By Kevinn Chan

I find it oddly mind-boggling, the fact that air is free. Everyday we run on oxygen. And it’s free. I think this is something we’ve taken for granted. It’s available 24/7 wherever we go and we don’t even have to think about inhaling it, yet the ordinary person would be dead after three minutes of its absence. True, we need other things to survive too. But with food, for instance, we have to voluntarily stop, use money to buy some, and take the time to consume it. And the same goes for water. But air, air is always available.

It sounds rather obvious, and it is. We all know it at the back of our heads, but to be aware of it makes all the difference. Air is free.

Almost a year ago, I was at a Manila Creamery with my friend Wookie (yes, like Chewie). I ordered the Malted Vanilla shake and it was good until after 3 sips. It’s an acquired taste. But anyway, I had invited her to talk because I needed company and some advice (was at an extremely low point in my life, but that’s another story). I was anxious, sad, and couldn’t be left alone. But I wanted to talk to Wookie because she was one of the most honest people I know and I knew she’d set it to me straight, and she did. She was honest and consoling, and above all, she told me one of the best pieces of advice I’ve received to date: “Breathe.“

Photo taken by: Ian Dooley

Personally, I was never very good at consoling another person. Whether it’s a friend who’s upset or a classmate who just failed the test, my first instinct is to identify the problem and find the most effective solution given the circumstance to counter it. My process goes something like this: First step, ask “what’s wrong?” or “what happened?” and wait for a response. Second step, ask follow-up questions to further clarify the situation until it’s totally clear what the problem is (it never really is). Lastly, provide possible solutions.

Is this process effective? Yes….. if the person were a machine, or a robot, or if I were the person’s manager and the problem were work-related. But for human beings with human problems, not so much. The thing is, people aren’t machines. We’re not as straightforward as we sometimes want to be and more often than not we don’t even say our problems straight away. We’re like onions that have to be peeled layer by layer. We don’t need our bolts tightened and our oil changed, we need empathy, company, and a lot of understanding (and hugs).

But, thinking about that conversation with Wookie, I realized that we can be like machines in that we need fuel to stay alive. No, we don’t run on diesel or gasoline, but we live off food, water, and air. Food, obviously. Water, of course. But to breathe air is to be alive. I mean, we can be alive but be hungry, and we can be alive but be thirsty. But to be alive and to be breathing are almost synonymous. “Is he breathing?” we would ask to check if someone is alive, not “Is he full?”

Oxygen. Air. Breath.

We need to breathe, it goes without saying. But sometimes, we need to breathe on purpose. The moment we open our eyes to this, we open ourselves up to a whole new world of mindfulness, presence, and calm. I’m no expert on meditation but deliberate breathing has saved me from the countless encounters with anxiety, anger, and the everyday.

When we’re anxious or angry, we’re in some degree out of our element. Our heart rate is up. Breathing pace is up but shallow. Our thoughts go on overdrive, so we think and overthink and overthink about overthinking. Essentially, we lose control over our thoughts and our bodies. And then we think so more, “maybe I had too much coffee,” “maybe I’m just hungry or thirsty,” “maybe I’m forgetting something.” The sad truth is that we may never really know why we were anxious while eating that bag of Cheese Rings while rewatching How I Met Your Mother that one time. And we’ll never really know when our last string is pulled and we just lose it. In short, we will never know for sure when or why we will lose control. And there’s a 100 percent chance that at some point in the future, we will.

But when you take a moment to just breathe, you take something that your body does unconsciously to keep itself alive and make it a willful act. Something that is ordinarily unintentional becomes deliberate and with purpose. We take something that is normally done on auto-pilot and we take control of it.

Imagine you’re in a car with a mind of its own and it’s on an absolute rampage, no control over acceleration, gears, or navigation, and even the wipers have gone haywire, wouldn’t it help to at least have the foot over the brake? You have no clue where you’re headed but at least, you can slow down. You can slow down to a complete stop, step out of the car, walk slowly away from it, and for a second just forget. Forget that your car’s about to go off again with your foot off the brake. Forget that you’re losing control of all things around you.

The truth is, you have no control over 99 percent of the world anyway. But you control the speed of your walk, the length of your pace, and the pace of your breath.

So when you find yourself all anxious and sad at a Manila Creamery with your friend Wookie, you’ll know without her having to tell you. Breathe, because you can and because it’s free, and get something other than Malted Vanilla.