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Breathing air to see the sky
"Winter calls us, even in our celebrations, to slow down. We have time, if we will take it, to breathe deeply, think creatively and feel competent, compassionate and connected. "
- Margaret McCray

by Margaret McCray

When I started seminary nearly 40 years ago I was drawn to many facets of ministry - except preaching. Speaking in public had always been a deeply terrifying experience for me. Then I found these lines from a poem by Marge Piercy that still to this day help calm my anxiety.

I will draw air deeply till my lungs unfold.
My spine stands rippling like grass.
Hands unclench to touch you
and the mind's good sky will clear.

- "What to Chant Under My Breath"

We live in an anxious world. As a counselor, I have watched in the last 10 years as the major complaint of most clients shifted from depression to anxiety. In the same span of time, brain science has become a helpful tool when countering the debilitating symptoms of anxiety and trauma.

Simply taking a conscious breath "till my lungs unfold" can be a first line of defense against any emotional unease, breathing deeply in through the nose and out through the mouth, then focusing attention on the breath for a minute or two. This triggers the brain's amygdala to turn off the physiological defenses of fight or flight so "the mind's good sky will clear." The frontal lobe of the brain is then activated to think more positive thoughts or make decisions about the best way to address the situation.

Breathing is the most basic function of life, so it is not surprising that the Hebrew (Old) Testament opens with these words: "In the beginning.... darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters." A Hebrew word for wind is ruach, which means breath, wind and spirit. Thus the "wind from God" carries implications of breathing, inspiring and giving life to - the necessities of creation, whether of a universe, a being, an idea, a work of art, a relationship.

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Winter calls us, even in our celebrations, to slow down. We have time, if we will take it, to breathe deeply, think creatively and feel competent, compassionate and connected. Whether we imagine the wind of God blowing over us, or the neurons of calm soothing us, we are breathing in the hope, love and renewal.

Margaret McCray is a Presbyterian clergywoman, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and clinical director at Westminster Counseling Center. www.westminstercounseling.org

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