When you think about it, breathing is a lot of trouble. In and out. In and out. Over and over it’s the same thing, all day and all night. But breathing is good for you. In particular, with a full, deep breath the body feels more grounded, the heart lighter, the mind quieter.
It’s so easy to forget. Many years ago, before my neck failed and my career imploded, I commuted from San Francisco to work as a surgeon in a town thirty minutes north. The commute was most picturesque, as it took me along the bluffs above the Pacific, across the Golden Gate Bridge, and through the rolling countryside of Marin County. The morning trips lifted my spirits, but after full days spent treating patients I often unconsciously held my breath during the return drives. Motoring along contemplating my life, I would ‘wake up’ to find my shoulders hunched, my muscles rigid, my jaw clenched, my lungs half-full and not moving. It was as if my repetitive and stressed-out thoughts were so interesting that I couldn’t be bothered with breathing. When I caught myself in the throes of such tension, I would deliberately take a few deep breaths and attempt to relax. But a few minutes later my body would lock up again.
Nowadays, I seldom contract into that knotted, immobile, anoxic state. No longer a surgeon, I live with much less stress than before. But even if my days again became intense and arduous, I believe my body and mind have learned to work better together. I think it would be possible for me to produce under pressure without letting tension crush me. I would keep breathing.
Beginning meditators are often instructed to focus attention on their breath. As meditating skills increase, other practices are suggested, but breathing continues to serve as an important anchor for consciousness. Breath happens in the present moment, so if you pay attention to it, you stay in the richness of the real world and don’t disappear into the shadowy and simulated universe of thought.
These days I am learning to perform what is sometimes called physician acupuncture. The six-month training is brief relative to the path of non-physician acupuncturists, but of course the process builds on earlier education about the body, mind, and health. Even so, by learning acupuncture I am beginning to view the human being in an entirely new way. The reason I bring this up is that within Chinese medicine, the lung is associated not only with breathing, but also with sadness and grief. It seems like a nice metaphoric connection, because in breathing we actively bring the outside atmosphere into our bodies and then let it out again. Sadness and grief, at core, involve a parallel process of taking in hardship and letting go of loss.
Taking in, letting go, taking in, letting go. It is a fitting instructive for psychic life, which requires a loose grip. In the past, I would tighten my hands around everything that happened. I tried to control outcomes, and I hated letting go. No wonder I quit breathing. My mind had set itself against the eternal currents of human life.
Whether in meditation, while driving, or when viewing a computer screen, it is important to stay connected with breath. We must allow tidal forces their motion, and remain open to the flow and surges of fate. Our spirits thrive when we stay in touch with our animal bodies, embrace the world of physical sensation, and breathe deeply.