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Reply To: The Air We Breathe

#73982

Thank you Doug Harris, and Isabelle (love your cybername of centersoul, Isabelle), for your kind words, and your passion – and especially for returning the focus to Breath.

Normally, my heart beats on its own —“I” don’t exert direct conscious control over the frequency or intensity of my pulse. All other bodily processes — circulation, perspiration, metabolism, etc. — are similarly autonomic, or “unconscious.” Obviously, I am beating my heart, monitoring my internal body temperature, secreting the necessary hormones — but not the conscious, waking me.

Breathing also occurs without conscious direction or intervention — yet it is different from other involuntary processes in that we can consciously control our breath. Hence breathing is that bodily process where consciousness and the unconscious most clearly intersect, and so has long served as a launching pad for subjective explorations of the mystery of Being.

Joseph Campbell charts this development as starting roughly 5,000 years ago, once someone in India noticed that we breathe differently when being chased by a tiger than when lounging on the lush green banks of river skipping stones across the water.

In the first circumstance, one is in an agitated state of mind; in the second, one is peaceful, calm and serene. Naturally it’s the circumstances that trigger the breathing and the state of mind (who isn’t agitated when chased by a tiger?), but what if we turn it around and put the breathing first?

You begin by breath control, by breathing to certain paces, and the breath is very curious … The notion is that emotion and feeling and state of mind are related to breath. When you are at rest, the breathing is in a nice, even order. When you are stirred with shock, the breathing changes. With passion the breathing changes. Change the breathing, and you change the state.

Joseph Campbell, Mythos II

Sure enough, hyperventilating can leave one anxious and agitated, even if there are no tigers in the immediate vicinity, while focusing on steadying the breath induces tranquility and equanimity, leaving one open to Stillness — the Silence beneath the rush of reality.

So while Breath is a core archetypal image reverberating through multiple collective crises that have overtaken us today, it also  offers a means of maintaining balance and grounding amid the turbulence and turmoil. This doesn’t mean retreat to a mountaintop and withdraw from the world – but amid wearing masks and practicing social distancing, protesting racism, and working to decrease reliance on fossil fuels, a little conscious breathing helps us be mindful about what we do.