I have asthma. There have been times in my past when a particular attack was so sudden and severe that I wondered if I would make it out alive. Ever since, I’ve played a sort of “game” with breathing. Or rather, not breathing.
The game is simple. I hold my breath. And I set various challenges for myself while doing so. For instance, if I am working online, I may suddenly decide to hold my breathe until the next time an email of any kind appears in my inbox.
For some reason, I find myself posing these personal challenges most often while driving. (I just heard many of you cringing out loud. Don’t worry — I never do this while there is another person in the car.) I may decide to hold my breath until I reach a certain street, or until I pass a certain highway exit. A popular version is that I will hold my breath from the police station in town, until I am parked back at home. The wildcards between these two points are many: traffic lights, backups at the rotary, an active railroad crossing, emergency vehicle passage, collegiate pedestrians at a certain crosswalk. The trip may take a minute and a half. Or it may take as long as three minutes or more. In either case, I am typically successful in meeting the challenge.
Not only does this game serve a practical purpose, it also allows me to feel a little more in control — calm and prepared should I face further dangerous episodes. My thinking is that, if I can hold my breath while maintaining my facilities enough to drive, then I can handle a sudden-onset asthma attack, giving myself enough time in an emergency to get to my inhaler or even get to a nearby pharmacy and rip open an OTC inhaler if I had to.
In addition, playing this game has had the secondary benefit of making me an interesting guest at pool parties.
There is certainly a physical component involved, and I was not able to hold my breath for more than three minutes the first time I tried it. There has been a progression, one that is as much mental as physical — first believing and then doing. I know that I have held my breath for one minute, so I believe I can hold it for a minute and ten seconds.
This is not my only “mind game” of the sort, however. Let me tell you about another, one that requires having neither asthma nor the lungs of Aquaman in order to play and be successful.
I told you in a June post about some of the mind games I play when facing a seemingly impossible ordeal. But winning this game under fire requires lots of practice during non-essential times. One “in-between” mind game consists of stopping as often as you think of it (even if at first this requires leaving yourself notes or inviting friends to ask you at random times) and naming the positive facets of any given situation while it is underway.
Sometimes this is quite easy. Yesterday was one such day. I was treated to a rare day at the beach, after which I had a short nap, a lobster dinner fit for a king, and wonderful conversation throughout. After returning from the beach and enjoying an outdoor shower (the essence of summer), I lay on my friends’ couch, sunflower and lime pillows propping my head. It was then that I thought to play this game.
There are two “rules” to this mind game: to think in terms of the current moment, and to speak in the affirmative rather than the contra-negative. So, in order to play this particular game then, I could not win by thinking about how much I had enjoyed my time at the beach or that sunny outdoor shower, since both of those events were now in the past to “my moment.”
As for contra-negative thoughts, these are usually phrased as versions of “Well, at least I’m not …” and are “against the rules,” as well. So, “I am not busy right now” or “I do not feel pressured to answer my phone messages” would have to be mentally phrased in the positive: “I am completely relaxed and peaceful right now.”
I slid one foot between two of the cushions of the couch. As I did, I thought, This is peaceful. I like where my foot is right now and how cool it feels, the texture of the canvas on my skin. This seems a special privilege and treat. I am safe at the home of friends who love me and have given me this moment for my birthday, so I will enjoy it for all it’s worth. Before I knew it, I was deep asleep and that round of the game was over.
Playing this mental game in moments such as this, as I pointed out, is not terribly difficult. But it is still of benefit. Because regardless of the circumstances, it acclimates your mindset to thinking a certain way. It strengthens that voice that tells you to notice and appreciate more often. It conditions you to stay in the moment.
I headed home late, reluctant to let go of the day. Tired and with a 40-minute drive ahead of me, I found my mind returning to the mental game. Recall that, according to the “rules,” certain thoughts are not allowed (well, they are certainly allowed — they just don’t count toward this game!) “I am tired because I enjoyed a long day with great friends” or “at least I don’t live two hours away,” then, don’t earn points. However, “The roads are free and clear at this late hour” or “I’m enjoying this new music as I drive” or “I have a car with nearly 260,000 miles on it, and it still gets me where I’m going” — these are more the goal.
I challenge you to find ways to play this game, and to play it often. Play alone or play with others. Doing so, in moments of ease or difficulty, excitement or boredom, develops a new awareness — an awakened sensitivity to all that is right with your world. It hones the ability to maintain positive focus, regardless of your circumstances. Soon, beyond merely being a mental game, it will become your usual mode of thinking. Then, when real trials do arise — and they will — you will find yourself accustomed to seeing the positive, leaving even the most daunting challenges unable to send you into a tailspin.