It is no mistake that the first thing we do upon entering this world is take a heaving, life-giving breath. And on exiting, a final, agonal gasp denotes our demise. Our soul, spirit, prana, qi, shen literally rides and survives on the tides of the breath. We can live without food, shelter, water, love, even, but it only takes minutes of suffocation and our time here is done. The inhale/exhale pendulum is like a metronome of measurement that reflects our state of being. Calm, cool and collected is mirrored in steady, full and easy breathing. Short, fast and shallow breaths show major distress, whether fear, pain or a feeling of imminent danger. The mouth forcefully opens and the breath quickens uncontrollably in the throes of passion, allowing for full oxygenation to carry one through the beautiful intensity of climax. Our breath increases and deepens with effort of a physical nature, and indirectly correlates to the fitness and resilience of the individual. The breath is the wind of our voice and allows us to communicate and connect. It is the whisper, the scream, the stories, the outcries, the songs, the sobs, the source of all laughter, the bellows of our lives. We sense breath from behind us and quickly intuit whether it is threatening or an impending sweet kiss to the nape of the neck. We feel another’s chest rise and fall while in their long embrace. The breath carries smells of sickness or vitriol and alerts us to someone’s relative health or mood. It flows as a collective to breathe life into trees, an unconditionally symbiotic and reciprocated act, the forest’s roots reflected in our own alveoli. When slow and deep, it calms our vagus nerve and allows our mind to focus and our senses to stay sharp. When heightened, it fuels and readies our muscles in order to fight or flee. Breathing is the taste of all things around us, higher resonance, universal truth. It is the connection between air and movement, as the sole act of breathing is our own internal masseuse. Our breath happens without thought or consciousness, yet we can override and control it at any moment. It is truly the source of sacred life. And it unites us all.
As with many things in our lives, we often don’t appreciate them until we are bereft. When I was about 10 years old, my extended family was in town for the summer from New Orleans. Oh how fun to visit their hotel and spend the hot Atlanta days in a nearly empty pool! My cousin was about 4 at the time and not a stellar swimmer. We were all just enjoying ourselves when I caught a glimpse of my cousin, floating, face down, not moving an inch except with the ripples of our most recent cannonball. Time stood still as the reality hit the surrounding adults like a carbonite tomb. My aunt, her momma bear instinct in full throttle, ran from across the patio and jumped in, shoed and clothed to save her eldest child. She gasped her way back into this world, not ready to bow out at that young age.
In my college years, I worked as a lifeguard at a very busy public pool. One crowded day, my fellow lifeguard pointed to the bottom of the pool in front of her, glued to her chair to no avail. I saw her concern, a large teenage boy face down and sunken. I dove in and grabbed him, his face and lips blue as I dragged his heavy, limp body to the side of the pool. I stood frozen over him, knowing exactly what to do, but unable to take action. Thankfully, another lifeguard took over to give him life-saving breaths, sharing his own air in order to revive this young man with a full life ahead of him.
As a wilderness guide, I took troubled teens into the woods for 10 day backpacking trips as a way to instill new confidence, teach healthy accomplishment and frankly, allow natural consequences to shift some negative behaviors. Thankfully, the majority of trips were uneventful in the emergency realm and hugely successful in their behavior-modification attempts. On my final trip in North Georgia, just prior to moving to Oregon, I had a student with exercise-induced asthma (unbeknownst to my fellow trip leaders and me, unfortunately). We were hiking for a few miles and I could tell she wasn’t feeling well, so I encouraged her to drink water and eat. Soon thereafter, she collapsed and stopped breathing, showing signs of cyanosis on her lips. I grabbed the CPR mask and started breathing for her. She came to and we carried on. I radioed ahead to the the state park that was about 2 miles ahead of us. Several of the other students wanted to help, so I had them carry her and I hiked at her head. She would stop breathing every few minutes and I trained them to set her down every time I shouted, “breathe!” so I could rescue breathe her. We made it down the trail and were met by EMTs who administered O2 and transported her for care.
When my dad was in the last stages of dying from cancer, my infant son and I were there with my siblings, mom and extended family. I remember waking up on his final day of life to the telltale sound of agonal breathing. I told my brother this would be the day. His death rattle continued for hours, as we watched his body literally drain into the various tubes and bags hanging from his at-home hospital bed. But his breath continued its fight, desperate to hang on as long as possible. Its sound shifted in the last half hour, and the regularity succumbed to an erratic rhythm. Each labored respiration seemed to be his last, but then another would emerge as a startling attempt from his soul to remain. A candle we lit for him burned out and within minutes, we had heard his last, gasping breath. The sense of peace and relief induced a flurry of long sighs among us, as we knew his suffering was finally through.
My grandmother died in New Orleans just before Mardi Gras in 2014. I booked last minute flights for my family so we could attend her funeral, with a bonus week for Mardi Gras (pretty sure that was her final scheme!). It was a 5:00 am flight out of Redmond and my kids were scattered about the plane, with my youngest seated next to me. Despite my strong espresso, I drifted off as we climbed west toward Denver, our first stop. In my sleepy haze, I thought I heard the flight attendant ask for a doctor on board. I wasn’t sure, so I waited to see if that was a dream or reality. Sure enough, she announced her desperate request yet again and I hopped up to see what was happening. Most passengers were asleep, including my little one. There was a man in an aisle seat, likely early 60’s who was unconscious, slumped over, with one eye open and one eye shut. The one and only flight attendant went to fetch the defibrillator while I assessed him. Not breathing, no radial pulse, but a faint carotid. I tried for a response, but got nothing. I did a sternal rub and he took a sudden, stiffled inhale, and slowly revived. I called for an emergency landing in SLC, where we were met with EMTs and a plane full of confused passengers as they awoke on our descent over the Great Salt Lake. My assessment? TIA or mild stroke, based on his presentation. The pilot gave me plastic wings. Amazing what the body will do to survive.
In my kayak days, I remember being upside down after getting hammered in rapids, aerated bubbles everywhere, no clue which way was up, hoping that my paddle placement would give me the grab I needed in order to snap my hips and roll up for air. Although there was a sense of urgency and perhaps even panic at times, there was always an undercurrent of peace. My lungs frantically wanted air, but somehow, my body found its zen (perhaps hypoxia-induced) under the surface of the water. And now, in my martial arts days, I have had the breath squeezed out of me, my face against the mats, a very strong and skilled man taking my back and/or choking me out, pushing me to use my inner strength, my will to fight back, my ingrained skills to escape and regain control. It was all I could do to breathe, despite my touted pride in controlling my breath in classes when many others give way to panic and panting. Knowing my own vulnerability has been one of the most valuable things to emerge from my training, ironically. Despite my knowledge, my strength, my awareness of surroundings, and my inner confidence and courage, I realize fully that it doesn’t take much to be overpowered and ultimately, breathless.
Here I land, in the present moment, where I have been faced with much grief, sudden change, and huge potential loss but in the same breath, I am bathed in immeasurable beauty, overcome with obscene joy, and filled with insurmountable hope. My breath becomes the tether to the here and now, the reset to my wanderings, the anchor to my emotional storms. In Chinese medicine, the lung’s emotion is that of grief. Yes, grief has been a chronic theme as of late. But the polarity to sorrow is ritual and higher power, a connection to something greater than ourselves, symbolized by the element of metal and by a huge, snow-capped mountain. From here, we draw our strength, gather our reserves, fill our chests and take yet another life-saving breath, as that is all we have. This moment, this inhale, this exhale, the tide of our soul, the air that infuses us with vitality is what reignites our will to live fully with purpose. It is always a breath away.