That "Letting Go" Sigh

Asking myself: What exactly do we do when we "let go"?

It occurs to me that: We sigh. Sighing is the physical correlate of letting go. Or is it?

I gave Science a call. Science and I chat regularly. She is particularly keen to bend my ear about climate change -- and she has quite persuaded me that the matter is indeed urgent -- but she is also happy to chat about lots of other things. About sighing, Science says that a sigh is a fundamental life-sustaining reflex. It’s not just a sign of frustration or despair. “A control system in the brain keeps humans sighing about a dozen times an hour,” says Science.

Apparently our lungs have tiny sacs called alveoli, and regular breaths don’t inflate them fully. They need periodic full inflation to stay healthy, so we have a control system that tells us to take some deeper breaths from time to time -- like, about every 5 minutes. Most of the time we don’t notice that we’ve sighed.

“So, Science,” I says, “when I’m going about my work, I’m not thinking about my breathing much – which is great, because I have other things I need to be thinking about. So I'm happy to have an unconscious control system handle the breathing. But when I’m meditating, my breath is very regular – and also each breath is a little deeper, I think, than regular breaths. I don’t sigh when I’m meditating – and I know because I’m paying attention to my breathing at that time.”

Science said, “Well, but you do sometimes sigh during meditation.”

And I had to admit that, it’s true, my meditation isn’t always totally focused. My mind may get to wandering, and thinking about something sad, or the items on my to-do list, and then I’ll sigh. And I’ll notice that I’ve sighed – which reminds me to refocus. But there are also days when a 25-minute sit goes by without any sighing. Is that because I’m taking somewhat slower-and-deeper-than-regular breaths, and that’s enough to keep the alveoli happy? Science said, “I don’t know.” (Science says this a lot.) “We need more research,” added Science. (Science also says this a lot.) “But I will point out,” added Science, “that when the timer bell rings to end your 25-minute sit, the first thing you do is take a somewhat deeper breath.”

Good point, Science.

The occasional slightly heavier breath aside, none of this addresses the association of sighing with, you know, the usual associations: exasperation, regret, despair. These are the real sighs – not merely somewhat heavier breaths that happen 12 times an hour, but long, audible (especially on the exhale) breaths. What’s going on with that?

My hypothesis is that the especially heavy breath gets more oxygen into your blood stream, which helps you relax AND LET GO of whatever the issue is. Something problematic comes to your attention. Can you do anything about it – or, more to the point, will you be doing anything about it immediately? If so, your body gears up to spring into action. You might take a deep breath before taking the plunge, but this is not a sigh (the exhale doesn’t come out all at once). If not, then your body may want to sigh just to help it relax. A sigh is the letting go of anxiety about a situation that you're not going to take action to change right away. The sigh is fundamentally a device for letting go.

“What do you think, Science?” I asked when I had finished explaining my hypothesis. Science didn’t say anything. But I’m pretty sure I heard her sigh.

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