Because “stop and smell the roses” is stressful advice
“Have you been on a plane lately? Or sitting in some other really cramped space for a long time?” This is what my chiropractor asked me.
I had not.
I have a talent for holding surprising amounts of tension between my shoulder blades, that’s all.
I had been running around all day: taking some kids to camp and other kids to orthodontist appointments, answering email in the car in between, ignoring more text messages than I was replying to, scheduling the dance of who-needs-to-be-where-when for the next week, writing in my head while I drove—and I still had groceries to pick up before dinner.
I did not feel like I had time for things like “relaxing for a second” and “being present right here and now” and “remembering to exhale.” It was just one of those days.
Apparently you could tell this from the muscles in my back, which were set to Tension Level: Extra. (I appreciate how my body tells the story when the rest of me is too distracted to explain.)
When I got home later, the sun was setting out the window, oranges and pinks near the horizon fading up into deep purples and blues.
Sometimes I need the sunset to remind me that the world continues to be amazing even when my head is down, even when things on the ground feel chaotic and sticky, even when I feel like I have to power through to make it to the finish line.
The sunset is good at this job, partly because it just is amazing, and partly because of the three breaths rule.
The Three Breaths Rule
The Three Breaths Rule is this: Any time something good catches my attention—the sky at dusk, a sunny spot to sit down, the light on Evelyn’s hair, the sizzling garlic smell of a dinner cooked by someone else—I stop what I’m doing and notice for the space of three breaths.
It’s long enough to soak up the wonder of whatever is in front of me, and short enough that I always have time to do it. You can spare three breaths’ worth of moments, no matter what. You really can.
I know, this is kind of what people mean when they say to stop and smell the roses.
But I like to have more of a plan.
Have I smelled enough roses? Have I smelled them long enough? These are actual things I will stress out about.
But if the rule is: Stop and Take Three Breaths—that, I can do.
I can take three breaths in the car. I can take three breaths in the middle of an appointment. I can take three breaths on the way to the mailbox. I can do it even when I have one million other things to do. There is always time to take three breaths.
So I stop, I take three breaths, and…
I start to remember all the things I know.
Like: Oh right, the world does not depend on me to hold everything together.
And: Oh, now I remember, the point of life is not to cross the most things possible off an imaginary to-do list. There are better plans than that one, plans like bringing your whole self to whatever you’re doing. Or paying attention to the world around you. Or staying present so you can create belonging. Those are all way better plans than keeping busy.
Or: Right, right, I remember, I’m allowed to breathe. Even if things are piling up waiting to be done, I am allowed to breathe. Even if I turn on the news and the world seems to be a mass of confusion and I don’t know what to do next, breathing can’t hurt. Breathing probably helps, really.
The Three Breaths Rule is a momentary reset in the middle of everything.
It’s finding—and giving your attention to—a little tiny YES, even if your day (or the world) happens to have been full of NO.
Even if things are falling apart, noticing the good is a tiny act of rebellion.
Three breaths’ worth of it.
Right! I knew all that. But I needed to stop and be reminded—so I let the sunset be my cue, and I watched the colors fade while I breathed my three breaths.
Try it, you’ll see.
Three breaths when you notice something good.
Even when your shoulders are holding more tension than is reasonable for a Thursday afternoon. (Especially when your shoulders are holding more tension than is reasonable for a Thursday afternoon.)