Sacred Air: The Primordial Breath of Life
There are summer moments in the big sky Canadian plains, where the trees are eerily still, just before a storm. It seems that all life is holding its breath. Then, the slightest wisp of air softly lifts the leaves into a sway and then a flutter. Soon, the leaves are twirling wildly and the trees themselves begin swaying. Then it starts…the roiling clouds fling their rain and perhaps hail earthward with intensity. One watches the sky carefully for any nipples in the clouds that may send a funnel down into the soil as a deadly tornado.
Only once have I been adjacent to a tornado path where I saw trees bend lateral with the ferocity of the wind, more common in hurricanes. The trees snapped or were twisted out of the earth by their roots, the tornado leaving a trail of destruction to human habitations and businesses, with plant, animal, and human lives lost.
Yet, air, moved by wind currents, is a primordial element that enables all life. When we emerge from our mother’s womb waters and take our first breath of life, we become an earthbound being. Throughout our lives, we primarily live and move through air. We call it the atmosphere where the Greek word atmos means vapour and sphaira means ball or globe…or the layer of gases that envelop our planet. What we forget, is that “the air too is a wilderness,”[i] inhabited by the winged ones, yet it is also a global commons that we all share.[ii]
Air, or rather the atmosphere, is comprised of nitrogen (78%) and oxygen (21%) as well as argon (1%) and a touch of other gases from water vapour and carbon dioxide to helium, hydrogen, and methane.[iii] No other planet that we know of has this type of atmosphere! As Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry describe in The Universe Story,[iv] the original hydrogen atmosphere and then intermediate toxic atmospheres eventually gave way to our oxygen one, largely created by the processes of the planet itself.
As we know, the Earth is surrounded by a blanket of greenhouses gases, just 30 kilometers deep. These were originally pulled in by gravity and meteors which exploded, or were generated from volcanic activity, tectonic collisions, and other processes. Life, particularly microscopic beings, mutated to respire, thereby using these higher levels of oxygen in the atmosphere. This gave these cyano-bacterium (blue green algae) ten times more energy than other cells. Thus, they pervaded every region on Earth, bringing forth the Age of Bacteria, dividing into many species.
Bacteria would help generate Earth’s complex cybernetic system which creatively interweaves the biosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere into a stable, harmonious system. The new ability to photosynthesize, or use sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to create oxygen and energy in the form of sugar,[v] would be a transformation moment which ushered in over two billion years of biological creativity. Beyond 21% oxygen in the atmosphere, life would spontaneously combust. Any less and the atmosphere would become toxic, asphyxiating the oxygen breathers. The atmosphere, particularly the ozone layer, also protects land life from ultraviolent radiation. It is a blanket of protection that is life-generating.
Thus, the act of breathing profoundly connects us to the deep history of the planet and the primal matrix that sustains life. As many scientists say, including David Suzuki, every breath we take is comprised of molecules once adrift in the stars. It is the same air with its trillion of molecules that cycled through volcanoes and animated all previous life forms. We are breathing the same air as the Delphic oracle, Nefertiti, Brigid, Buddha, Jesus, Moses, Mohammed, Bishop Tutu, and Mother Teresa. On this summer solstice, we can breath in this energy to further awaken our higher self and recognize the impact of our energy and how we walk in the world.
We are more than just air breathers. We are creatures made for and by this substance, its pressure on and shaping of our bodies. The rise and fall of our lungs are echoed through the living world, as the land breathes in and out, the soil breathes, as do all living beings. From our very first cry to our last sigh at death, our need for air is absolute. Therefore, says Suzuki, each breath is a sacrament, an essential ritual. It is one reason that simply paying attention to one’s breath is the beginning of meditation and mindfulness. Breathing is a miracle that we instinctually perform every 3.3 seconds. “In a single breath, more molecules of air will pass through your nose than all the grains of sand on all the world’s beaches.”[vii] Yet, while instinctual, breathing is not a passive act.
Breath is often considered synonymous with pneuma or one’s vital spirit. In the Christian tradition: “It was the breath of God that hovered over the lifeless void, the breath that animated the dark waters with a life it had not yet known. The Spirit was the catalyst for life in the space of that which was not-life.”[viii] Thus, breath is understood as energy, the energy that catalyzes all life, differentiating between the animate and nonanimate.[ix]
There are some among us who love the wind, often having grown up in a windy place, perhaps next to the sea. It is wind which is the carrier of air, moving in the giant swirls and tendrils we see over Earth from space. Just as energy moves through the water creating swells, so energy moves the air. Wind is the process that balances or equalizes energy across Earth. Sunlight falls upon land masses with differing effects. It can create heat which rises, creating low pressure below it, so cool air moves in to replace it. If large enough, it creates a low-pressure cell. When air loses heat and gets colder, it is heavier, which can create a high-pressure cell. Thus, wind is created by these high- and low-pressure systems. The greater the pressure difference, the faster the wind will move to balance these forces.[x] Some, who are attuned to wind, can read the messages that come to them on the wind, not only the upcoming weather but of negative or positive energies.
