Breathing As a Metaphor for Living
THIS IS A TWO PAGE ENTRY…LONG BUT GOOD. IT’S BASED ON A TALK I GAVE THIS PAST SUNDAY…
Take a deep breath, and hold it for a moment. Now breathe out. Imagine that the breath you just breathed out could affect the whole world. Well, it does. The breath you just took in could have been breathed by someone in China, or Denmark, or the Outer Hebrides. And when you breath out, that same breath will circulate, be absorbed by trees or plants, and be breathed out by them to be the air someone else breathes in again. We are all interconnected. And the whole universe runs in cycles.
It’s interesting that when we focus on our breathing, things get still. It’s often similar when we meditate – everything gets still. But the minute we begin to engage with the rest of the world, that stillness seems to dissipate. Yet it’s important that we learn how to keep that focus even in the midst of being engaged it the world – because what we do every moment affects everything else.
We can look at breathing as a metaphor for the process of intake and outflow of everything life has to offer. If we do, we can maintain a conscious stillness throughout all experience, so that we can be aware each moment of what we are taking in, and what we “breathe out.” We would lead much more conscious lives.
The process of inflow and outflow is like a spiral, flowing in and up and around and back. And because we’re all interconnected, it’s really important to think about that intake and outgo in terms of the effects we create as we participate in that cycle. For example, you wouldn’t knowingly walk into a room full of poisonous gas, and take a deep breath. And if you are ill, you wouldn’t deliberately breathe your germs on others.
The same is true of our experiences. The breathing cycle is a metaphor for living through experience. Whether it’s reading, partaking of a conversation, watching a movie, eating – any experience you can think of, it’s all intake and outflow.
The first part of the cycle is the breathing in, the taking in of experience. How conscious are we, as we go through our day, of the things we choose to experience?
I used to talk to my students about drugs, and I was very honest with them. People take drugs because they feel good, but there is always a down side – they destroy you. And I would ask them, “Why, when you know the harm they can do, would you even consider taking drugs? I would tell them the story of the little boy who is about to swim across the river when a snake comes up to him and asks, “Would you take me across? You could tuck me into your shirt and when you get across I’d just get out on the other shore.”
“But you’d bite me!”
“Of course I wouldn’t bite you! I’d be your friend.”
So the little boy takes the snake, tucks him inside his shirt, and swims across the river. Just as he’s about to step on to the shore, the snake bites him. And as he is dying, about to fall into the river, the young boy says to the snake, “You bit me! You said you wouldn’t do that.” The snake responds, “But, you knew what I was when you picked me up. I’m a snake.”
What are some of the more common drugs of experience? Television, idle chatter, food, gossip. There are so many things we take in that are not really good for us, yet we still do them. And I do want to make a point here, which is that I am not making a blanket statement that all television is bad, for example. What I am saying is that we need to be conscious of how we use what we take in. Are we using it to be more conscious, or to numb feelings or thoughts we don’t want to confront?
So we must be conscious, as we are going about our day or week, to notice what we are taking in, what we are breathing in – it’s really an important thing to do. To be conscious of our intake, and to decide beforehand whether or not we want to do that.
Then there is the interval, the pause. It is at this time that we have the opportunity to hold on to and examine what we have taken in. Metaphorically, this might be the time to reflect on whether or not what we have breathed in is worthwhile, and what we should do with it. For example – let’s say we “take in” the news that there is a family down the street that has fallen on hard times, and has no food. The interval is that time in which we can ponder how we can help. Should we form a neighborhood group to help our friends? Write a check? Deliver groceries? We can take stock of the experience and decide if there is an action that can be taken to make things better.
So in the interval between taking in a breath and breathing it out lies an opportunity. If we are fully conscious, we breathe in, and then we apply our attention to what we have taken in. Esoterically, this is called a moment of tension, which is not tension as we usually think of it, but more as a sense of potential, and choice. One way to use this time is to appreciate the joy of the breath, or the sunset, or a delicious meal. This interval gives you the opportunity to ponder: What do I do with this breath? This gossip? This educational information? This talent? This glorious moment?
When I drive in the country, if I see a huge flock of birds swarming in non-geometric patterns, or a tree of a particularly beautiful shape or color, I may take it in as I drive. But then I pull over to the side of the road to watch, to sit still and appreciate what I have seen. That interval is the time when one has already breathed in, and now can appreciate the moment, the breath. (We say grace at the start of the meal – this might be the equivalent of saying grace at the end of a meal.) To stop – maybe at the end of the day – and appreciate the good you have experienced – and to use it to dissipate the uncomfortable.
Then we have exhalation. When we take something wonderful in – a joyous experience of any sort, we can share it, even if it’s just through our own joy. When we gain knowledge, we can spread it, share it so that others can gain something from it. If we have a talent, and we cultivate it through “breathing it in,” we can then share that. We can sing, teach, cook…
We can also use pleasant experiences to wash away some of the less pleasant things we’ve breathed in, just as oxygen would clear out smoke damage from our lungs. And if we’ve had an experience that was not pleasant, we can exhale it by visualizing it dissipating, so that the negative energy can be used again, but in a positive way. Everything is energy – it’s what we do with the energy that counts.
So if you have had a particularly unpleasant day, and you come home having breathed it all in, you can share it with another, and let them help you dissipate the energy in the incident. They can “breathe” with you, until you can feel the air getting cleaner and clearer. But don’t spit out the poison on to someone else, just because it’s gotten to you. There is a real difference between sharing your anger, your fear, or your sorrow, and using those same emotions as a justification for passing those feelings on to someone else. If you do the latter, it’s the equivalent of spreading germs or toxic air.
After the breath is exhaled, there is another interval, another moment of potential. In this moment, you have the opportunity to decide upon your next breath. What will you breathe in next? What will you feed yourself with? To give stark examples, you could read a good book, or watch a violent movie. You could eat a hamburger and fries, or a salad and some sustainable fish.
I hope you all take a lot of good, joyous breaths this week, and enjoy each one, from the moment of inhaling, to holding and appreciating what you’ve gained, and then sharing it with the world.