THE MARVELOUS, MAGICAL, MYSTICAL BREATH
Human life begins with an inhaled breath….and ends with an exhaled breath.
Take a breath….let it go. Take…..give back. Receive…..return. I’m going to ask every one of you….in fact I’m going to insist on it….that you keep breathing during this entire service.
We can breathe through the nose.… or the mouth. Breathing through the nose provides a wonderful filtration system. Breathing through the mouth lets in unfiltered air, brings dry mouth, snoring.
The “content” of our breath is pretty much the same going in as it is going out….with one life giving difference. Roughly 20 % of the inhaled breath is oxygen and of that 20 %, one quarter of it is retained by the body and replaced by carbon dioxide in the exhaled breath. Sort of like an internal combustion engine; taking in oxygen to burn the gasoline and exhausting waste gasses through the tail pipe.
Breath goes to the lungs, but…. It turns out all parts of the lungs aren’t created equal. The lower portion of the lungs has a considerably larger capacity then does the upper.
A little experiment; Hold your stomach in please and then take a few breaths…..breath into your chest….high enough that you lift your collarbone a bit (pause.) Now please let your stomach just hang out there and then take a few breaths…..breathe into your belly. (pause) Now please adjust your posture so that your spine is straight and your shoulders are back. Now relax and breathe. Allow your breath to expand your belly as you inhale and allow it to contract gently back as you exhale. If your belly doesn’t extend naturally, just give it a little nudge. Feel your belly rising and falling. This is a FULL BREATH or a DEEP BREATH.
Of course your breath doesn’t really go “to your belly,” but as it enters your lower lungs it compresses your diaphragm which then expands into your belly and pushes it out… making it feel like the breath goes to your stomach. And…..because the lower part of the lungs has considerably more capacity than the upper, a “deep breath” brings considerably more oxygen to the body than a shallow breath. And….more oxygen means more energy.
But….and here’s where it gets really interesting. Deeper breaths also trigger chemical responses in the body which automatically move all the muscles and organs of the body in the direction of relaxation, thus giving validity to the old adage, “Take a deep breath.” What a bargain! More energy AND relaxation…..for free! Just by breathing deeply! Goodbye caffeine and Xanax, hello breath!
Here’s another interesting metaphor; your breath and your body act like dancing partners, but the best kind of partners because…..either one can lead! Just as breathing deeply relaxes the body, so relaxing the body produces a deeper breath. Wonderful dance, isn’t it?
Years ago when we spent winters in California I became acquainted with a minister who gave me a special gift. Whenever she’d say something really powerful she’d follow it with this suggestion, “I want you to BREATHE THAT IN!” She’s say something like, “God doesn’t mess around makin’ life difficult for you. He ain’t got time for that. He gives you a world perfectly designed to give you everything you want……now I want you to breathe that in!” And….I’ve been doing that ever since. I find it a wonderful tool to help me to “anchor” to some things I believe, but sometimes forget. Just like Deborah taught me in the statement I just read.
So, what about the mystical part?
First off, the English word “spirit” derives from the Latin “spiritus” which means “breath.” Interesting.
Many ancient peoples saw the breath as physical evidence of the “Great Spirit,” literally joining with, becoming a part of each of us. And becoming our essence. Perhaps they saw the inhaled breath to be literally an INSPIRATION; feeling the divine presence. The exhaled breath could have been seen as a releasing of anything toxic to the body; literally purifying the body to allow a deeper understanding of the intimate connection between Man and God.
Another reason our ancient relatives valued breath is that they discovered it to be the gateway to FEELING. These early ancestors hadn’t yet developed language to the point that it became a learning tool for them, so they learned through their feelings. “Gut” feelings perhaps….intuition. And it came from an intimate connection to the world about them. What we know about indigenous peoples is that they enjoyed an intimate connection with their world…..indeed, their “inner” world and “outer” world were inextricably connected. They were PART OF their world, not separate from it.
Wouldn’t that be nice? But can WE actually live this way? Those of you that know me at all know that this is the kind of question that I’ve been entertaining and exploring for several years now. And….I’d like to share with you now the place it’s taken me…..for now!
This is a little exercise which I’ve found useful and in which I invite you to join me if you’re inclined.