For the space between the elements of nature is not empty. It is occupied to the full - occupied by the air that joins us. To walk is to press your presence into all you walk among. And to feel the press of their presence in return.[vi]
Breath is one way to move energy in our bodies. Ever notice that when stressed, you may hold your breath or breath rapidly. There is much research on the science of breathwork, especially for medical applications such as heart health and cancer treatment. Such mindfulness training usually starts with the breath as a way to raise body awareness, so that we know what is occurring in our breathing and thus our bodies. We live in a society that views the body simply as a machine, subject to the control of the mind. Breathing seems too mundane to matter. As a result, most of us only breathe from the upper part of our lungs and shoulders—chest breathing—because we are in such a stressed, driven society.
By fostering mindfulness, we can reduce stress responses, especially the nervous system, that compromise wellbeing and even create illness. We can breathe consciously to bring ourselves back to health, back to balance, as well as reach higher planes of consciousness and enhanced states of vigour. Physician Jon Kabat-Zinn calls his process the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, used around the globe. Using belly breathing (breathing deep so that your belly is moving up and down) for as little as 5 minutes a day can assist in bringing calm and focus to your day.
Modern people are the worst breathers in the animal kingdom says James Nestor in his 2020 book Breath. Given our breathing patterns, we often do not have mouths wide enough to accommodate our tongue, meaning the roof of our mouths is too arched, which impedes our nasal cavities and restricts airflow. “Mammals grew noses to warm and purify the air, throats to guide air into the lungs, and a network of sacs that would remove oxygen from the air and transfer it into the blood. […] These cells took oxygen from our blood and returned carbon dioxide, which travelled back through the veins, through the lungs, and into the atmosphere: the process of breathing”…all in 3.3 seconds![xi]
Ancient peoples had broad mouths, more expansive sinus cavities, forward-facing jaws, and straight teeth. Some Indigenous peoples still ensure their children do not sleep with their mouths open, as mouth-breathing is damaging to one’s health, other than creating the annoyance of snoring. Now, however, with highly cooked food, soft foods requiring less chewing, and mouthbreathing, we experience this narrowing of our mouths and noses. Relearning nasal breathing can assist in lowering blood pressure, alleviating depression and memory problems, eliminating headaches, and increasing body hydration, to name a few.
Just as there are rhythms throughout the natural world, the nose also has a natural rhythm akin to the opening and closing of a flower. While our nose tissues respond to the changing of day and night, they also respond to our moods and mental states. Nestor points to a Tantric text describing “how one nostril will open to let breath in as the other will softly close throughout the day. Some days, the right nostril yawns awake to greet the sun; other days, the left awakens to the fullness of the moon. […] these rhythms are the same throughout every month and they’re shared by all humanity.”[xii] Scientists do affirm that the nostrils “pulse to their own beat” and open and close throughout the day like flowers, called nasal cycles. The right nostril works to awaken us and enhance our thinking, whereas the left nostril calms us. Thus, our state of balance can be shaped by our attentiveness to the nasal passages used in our breathing.
Breathing is one way that we are porous to the world around us. Our skin is another…there is no hard boundary between us and the world. Our body is a gift that brings our being into the given and take of the world. We absorb the air around us, take in dust and other kinds of molecules from our environment, and release carbon dioxide and other molecules from our body processes. This is our reciprocity with the world around us. Thus, we need to treat our breathing as a sacred source.[xiii]
Breathwork is a pathway of transformation from our habitual, reactive responses toward fresher, more conscious responses. It is a pathway into understanding the profound ways we are connected to all other things in the cosmos...our relational field. Breathwork is the first and simplest way to centre back in the body. It can reground us back into the deep history of the Earth and the miracle of air and breathing that created the nature of the Earth. Attention to breathing can foster the state of inner listening in which we can touch the simple grace of living an embodied life, tuning to what is around us. Every thought, response, action and even intention creates an energy that resonates on the air around us. Thoughtful observation and careful engagement helps create the world we wish to live in.
[i] Boyce Upholt, The Meaning of Air, Emergence Magazine, p. 6. October 12, 2020 [ii] David Suzuki and Amanda McConnell, The Sacred Balance, p. 51. Vancouver: Greystone Books. [iii] Boyce Upholt, The Meaning of Air, Emergence Magazine, October 12, 2020 [iv] Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story, pp. 97-111. HarperCollins. [v]https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/photosynthesis/ [vi] Anasazi Foundation and Good Buffalo Eagle (2013). The Seven Paths: Changing One’s Way of Walking in the World, p. 29. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. [vii] James Nestor, Breath, p. 44. Penguin Life. [viii] Ryan Kuja (July 21, 2016). Psyche, Meet Pneuma. The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. https://theseattleschool.edu/blog/psyche-meet-pneuma/ [ix] Ryan Kuja. Psyche, Meet Pneuma. [x] Steve LaNore, What Causes Wind and How Does It Form on Earth? AcuRite, https://www.acurite.com/blog/what-causes-wind.html [xi] James Nestor, p. 10. [xii] Nestor, p. 40. [xiii] Suzuki and McConnell, p. 51.
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