Saturday, January 10, 2015

INS AND OUTS – Breathing and Other Cyclical Wonders

(This is the latest in my series of reflections, As If For the First Time, 
describing the most commonplace of experiences through a fresh lens, 
one of innocence and wonder.)

If you meditate, I shouldn’t presume to tell you anything new about breathing. But for those who are open to seeing the familiar through someone else’s eyes—and those who’ve never given breathing a second thought—I offer these observations.

You know how a ball bounces off a wall with that definite pop as it reverses direction? How your teeth collide when you’re chewing?

There are lots of such backs-and-forths in life and in Nature. In some, the change of direction involves an abrupt turning point—a collision of sorts. Two bighorn rams butting heads; your eyes blinking or your heart beating; some cars’ clunky windshield wipers.

There’s another kind of to-and-fro, one with softer yet still distinct reversals. Swinging on a swing; a wave’s ebb and flow upon a sandy beach; that little bead that rebounds straight up just after a falling drop hits the surface of a liquid.

Like nearly every other motion cycle in Nature, these events include three distinct aspects: moving, stopping (even if it’s only for an instant) and then moving in the opposite direction.

     A breath is one of the few things in life that 
     changes direction without ever stopping.

This morning, while meditating, I noticed how different my breathing seems from all those other backs-and-forths, ups-and-downs and to-and-fros. In fact, the transition between an inhalation and an exhalation, or vice versa, is so seamless that it’s absolutely imperceptible. Indeed, it seems a breath is one of the very few things in Nature that changes direction without ever stopping.

Other natural examples of this are exceedingly rare. Perhaps the flow of a stream taking a hairpin turn. An eagle's swoop as it snatches a fish from a lake. The slingshot effect on an asteroid from the gravitational pull of a planet or large moon. Can you think of others?


As elegant as those examples are, I contend that Nature’s cheating. They involve motion that’s not truly back and forth—not in a linear sense at least. They all employ a curving element at each end of the object’s path, so it’s not as much back and forth as it is round and round.

Human beings have found ways of borrowing this approximation of back-and-forth from Nature. The cable on a ski lift, conveyer belts, bicycle chains, anything driven by a cam or crank. All seem to go back and forth, but the motion is really circular—albeit with the circle flattened considerably.

 When I think about it this way, the notion of how 
 many breaths I’ve taken in my lifetime—or how 
 many I might have left—starts to lose its meaning.

How fascinating that the respiration of any creature that breathes—that is, the straight in-and-out path of the air through its nostrils—is so clearly linear, while the deeper sense of breathing is so circular. Perhaps it’s something like that cam or crank...but tell me how the mechanics of one’s lungs even remotely resemble a circular motion.

Whatever the cause, can you name any other motion in Nature that’s so straight-line reciprocal and yet feels so seamlessly round as your breathing?

Okay, this all may seem pretty arcane, pretty immaterial, but it’s the kind of thing an amateur mystic like me can’t help but ponder. I do this not just with the very adult notion of seeking higher consciousness, but also from an incurable, child-like sense of curiosity and wonder.


And seeing my breaths—a function I’ve performed without stop about 580,000,000* times now—in this new way is helping me immeasurably in my meditation. It's so much easier getting centered now that I can visualize my breathing not as something that keeps coming back and forth right at me, into me, but as a force, a miracle, that revolves both in me and around me.

When I think about it this way, that notion of how many breaths I’ve taken in my lifetime—or how many I might have left—starts to lose its meaning. Because it’s all one breath.

* According to the Sarasota Herald Tribune, a person at rest takes, on average, about 16 breaths per minute. 
This means we breathe about 960 breaths an hour, 23,040 breaths a day, 8,409,600 a year. Unless we get a lot 
of exercise, the person who lives to 80 will take about 672,768,000 breaths in a lifetime.


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