gold medal or first prize but it may not. Some are too young to keep up; some are too old. Some have been supplied with extra resources, while others have to pay their own way or pave their own path. For some, every step is a struggle. Others have circumstances holding them back. Some started further back so they have further to go. Some are just unlucky.

But NO ONE one deserves to be first. This may be the primary lesson and not-so-hidden meaning of “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” When those who arrive first leave room for those coming behind …

... when we notice,  
... when in our plenty we pause,  
... when we quiet our reveling to listen,  
... when we emerge from our self-absorption to see
... and we say, "Please, you first."

Then, the last will be first and the first will be last. And we will all enjoy lunch together at the Kingdom Table.

*My brief experience of Lastness, of course, does not even approach the plight of the last and least that is the day by day of so many in our world. Please forgive my pretense of this here. I was offered a simple and indicting God-glimmer and it was surely a means of grace.

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