Participate in the Good Breathing of the World
How has your breathing been lately? The news of the world often leaves us staggering, overwhelmed, breathing raggedly, shallowly. I know I've felt a little like I've been hyperventilating from time to time. 11/9 is going to be a defining moment in history, that we do know. Obviously a different situation but there's a poem that was written after 9/11 which I've been lately thinking about by Judyth Hill (you can read more about her here).
by Judyth Hill
Wage peace with your breath.
Breathe in firemen and rubble,
breathe out whole buildings
and flocks of redwing blackbirds.
Breathe in terrorists and breathe out sleeping children
and freshly mown fields.
Breathe in confusion and breathe out maple trees.
Breathe in the fallen
and breathe out lifelong friendships intact.
Wage peace with your listening:
hearing sirens, pray loud.
Remember your tools:
flower seeds, clothes pins, clean rivers.
Play music, learn the word for thank you in three languages.
Learn to knit, and make a hat.
Think of chaos as dancing raspberries,
imagine grief as the outbreath of beauty
or the gesture of fish.
Swim for the other side.
Never has the world seemed so fresh and precious.
Have a cup of tea and rejoice.
Act as if armistice has already arrived.
Don't wait another minute.
Wage peace with your listening. This feels right. Also: make soup. For yourself, for a neighbour, for a newcomer to your street or your country. I'm not saying we should only sit and breathe and not find ways to change the world and to protest, but first, we must be able to breathe well.
How to steady one's breath? Here is an exercise that John O'Donohue writes about in his beautiful and instructive Four Elements:
"One of the oldest mediation exercises is a simple breathing exercise. The morning is a good time to do this. You simply breathe the light into you. You imagine a bright light over your head. Then visually, using your breath, you bring that light slowly down through the body. Through your head, neck, shoulders, stomach, legs and out through your feet. You can imagine a refreshing light. This will fill your body with a sense of lightness. When you breathe out slowly, imagine that you are breathing out the darkness. Clods of heavy charcoal sadness can leave your soul on the outward breath."
I don't think I need to make a case for this kind of breathing, for coming to a place where we can be filled with light, and release those black clods of sadness from our souls. We can then move into the world from a place of light, and this is contagious, necessary.
And then, from Bachelard's deeply profound Poetics of Reverie, where he is quoting the translator of the work of the psychiatrist J.H. Schultz:
"This translation is but a feeble approximation of the German expression 'Es atmet mich,' literally 'It breathes me.' In other words, the world comes to breathe within me; I participate in the good breathing of the world; I am plunged into a breathing world. Everything breathes in the world. The good breathing which is going to cure me of my asthma, of my anguish, is a cosmic breathing."
So yes, let us remember that there is good breathing in the world, and participate in that. Because we really can be powerful in our breath:
"Be like a bear in the forest of yourself.
Even sleeping you are powerful in your breath."
- Susan Griffin, from her poem "Great as You Are"
An exercise called tonglen can be found in a passage in Pema Chodron's The Wisdom of No Escape about breathing. This is not completely unlike the meditation / breathing practice where, on your in-breath, you breathe in light and then on your out-breath, you breathe out the darkness and blackness.
But the practice that Chodron describes is different, and, she says, daring.
"...on the in-breath you are willing to feel pain; you're willing to acknowledge the suffering of the world. From this day onward, you're going to cultivate your bravery and willingness to feel that part of the human condition. You breathe in so that you can really understand what the Buddha meant when he said that the first noble truth is that life is suffering. What does that mean? With every in-breath, you try to find out by acknowledging the truth of suffering, not as a mistake you made, not as a punishment, but as part of the human condition."
And the out-breath?
"With every out-breath, you open. You connect with the feeling of joy, well-being, satisfaction, tenderheartedness, anything that feels fresh and clean, wholesome and good."
The out-breath is "the part you like. You connect with that and you breathe it out so that is spreads and can be experienced by everyone."
So you can see how these two practices are incredibly different. And how difficult yet transformative it could be to take in the suffering of the world, and then to give so much in your out breath. To breathe out the light, your tenderheartedness, rather than to draw it inward. How radical this is, really.
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