Without adequate breath, obviously, nothing else matters. As a sometime ER nurse and continuing asthmatic, I'm more than usually aware of that fact.
I mean something beyond that, though. Something more pervasive.
Breathing, like walking, is one of those things that I keep coming back to as an interesting study -- one that's so fundamental that I forget, in between times, exactly how deeply it changes everything else in life.
I first began meditating in my very early teens, after basic instruction from my mother:
1. Think of a simple, unemotional mental image, like a burning candle flame, and breathe.
2. As thoughts come and go, let them go (sometimes, especially at first, I had to chase them off) then...
3. Bring your attention back to the image and the breath.
The image didn't do me much good – I think fire is a little too emotional for me – but simply being at home to my breath, and letting the haywire-ness of the day drift off into the mist... with my odd and beguiling little cat softly nestled against my leg under the covers... did me all the good in the world. Especially at 13.
The language of breath is interesting. Breath, spirit, life, and insight often share the same word or sounds in languages around the world. For instance, in English, "inspiration" means both a breath, and a sudden idea; the root word means spirit. There is no divide between these ideas.
(Life, breath, spirit, ideas... how can these be separated? How can a life worth living, let alone a bearable life, let alone a pulse, exist without all of them?)
As I said, I've been breathing intentionally for decades. In my 20's, I taught my ER and ICU patients a particular form of breathing which, I'd noticed, cut their pain response, lowered their blood pressure, and improved the level of oxygen in their blood -- no matter what they came in with.
In 3 breaths the difference was noticeable, and if I could persuade them to take 10, we were halfway home.
It goes like this:
1. Breathe in through your nose.
2. Draw the breath all the way down into your lower abdomen.
3. Let it out through gently pursed lips, like softly blowing out a birthday candle.
The abdominal breathing improves lung expansion. The slight backpressure on the exhalation nudges extra oxygen into the system (the importance of oxygen can't be overstated, especially in emergencies) and sends a gentle message to the blood-pressure sensors in the neck, telling them to lower pressure.
This kind of breathing activates the "calm down" part of the central nervous system, that is, the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system.
The extra oxygen helps clear some of the oxidative damage away.
It feels wonderful.
And it always works.
(Clinical note: for people with COPD, I did 2-3 breaths, and checked in. As with most adults with a chronic disease, they could generally be trusted to sense their limits and stop. Youngsters soon learn, though very few youngsters have COPD.)
Recently, I've learned a slightly different technique from the same psychologist I mentioned in my last post...
1. Notice my breathing. That's all. Let everything calm down for a bit.
2. Draw the breath into my abdomen.
3. Gradually increase the size of those abdominal breaths.
4. Let the midchest join in, getting still more air in. Exhale from the top down.
5. Eventually, let air into my abdomen, then midchest, then upper chest -- inhaling from the bottom up. My lungs are pretty fully expanded in the inhale now, and I still exhale from the top down.
6. I tell myself: My arms are heavy and warm. Soon, they are.
7. I tell myself: My legs are heavy and warm. Soon, they are.
8. I tell myself: My lower abdomen is warm and relaxed. The whole bowl of my pelvis becomes a sea of lovely calm. (I had no idea how much standing tension was stored there, at the bottom of the spine and where all the exits are -- though it makes sense, when I think about it...)
9. Then I stop contriving my breathing, and let it just flow.
After about 15 minutes, well, life is good. Really good. Talk about activating the parasympathetic nervous system.
I've forgotten what else I was going to say. I want to be that peaceful and warm right now.
Oh yeah. The point is this:
Breathing well makes everything better.
It shouldn't be that simple, but it is.
Excuse me. My limbs need to be heavy and warm... In a good way.