Guided meditation “Sensing the natural rhythms”
Please sit comfortably, with your spine vertical, your hands in your lap, and your shoulders open. Allow your eyes to close if that’s comfortable for you. Now….bring a sense of softness to your face. Feel the skin of your forehead melt against your skull. Let your eyes rest easily in their sockets. Relax the jaw muscles, allow the lips to soften against the teeth……Now allow the feeling of softness to move down to include the shoulders. Feel them fall gently away from the ears.
Now, let your attention move to your breath. As you inhale, feel air from outside being invited inside….oxygen to nurture and sustain. Feel your breath softening your belly. You may feel your belly reaching forward just a bit. As you exhale, Feel yourself releasing….letting go of chemicals you no longer need but other living things do. Feel the perfectly designed rhythmic dance between you and the world about you.
Sit comfortably with your breath. Allow it to deepen but don’t TRY to make it happen (pause.) Then just allow it to find its own rhythm. Then sense other rhythms inside. The beating heart…. the flowing blood…. the rhythms of eating, drinking, digestion and elimination….the rhythms of waking and sleeping… of working and resting. Now begin to sense the world in which we live and notice that, just like us, it has its rhythms too. Our planet spins in perfect rhythm to provide day and night. To keep it from being boring it also plays with its axis so that the length of days and nights varies. Perhaps “Mother Earth” breathes just as we do…inhaling to day….exhaling in release of day to allow for night….and rest….only to start the process over again….and again…just like us. This little old ball also manages to revolve around its “Father Sun.” and it does it in the same predictable, rhythmic number of its rotations. Perhaps the sun breathes the earth around itself, beginning its inhale in early spring, fully inhaling to summer, and exhaling into fall….and winter.
Notice the maple tree, inhaling…. creating buds and then leaves onto its branches…. and then exhaling them into glorious fall colors and release….to feed other trees and other leaves.
Notice the rhythm of water, inhaling itself into the sky as vapor and condensation, then exhaling…releasing itself to the fall as rain, sleet and snow which gravity induces.
Notice also the perfect rhythms of the life cycle. Our ability to accept comfortably our natural life cycle has a great effect on our ability to find peace. And….notice that while there are averages, the length of any life is unpredictable. Just like all life everywhere, it ends when it ends. This is a significant feature of the natural order of things. Everything that is born dies…from insects to galaxies. IT IS THE NATURAL ORDER OF THINGS.
As you feel these and many more of the natural rhythms both inside and outside yourself can you feel a sense of being an integral part of it all? Interconnected and interdependent?
All of these things and countless more comprise this marvelous world we live in….and lives in us. When we sense our deep connection to and partnership with these natural rhythms, our world feels good. It feels like we “belong” here. Maybe then it feels safe to follow our deepest and best instincts. And in this place we’re free….to be and express our truest, deepest selves….to trust, to forgive, to offer our gifts, to care and to love. Not for personal gain or because it makes us “good” persons…but because our experience of life is so much richer…..and maybe just because it takes so much effort to withhold these things. Withholding trust, forgiveness and love is like holding our breath. It’s unhealthy and it’s just too much work. So….perhaps…..with each exhaled breath, we can begin to let go of judgment, anger, worry and fear. Breathing…. we feel fully alive… we express authentically…. we accept the people and conditions of our life…. we accept life…. just as it is.
Here, then, are some of the things I’ve learned from sitting with my breath;
I’ve learned there is something…..an energy…..that gives form and substance to ALL THAT IS……and directs the rhythms that move and guide everything. I sense an incredible intelligence in this energy and I’ve come to call this….God.
I’ve learned that knowing this doesn’t usurp my ability to FORGET that I know it. And when I forget, I find myself anxious, unhappy, angry, afraid.
I’ve also learned that the presence of these emotions is my wake-up call. A reminder that in these moments I’ve forgotten what I know to be true. And….I return to my breath…… and remember again….and rest again in and with the natural rhythms in which and with which I live.
In this place, there’s truly nothing to be afraid of, nothing that needs to change, no one I can’t trust and love, nothing I need that I don’t already have.
In this place my death is as natural and perfect as my birth. In graciously accepting my death I’m free to live without fear.
This is the peaceful resting place in which…… there is acceptance…. of people…. events….and life….just as it is…..right now.