When I was a boy, my family spent summers in Maine whereI loved to swim and play in the ocean. As long as the tide was in far enough to cover the rocks we made the ocean our playground. With my heart breathing joy, we invented games all day.
Now I live far from the ocean and I swim laps in a saline pool. Up and down, back and forth. I still invent games when I swim, though they are more internally oriented than when I was a boy. Having practiced t’ai chi for many years I focus not on speed or form, but on how relaxed I can be while swimming. My body then teaches me how to swim easily and efficiently. Speed and form follow.
In the water there is another factor though, breath. When I am relaxed, breathing is easy and falls into a natural rhythm set by my strokes. When I push too hard, going into effort, or thinking anxious thoughts and go into fear, breathing quickly becomes labored. My body tenses up and if there is enough fear I will almost certainly manage to inhale some water. My swimming is completely disrupted.
So my prime rule is to swim within the breath. Whenever I feel my breath tightening I slow down, or consciously relax my torso, moving tension down, leaving it behind. As long as I follow this rule, my breathing is rarely affected by waves or disturbances around me. More importantly, I find that I am swimming stronger at the end of my swim than at the beginning. My body has oxygenated, relaxed and opened to the air I am breathing, become more efficient.
In life outside the pool there is a parallel: focusing on having an open heart. When my heart is open, love and life force naturally flow efficiently in and through it. When I start to push too hard, think too much, or multi-task beyond a certain point, my heart begins to grow uneasy and fearful and shuts itself off. This works exactly like becoming short of breath in the pool.
I go back to t’ai chi: let the stress levels drop off, grounding thoughts or fears into the earth, reducing my commitments and todo lists a bit, limit how many people I come in contact with during the day; whatever allows my heart to relax and open again. In time it becomes more efficient and I can get more done, while still being open to Spirit, to Love, to Life.
Learning how to feel this place where the heart says “too much, I’m about to feel overwhelmed”, is a constant practice. This place is always in flux, moment to moment, day to day. I notice what activities open it up more, which I have to be more cautious about. Over time the ability to hold an open heart and still get things done, to be present and effective, increases; ultimately more so than if I keep on pushing myself.
Take some time to listen to your heart breathe. Just as you can’t swim when you are short on air, you can’t really live when you are short on Love. Listen to your heart, and you take care of yourself, and in the end, of everyone else around you as well.
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