Three minutes without air, and your brain begins to die. A first responder will check an unconscious person for breathing even before they look for bleeding. Our breath is our most direct connection to life. So I invite you to take a breath and hold it. How long can you do so? Unless you’re a trained free diver, it’s probably a lot less than three minutes. What does it feel like to hold your breath? How does this feeling change as you continue to do so? And how gooood does that first breath you take afterwards feel?
Our breath is shared with all beings. The proportion of plants to animals determines the ratio of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the atmosphere, and so the temperature of the biosphere and the range of life that can exist. We are directly dependent on all the living things on this planet for the air we breathe and the areas of the planet that we can inhabit. By changing that balance as we have by releasing such large volumes of carbon into the atmosphere, we are reshaping the only home we have. The atmosphere is the thinnest, most vulnerable organ the body of our planet has. We have grown so powerful that we are literally determining who lives, and who dies, and since we are doing it without awareness, or full knowledge of the consequences of our actions, we may well be killing ourselves, cutting the web of life out from under our own feet.
To the Celts, knowledge was carried on the breath. Their culture was an oral one, and for a long time, they believed that to write a thought down was to kill it as the vital spark of life in it was gone. The very word, inspiration, means “to breathe in.” To me, a song is carried on the breath. Music only truly exists in the moment it is being played. Even to remember it, you have to play the tune in your head. Yes, it can be written down, but that is cold storage. A page of sheet music does not sing. It takes a person to do that, to take those markings from the page and transform them into sound again. The invention of recorded music allows us all to hear the greatest performers whenever we please, and–truly amazing–to hear them long after their deaths, but the recording must be played in order to have its full existence.
Even this miracle is a double-edged sword. Most of us don’t sing any more, or at least not nearly as much as we used to. Many of us are literally afraid to open our mouths at all. We can hear virtuoso performances any time we want to, so learning to play an instrument or sing isn’t nearly as vital as it used to be, but the things we could be learning by being able to hear those performances over and over and learning in the process to duplicate them are lost to many of us. We can get some of the pleasure with no more effort than pushing a button but we are losing out on the greater pleasure of making the music ourselves. How many times have you heard someone say “I play the radio,” when asked whether they play an instrument? We’re allowing ourselves to be intimidated by the quality of those performances, instead of being inspired by them. How many times have you heard someone say “I can’t sing”? What was carried on the breath is now carried in the pocket. So maybe the Celts were onto something there. They adopted writing in order to save some of their knowledge because the living libraries known as fili, brehons, druids, were being slaughtered by invaders. While that innovation saved things that would otherwise have been lost, enriching our collective memory and making information that was in the hands of specialists available to a much wider audience, our individual memories are not the well trained muscles that they were. The linkages between knowledge that can only be made by people who have all the information in their minds, readily accessible, are no longer available to us.
Our planet, our lives, are a song being sung by all of us, carried on the collective breath we all share. Each of us has a part to play. Our every action is a note in the larger chorus. The knowledge within every being on the planet is the fabric of which we are all made. From the dance of photosynthesis, the knowledge of the plants of how to capture the energy of sunlight and make it available to all, the planet has built up to the knowledge that allows us to actually leave the surface of our planet, beyond the atmosphere to where we can finally see ourselves as the one living world that we are all part of.
Our knowledge is now the key. When the Celts adopted writing, they allowed us to hear the voices of the dead. They also expanded the range of time they could hold clearly in their collective consciousness, and the depth and breadth of the poetic meters that were available to them. They had no idea that all this would happen, it was a result of their willingness to adapt and change. We have begun to change our world, true, but we have also targeted the part of it that is the fastest to react to change. What we have done happens at a rate that is slow for us, but within the span of time that we humans are capable of perceiving. We have already done a related experiment on the outermost part of our planet, the ozone layer. Back in the 1970s, we discovered we were “holing the spacesuit” with our indiscriminate use of chlorofluorocarbons, and at that time in our history, we were able to work together, to ban the use of these compounds and reduce their use far enough so that we are able to see the healing happening. If we can do that, we can also do the same with carbon. It will be harder, CFCs are fairly exotic and far more easily replaced than carbon, the basis of life itself, but we are are inventive creatures, never more so than when our lives depend on it.
All that we are is borrowed from the organism we are part of. All of it must be given back, and at the beginning of this post, you had the opportunity to learn just how impossible it is to hold onto the breath, and how vital it is to life. It also can determine the state of our consciousness. Three deep breaths are the quickest way I know to calm down, if they are taken with awareness, and allowed to have their own shape.
Breath is a great wheel. I invite you to breathe in, slowly. Take the air in all the way to your belly, until it stops by itself. There is a natural pause there, and if you just let it, your body will round that curve, and give back the breath it has just taken in. There is a similar pause at the bottom of the breath, and your body will, if you let it, round that curve and breathe in once again. Can you concentrate only on your breath long enough to do that three times? It can be hard at first, but with practice, you can follow your breath, and feel the effect it has on your body and your mind. Three breaths are available to you any time, any place. No one will notice if you do this on the bus, at a meeting, when you are feeling stressed. And it costs you nothing. This is a benefit of our connection to all beings.
If you have the time, and the inclination, can you follow nine of your breaths with complete concentration? Awareness is a muscle, and this is not as easy a task as it sounds. The benefits will only become apparent to you with time and practice, but they will be as close as your next breath, whenever you choose to take it.