More Than Air
Do you ever forget to breathe? I know I do. In fact, I did just now.
“Impossible,” you say. “Breathing is involuntary; you shouldn’t have to think about it. You’re probably just doing it wrong.” And you’re probably right. Overthinking (and forgetting) is a skill that I have spent my entire life forging and perfecting. If I start letting the basics go unnoticed all of that work would be for naught.
However, to the more or less functioning person, breathing is one of the many intricate processes that one is fortunate enough to take for granted. We are built with the capability to sip on life twenty thousand times a day without a single thought. Imagine! In a matter of seconds a single breath rushes like wildfire into your lungs, igniting six hundred miles worth of capillaries and smacking your blood cells in the face, screaming, “Get to the heart! Do it now!” And all your body asks of you is to get out of the way.
It sounds like a fairly simple solution, yet almost every five minutes I find myself with that all too familiar drowning sensation, frozen in that fraction of a second stricken with panic just before my brain screams at me to let go. To step aside and let something in. And in that moment I realize that I’m not forgetting: I am resisting the need to breathe, even though the only reward in such a struggle is my own demise. Inevitably I listen to my body, of course, and so much air rushes in that I momentarily question the capacity of my lungs.
This is bigger than breath. This is life. Right? Does this happen to you too? Maybe not with breathing, but what about… everything else?
Giving birth to my daughter was the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever experienced. Never had I felt more powerful or more vulnerable; I was filled with light and life for days. Every color, every scent was more vivid than ever before, and every breath was seamless and invigorating. And yet this magnificent little creature that had introduced me to such bliss was the reason I was swaying and shushing in the bathroom of a doctor’s office, desperately trying to be discreet in feeding her while behind that bathroom door my mother sat alone to hear her unexpected death sentence. And just like that the bliss was sucked out.
The loss of my mother deserves the deepest consideration and recognition, much more than is accessible in a single caffeine-fueled blog entry. However, it is the strongest example available to me that can illustrate my dilemma: How do I muster the courage to care about anything when it will be, in all likelihood, unceremoniously ripped from my hands? Every evening, as I try to convince my daughter to surrender to the arms of sleep, I choke back tears and wrestle with the image of my grandmother hopelessly stroking my mother’s hair as she slipped away. How could anybody be so brave? How could I?
Just hours ago I held my sister’s hand as she fearlessly brought a new life into this world. And now as I watch that life gaze into his mother’s eyes, I remember just how palpable true joy is, and just how naturally it comes to even the most inexperienced life. And I remind myself that joy cannot be fully realized without its agonizing counterpart; that there is a tidal nature to life, an ebb and flow to everything. There is a heartbeat driving everybody, and it all starts with the breath. While I recognize the importance of learning to filter and contextualize our raw emotions, I wonder if perhaps some of us have learned to dull them instead. Perhaps we’ve embraced the safety in treading lightly and taking shallow breaths, or perhaps not breathing altogether. Or, perhaps, it’s just me.
And there it is. Breathing: necessary for me to live, and essential to my own self-care. My breath is my greatest ally in my struggle to let it all in, whether “it” is an old friend I’ve just met, or memories of the woman who gave me breath. And as a fairly approachable practice, breathing only requires two steps in repetition. Try it with me:
Let it in.
Let it go.