From the first breath we take in life through to the last, breathing is our most intimate connection with the mystery and beauty of natural world. The idea of breathing across time symbolizes deep belonging and primal participation with the natural flow of life. However, breathing often remains hidden from our awareness, and we can forget the deeper meaning it invites us to inhabit. Those of us that ignore the breath will remain deprived of the basic knowledge of life.
The Poetics of BreathIt is remarkable, strange, and surprising to find ourselves here. Our existence is permeated with undercurrents of mystery that lie securely hidden beyond the farthest reaches of our perception. The Great Mystery of life is simply that there is something, that we suddenly appear in the world in the midst of an incredible and beautiful diversity of life – but only for a brief and fragile moment in time.
The act of breathing is fundamental to all life; it is our universal bond with the natural world. When our breathing becomes stressed or uncertain, the feeling of life becomes anxious and uncomfortable. The rhythm and flow of our breath is intimately connected with the health of our body, the clarity our mind, and the vitality of our spiritual presence.
The word spirit originates in the Latin spiritus meaning breath; spirit is the breath of life. To breathe is to be a spiritual being.
Each moment of our life we breathe in air that has been circulating the entire planet. In this sense, the air we breathe carries the spirit of the earth. In a certain sense, we literally breathe in the earth, and the earth breathes back into us. This is a universal and sacred bond with the natural environment.
Our first breath is a profound and remarkable event that announces the beginning of new life. Our final breath is an equally profound and remarkable moment that brings our life to an end. From this perspective, aging can be defined as the story of our journey between birth and death, the breath of time between our emergence and disappearance.
Throughout every moment of our journey between our birth and death, the quality of our breathing influences the interpretation of our experience. In his poem Sometimes, David Whyte beautifully captures this dynamic. Physical, mental, and spiritual well-being becomes a struggle when the quality of our breathing is impaired. The nature of life in society is one of immersion into imposed pressure, stress, and anxiety complemented by a remarkably well-developed assortment of neuroses. The simple act of optimal breathing degrades under these conditions. And with that degradation, we suffer.
When our breathing is suboptimal, our fundamental relationship with life is damaged.
Our First Breath
The most profound moment during birth is when the infant takes its very first breath in the world. The infant’s transition from the mother’s womb into the open air is a deeply creative and sacred act. A new life emerges into the world, and a new presence begins a new journey.
In the sanctuary of the mother’s womb, the umbilical cord provides oxygen and essential nutrients to the infant. The lungs are, at this point, filled with fluid. During birth a remarkable transformation takes place that leads to a defining moment of life, and that is the very moment of the first breath.
The first breath is the primal and sacred cry of life. The first breath is the most powerful expression of creativity and independence on earth. In this precious moment, time deepens and expands in every direction to offer space for a new presence. And though the first several breaths of the baby may be irregular, they soon merge with the natural flow and rhythm inspired by the earth.
Very soon after our arrival here in the world, excepting problems or complications, the infant’s breathing normalizes. A young infant instinctively knows how to breathe in a natural and optimal state. I can recall a deep sense of peace and reverence in observing my own children sleep when they were infants. The spirit of these memories remains a defining element in my own sense of fatherhood.
In the precise moment of our first breath, time embraces and welcomes us into our new found independence. Our initial existence is not marked by the bland, tedious, and life-numbing mechanization of the clock (chronos). As infants, we naturally breathe into the depths of time (kairos). In the wisdom of youth, time is not counted, measured and quantified; it is a quality and depth of being and awareness that defies mere quantification.
When we are new born, we breathe into the depths of time, and time breathes back into the depths of our spirit. This is our true home.
Breathing across Time
As we age, we continue to accumulate a repertoire of experiences over time. No two people experience life in the same way. Each one of us creates a unique narrative of living that originates in the unique interplay of all of our choices and decisions across a lifetime. Our life course is also influenced by the appearance of the unexpected, those events, situations and circumstances that catch us off guard, take us by surprise, and hijack our experience in directions we had not foreseen.
