Waiting to Inhale


by Paul Gilbert
The San Francisco Chronicle, April 20, 2008

My eight year-old son and I are in training for a triathlon, three workouts per day, seven days a week. Actually, it’s more of a try-athlon, where instead of grueling stages of swimming, running and biking, we’re pacing ourselves to slow down, let go and relax.

Like many bright young boys, Josh is developing faster intellectually than emotionally. He often has trouble controlling or expressing his feelings, especially when he’s worried or frustrated. He also has issues with falling and staying asleep. At times, he just seems overwhelmed by stress; obviously, aggravation and anxiety don’t discriminate by age.

I have my own problems with insomnia and been exploring all possible solutions. One day, a psychologist friend of mine mentions that he’s been lending out two handheld biofeedback machines to his patients, the emWave Personal Stress Reliever and the Stress Eraser. By measuring pulse rates and providing visual and audio cues, these sophisticated gadgets the size of a cell phone help synchronize breathing patterns to reach an optimum state of relaxation. Yes, digital nirvana, where science meets serenity.

I take the two implements home for a test drive, to see if using them before bedtime will help me get a better night’s rest. Now, Josh happens to have a portable video game player that he’d stay on 24/7, if allowed, and is curious when he sees me immersed in something that looks like its sleek, little cousin.

“What’s that?“ he asks. “Can I try it?”

While these are sophisticated tools created for adults, I decide there won’t be any harm in this, since breathing is the safest form of exercise on the planet. He shuffles off to his room and a few minutes later, I hear the slow, syncopated chime indicating he’s entered the target zone.

“Well, there’s one Nintendo hasn’t invented yet,” I say to my wife. “Breath Warrior.”

A few days later, he tries the other machine and soon, I hear the sensor beeping, indicating he‘s successfully modulated his breathing again. It’s apparent that these tactile devices appeal to a certain part of his brain, probably the same one that requires us to surgically remove the video game player.

Conducting an informal focus group, I inquire about his experience. He thinks for a minute before answering.

“It reminds me of going to the beach,’” he says. I wonder if this refers to the soothing sensation of rhythmic breathing or the waveform readout that’s measuring his pulse.

“What would you tell another kid about them?” I ask.

“It doesn’t feel like I’m getting a grade, like in school, “he says. Again, he pauses. “And I feel good after I do it.” Could there be a correlation between increased oxygen and higher self-esteem?

At that point, knowing that I will want him to continue to with the program, he senses an advantage.

“I don’t want to do it anymore.”

“Let’s make a deal,” I suggest. “What will it take for you to try it three times a day for two weeks? Just five minutes at a time.”

He doesn’t hesitate.

“A box of NBA trading cards, “he says. “A big box.”

“Draw up the contract,” I reply, which we sign and put up on the refrigerator.

Over the next ten days, it becomes clear that each time Josh uses one of these tools, there’s an immediate shift in his energy. His sleep patterns also show improvement. When we pass the two-week mark, I open negotiations for a new agreement.

“I want a Steve Nash jersey,“ he demands.

“You’re on,“ I say, figuring equilibrium is a bargain at any price. While some might consider this a bribe, I call it incentive.

In the following weeks, he and I do some tandem sessions, de-stress tests that require getting off the treadmill of everyday strain and strife. It’s no coincidence that the simple act of conscious breathing brings one’s attention to the heart--that’s exactly where we both need to go to cultivate a greater sense of happiness and well-being.

Has this practice altered his initial tendency to lose his way in an emotional tempest? No, but if he keeps getting glimpses of that calm beneath the storm, maybe he’ll remember how to find the way back to it on his own. While we’re not looking to connect him to more electronics, these devices help him get unplugged. Sooner or later, he’ll discover that respiration is still the ultimate in relaxation technology.

Every parent wants his child to have advantages that they didn’t. I wasn’t exposed to practices like meditation, visualization and biofeedback until my late thirties and I know I would have saved myself a lot of angst if I’d had these kinds of inner resources earlier on. Mastering even a small measure of these techniques will serve him for a lifetime and fortunately, time is on his side.

Sometimes, after he goes to bed, I come into Josh’s room and watch him sleep. His face looks so peaceful and worry-free. Gently stroking his hair, I make sure not to wake him. With each steady respiration, my own heart pulses with tenderness and compassion. In so many ways, he’s my mirror image and together, we’re facing the life-encompassing challenge of staying grounded in a stressful, demanding world.

As his father, I’m taking the lead, as we run a race with no finish line, just the fleeting moment in between breaths.

Wendi Gilbert