‘Alienation and belonging’ is one of those recurrent themes in my life. It’s not just that I’m an immigrant – I’m also something of a maverick. So my primal need to belong lives uncomfortably alongside my need for freedom and authenticity. I am familiar with the feeling of ‘otherness’, which may explain my empathy with aliens.
This week I felt drawn to sit beside a stream in the Tokai Arboretum. Much of the adjoining plantation of alien pine trees is currently being felled in an attempt to rehabilitate the natural Fynbos vegetation in this section of the Table Mountain National Park. This is part of a nation-wide programme to eradicate invasive alien species. In my previous career as an environmental educator, much of my work involved explaining why aliens are a problem, so I deeply appreciate the reasons behind this imperative.
But as an alien myself, living in a country that has experienced the horrors of xenophobic violence, I have become less shrill in my attitudes towards species which, like myself, find themselves surviving in a country far from their original home. If large-scale eradication of invasive species is indeed necessary, my hope is that we could undertake this task humbly, learning a lesson from history about the complex implications of our best intentions. I also hope that we could act with reverence and compassion for the creatures great and small that will suffer at our hands.
And may we also recognise in those whom we call ‘other’ the familiar reflection of our own humanity.
Sitting in this grand cathedral
On a pew of granite rock
Awed by polished trunks like marble
Holding arching boughs aloft.
Incense heavy in the air.
Stained glass leaves and clouds and shadows
Cast their dappled blessings here.
You and I share this in common:
Neither native to this place.
Brought from other climes and cultures
We’ve adapted to this space.
Fortunes change. We are no longer
Welcome as in earlier years.
Migrants, settlers, refugees …
Competition raises fears.
When the welcome turns to hatred,
When our useful days are done,
Justify our cutting down.
Oh, the ache of not belonging!
Where can we find one who cares?
In the fellowship of aliens
Will we taste acceptance here?
North wind whispers in the branches.
I breathe out and I breathe in,
Bringing honour and compassion
To the company of my kin.
Earth, forgive us our divisions,
Lines we’ve drawn upon your ground.
We are one, we all belong here;
Help us heal the primal wound.
January 2014 – a new year – a new beginning – an opportunity to start afresh, to set new intentions, to start living that better life.
For years I’ve tended to wait for formal beginnings before making an effort to replace old habits with new practices. Next Monday morning … January the first … I’ve been tied to the calendars of my own construction. (Oh, goody, let’s have another helping of Christmas cake, for tomorrow we diet!) And when my New Year’s resolutions have petered out after a couple of weeks, I have secretly heaved a sigh of relief, knowing that it will be another year before I have to face up to myself and try all over again to make a new start.
HeartMath practices [www.heartmath.org] are teaching me that there is no need to wait for an auspicious date … each breath presents me with the opportunity of making a fresh start. Becoming conscious of the simple act of breathing in and breathing out (something I have to do anyway to stay alive) can stop a day that’s about to turn pear-shaped in its tracks, and allow me to begin again.
Shifting into Neutral
The simplest HeartMath technique is called Neutral. If you want to change gear in a manual vehicle, you first have to move into neutral and then shift into the most appropriate gear to take you forwards, or sometimes backwards. So when you notice yourself running out of steam and needing to change gear, you can use this simple technique to get into neutral yourself.
Wherever you are, whether sitting or walking, driving or busy with a task, take a moment to shift into Neutral. Keep your eyes open if you need to (like if you’re driving!), or close them so that you won’t be easily distracted.
- First, turn your attention to the area around your heart in the centre of your chest. You can even put a hand on your chest to help you. We call this step ‘Heart Focus’. It helps to shift us out of our busy thoughts and into that place that represents love, wisdom and courage.
- Then start breathing regularly and easily, and slightly more deeply than normal. Breathe in for the count of five, and out for the count of five. And as you focus on your breathing, imagine that the air is flowing into and out of your heart. We call this ‘Heart-focused Breathing’.
And that’s all it takes to get into a Neutral state, and to start balancing your Autonomic Nervous System.
Continue heart-focused breathing for just two or three minutes, and feel the difference.
The amazing thing about focusing on my breathing is that it anchors me in the present. My thoughts tend to drag me back into the past, causing me to analyse and mull over things that have already happened. Or my thoughts beckon me towards the future, inviting me to anticipate and fret about things that may never come to pass. Heart-focused breathing allows me to step out of my thoughts and into the present … where there are no regrets or fears, and where I can simply be.
Belonging through the breath
Attending to the breath also reminds me, in a profoundly embodied way, how deep my connection is to this world. Through the breath I am connected to all that is.
I breathe in … I take into the warm, dark moisture of my lungs air that has touched your face, blown across the south Atlantic, blasted out of an internal combustion engine on the freeway, popped out of a fizzy cool-drink, or been exhaled through the leaf pores of our new Mandela’s Gold Strelitzia plant in the garden …
I breathe out … I send into the world a breath that has been an intimate part of me. I have no idea where that breath will go, whom it will touch, what plant may build the carbon I exhale into its glorious green body, or whether it may rise into the atmosphere to add moisture and warmth to earth’s invisible blanket …
Breathing in, breathing out … in that gentle exchange I am implicated in, or folded into, the world. I belong.
A loving breath
Valentine’s Day clearly illustrates that people recognise the heart as the organ of love. Hearts are not just pretty pink symbols of affection, though. We actually feel love in our hearts – like the leaping-for-joy feeling when your loved one arrives home after being away. And recent physiological research confirms what we’ve always known: the heart is far more than a pump … it’s the body’s love generator. We now know, for instance, that the heart both produces and responds to the ‘bonding hormone’ oxytocin, which we once thought was only produced by the pituitary gland in response to childbirth. We also know that the electromagnetic field generated by the heart can influence people, animals and possibly even the Earth itself in beneficial ways.
So now when I practise Neutral, I shall remember that my responsibility is not simply to myself – to enjoy the restorative benefits of heart-focused breathing. My responsibility is also to infuse each new breath with love – to receive warmly all who arrive on each in-breath, and to send love to those who will be touched by each out-breath.
And if I forget, there is always the gift of a new beginning – this new year, tomorrow’s sunrise, my next breath … this very moment.
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