We live in a constant state of creative emergence. All creativity requires destruction; destruction is not the opposite of creativity, it is the child of creativity. That is to say, as we continue to creatively emerge into life over time, we will lose parts of ourselves along the way. Real creativity often requires a degree of suffering.
At some point early in life, we are forced to vacate our youth, to “grow up,” and to seek entrance into the noisy neon realm of social expectations, rules, norms, and assumptions. Education expertly conditions us to quietly seek solace in the status quo. Works invites us into the obsessive-compulsive realm of an economy insanely driven by the malevolence of consumption, a macabre celebration of greed, and the virulence of rampant self-interest.
And we all become tools for invisible hands.
The simple act of breathing in the midst of the neon wail of modern society is endangered. Stress and anxiety alter the quality of our breathing, and therefore impair our sense of time. We become mired in the bog of “effective” time management, and live an efficiently-managed superficial existence. In effect, we become lost in an uncontrollable sense of acceleration. The speed of life increases, even though the destination assures our collective destruction.
Time is not meant to be managed, it is meant to be experienced.
It is only natural that our breathing would suffer and become abnormal under these circumstances. At its worst, we remain unaware that our breathing has become habitually shallow, constricted, and unhealthy. Hyperventilation is the defining symbol of the world we have created for ourselves. Abnormal breathing disrupts body, mind, and spirit, and we can no longer find ourselves in the mirror.
The practise of optimal breathing is a core discipline of aging. We offer conscious and sensitive attention to our breathing as a means of being kind to ourselves. Optimal breathing is the foundation of essential capacities including awareness, attention, comprehension, clarity, creativity, vitality, and equanimity.
Ultimately, breathing is a sacred expression of gratitude, belonging, and beauty. Or, as the Native Indian saying echoes: Every breath we take is a prayer.
Our Final Breath
I can vividly recall the final breath my mother took in this world.
For the two days leading up to her death, her breathing was deeply unsettled and irregular despite the use of powerful sedatives. Yet, in the few hours before her death, her breathing had started calm and settled into a new rhythm. The space between her inhalations and exhalations gradually began to expand. The still points in between her breaths were imbued with a sacred energy of awe and reverence. The approaching silence became more ominous, yet it was also the harbinger of a merciful release and absolute peace.
Something far greater than anything human had now embraced my mother. There was a presence on her death bed whose mere glance could easily humble even the most arrogant and self-interested among us. Chronos is exiled, and the depths of kairos re-emerge with incredible force.
My mother’s final breath was marked by a long exhalation. This last breath felt like a deep, sacred release back into the earth. As I held her hand, I felt her life force leave her body during. I looked at her, and the silence in her body lunged at me. And with that final breath, the precise moment of her death had mercifully arrived.
There is great poignance in waiting by a sick bed for someone who is taking a long time to die. One waits for the last breath, for the release of the dying person from their sickness and weariness. At some moments the last breath seems to be there. For a second, there is an eerie silence. Then, as if from nowhere, the breathing begins again. (John O’Donohue, Four Elements: Reflections on Nature, 2010)
But then, immediately after she had died, it arrived. A haunting stillness and overwhelming sense of absence tore the meaning of humility into the secret places in my heart. My mother had died and with her, life as I knew it died as well. Each breath I take is instilled with the painful yet merciful loss of my mother.
Her body, now a corpse, had been vacated and left behind. The energy that animated the wonderful vitality of my mother had simply vanished. Even though I could still see her body lying on the bed, she had completely disappeared.
She was gone, her presence renewed.
Once we have completed our final breath, we have no recollection of it. Memory ceases to exist, except in the hearts and minds of those who survive us. When we are truly out of breath, we are also out of time.
Time deepens and expands to accommodate our disappearance. There is a painful sense of loss that enters into our life, but there is also the emergence of a potent new presence as well.
And like the first breath, our final breath in this world is a sacred cry of life, but this time to those we must leave behind.