From the Archives: The Deep Exhale by Chris Ash

This was originally posted on November 13, 2018

There’s this thing that happens to advocates when the world around us burns with injustice and fury and we shift into what we know, the holding-fighting, fierce-eyed, tender-hearted caring that pours out compassion and links lives with survivors, shedding trails of sweetness as it goes. It’s a professional skillset and personal practice — a vocation, even? — that girds our own hearts with the structure of listening skills, crisis response, and open-ended questions. We wrap ourselves in the safety of our modalities while we float steadily alongside others, occasionally sharing an oar when someone is stuck.

It is an act of ministry when we exhale-blow out-breathe hard into darkness, trusting in the moment when the deep inhale comes to re-inflate our lungs and faith.

~ inhale ~

Several sweet people in my friends circle have disabilities that make it hard to sustain the consistent and ongoing level of fight-advocate-resist that seems the only logical response to the news cycle. Fear and prejudice seep red-black into the fabric of an already stained history, layer upon layer of oppressive harm and other-way-looking building up and muddying paths until the slog becomes near impassable, each step dragging into the next. How can we keep up, especially those of us whose health depends on the deep in-breath?

I recently read a post comparing activism to a wind ensemble holding an unnaturally long note that the group can only sustain through the staggered breathing of each member. While the long note continues each musician can duck out for a quick breath, trusting that the other musicians will hold the note until they return.

So goes social justice organizing.

photo by Flickr user chiarashine

If we know we can rely on the continued exhale of solidarity actions, we can each duck out for brief periods of self-care to nourish ourselves, build health, rest, and recharge, knowing that when we return our breath will be stronger, our voices more powerful. For some, the duck-out is stopping before getting into your car to connect with your center. For others, it’s allowing yourself to prioritize a night of movement, connection with friends, and solid sleep in the midst of an otherwise activist schedule. And for others, it’s recognizing when your body and mind are in the midst of a deep contraction after a period of expansion, and accepting that the ways that you contribute to cultural shifts may need to be less direct, less up-close for a time.

It’s honoring that your emotional labor has worth and not spending it freely where it won’t be honored, and recognizing that you are valuable and deserving of rest. And while not all of us have the privilege and capacity to inhale in big ways, we have to keep breathing, in and out, in and out, part of this flow that mirrors the cycles of nature that keep us alive.

For many, this is lived prayer.

~ inhale ~

“I think I was raped.”

Whether it is your first day on the job as an advocate or your 10th year, the air temporarily leaves the room when you hear these words. You question if you are prepared to handle the disclosure. You worry that they will have a need that your limited resources can’t meet. Maybe you were vacation-bound and walking through the airport when the rape prevention t-shirt you were wearing sparked uncomfortable conversation from a stranger. You might find yourself in the backseat of an Uber with a driver who is a rape apologist adamantly telling you how #metoo is ruining the world; meanwhile he doesn’t know you’re in town for a sexual assault conference. Perhaps you’re also a survivor and every year you discover or rediscover a new trigger to your own violation while helping others. This work is hard and the need for people like you in this work is important. Working with survivors is difficult. It tests you emotionally, intellectually, physically, and spiritually. In this role, you are actively choosing to open yourself to one of the most painful woundings a person can experience. You can make a difference! – Charnessa Ridley, sexual assault advocate with over a decade of experience

I work full time in sexual assault prevention, response, and policy guidance, with a focus on human trafficking. Someone asked me last week how I do this work without it crushing me, and I answered, “sometimes it does.” And then I pause, catch my breath, and keep going.

Each robust exhale is preceded by and followed by a deep inhale.

One of my inhales is ecstatic dance. Our local dance community meets on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, and while I’ve occasionally attended on Sundays, I much prefer Wednesday evenings. When people have asked me about that preference, I’ve typically shifted into dry humor. “Sundays are too joyful, skippy, and happy,” I’d say. “I prefer my hippies dark and sultry.” Sunday mornings are open and radiant; Wednesday nights, with their mood lighting and heavy bass, are sensual deep dives.

On a recent rare Sunday where I attended dance, I was able to have a “deep dive,” and in the morning! While dancing, I had a realization: Part of why I enjoy Wednesday evenings more than Sunday mornings is that I have historically struggled with inhaling in daylight. There’s a vulnerability involved in pulling back, opening up, and taking in needed healing that’s easier for me to do in darkness, with subtle mood lighting inside and starlight bouncing off the windows. What is it, this thing that makes us feel our need for continual healing is brokenness, or that our desire for caring is weakness? Why do we sometimes dance more wildly, more freely, with our eyes closed than we do when our eyes are locked into reflective gaze with another?

We transform our world with the exhale.

We transform ourselves with the inhale.

God transforms us with every breath.

~ inhale ~

Author: Chris Ash

Chris Ash is a writer, teacher, and leader whose practice is inspired by nature, informed by science, and grounded in compassion. They have facilitated safe and sacred space for over twenty years, as a suicide hotline counselor, doula, rape crisis companion, support group facilitator, minister, mentor, parent, and friend. Their research interests include spirituality, compassion, trauma, gender, sexuality, and intimacy. They live just outside Chapel Hill, North Carolina, surrounded by academics who think they're a hippie and New Agers who think they're a nerd. They remain fully committed to being both.

One thought on “From the Archives: The Deep Exhale by Chris Ash”

  1. I honor and applaud your willingness to keep fighting but I have reached a point in my life – perhaps it’s age – perhaps it’s my keen attention to the ways in which we continue to destroy the earth that has left me breathless… it’s pretty clear that in the ‘big picture’ we are not going to shift our priorities so I have been forced to shift mine. Although I continue to write about women and nature most of the time now I stick to the present… and let the rest go – except of course for the grief which is ongoing… part of me leans into this death of what was thinking that maybe this is the direction we need to be going in – there is just too much toxicity everywhere – maybe this slow death of a culture will eventually free us… I don’t know.


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