I wrote this ten years ago- luckily breathing is still in fashion, so it isn’t too terribly dated!
There’s one thing I know about you, even if I’ve never met you: you have just taken another breath. And so have I.
This air we inhale exists as one atmosphere stretching from where you are to the plains of the Savannah where a giraffe even now exhales with a bad case of leaf breath.
Approaching storm clouds lighten the atmospheric pressure on our knee joints almost imperceptibly, though some people “know” when rain is coming. I whistle “Camptown Races” and sound waves of “doo-dah!” vibrate into my son’s ears in the other room. As I write this, the carbon dioxide I exhale is enriching the air for the aloe plant in my living room, which might someday return the favor by healing my skin the next time I accidentally burn myself on the toaster oven.
In countless ways, every second, we swim through a sea that encompasses us all, bringing us new things on its diverse currents while carrying the energy and bi-products of our own selves into another’s space.
My interaction with this obvious, yet invisible, sea is perpetual, eternal in the brief span of my life. Between my first newborn inhalation and my last, hopefully well-aged expiration, there is rarely an interruption to my breathing. But unlike our other automatic, lifelong functions – heartbeat, digestion, hormonal function – I can have immediate influence over my breathing with no training or chemical interference; I can hold my breath, breathe deeply or pant myself into hyperventilation.
We can manipulate this natural flow like we try to dam a river or build a jetty into the sea. We assume control for a while, but still the earth and moon pull the water with greater force; the tide will overcome – the breath will fall back to its own rhythm. If we pay attention, we can move with the natural forces, ride the wave if it’s the right size or dive beneath it like a surfer who decides, this one is too big! Inside the breath/wave, we discover the calm below the everyday, where we exist as swallowed by the One.
As well as manipulating my breath, I can choose “not-control.” I can sit quietly, not interfering, just watching my breath come and go. “Inspiration,” according to Webster, means both “the act of inhaling” and “the act or power of moving the intellect or emotions.” Just as my blood uses the influx of oxygen to give my muscles power and regenerative health, my mind and heart can use the inspiration of energy from all around me to good purposes.
Between “in” and “out,” there is a moment of quiet unmoving. This space between is the nothing that contains the Everything, like the cold emptiness of space contains the swirling hot star dots. As the Taoists say, it is not the substance of the cup but the nothing inside that makes it useful. It is the silence of the room which allows a voice to be distinguished. The restful pauses of my breath teach me to value what is not there as the context of what is.
“What is” consists of in-out as the bellows of my lungs open-close, air rushing cold-warm past my nostrils, draw-push, my ribcage feeling light-heavy, in seesaw duality. I am defined by a spot on a continuum somewhere between beautiful and ugly, rich and poor, right and wrong. The in-out of my breath teaches me that neither pole of a spectrum exists without its opposite, and thus the world is divided by our distinctions.
But my breath does not stop at in-out. It circles in-out-in like the cycle of day-night-day. These circles do not meet exactly end to end but spiral into the future so that each inhalation, each sunrise happens at a unique point in time. To find the special power of the moment, I must be inside it, follow it as I embrace, then let go of each breath, not with effort but attention.
Many of us are not in the habit of paying attention to the Now. We are always rushing past the present moment, plotting far up the freeway or career ladder for the next strategic maneuver. Our attention runs on ahead of us as we live out our belief that power and pleasure exist in tomorrow. When we do this, then the power is truly lost to yesterday, its value already spent like the next year’s worth of paychecks would just about cover the average person’s debt. Yet, with each breath we can own where we are, right now. We can accept our daily bread as the pleasure of being alive: of tasting food, of watching today’s sunrise, of taking another breath.
By giving our attention to the breath, even just a few breaths a day, we develop the habit of paying attention to today and all the riches it has to offer. We remain mindful of the invisible sea that connects us all, of our fundamental Oneness and of the power available to us, you and me right this minute, because of this connection.
Do you pay attention to your breath? Do you use your breath to connect to Oneness, to find the power of Now?