“The fact is, that we are being breathed.” ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn
It is our first act outside the womb, and our final act as well. With our first breath, our life begins and our bodies miraculously continue to perform this function automatically, without much thought from us, for the rest of our life. And anything that does not require much thought, is prime for being taken for granted.
As 2020 has unfolded, the central theme I keep coming back to is breath. There are many issues in the world, but issues of the breath have moved to the forefront. I see it in climate change, Covid-19, and fallen brother George Floyd. It’s all about breathing, and not being able to breathe.
Throughout history, mystics and sacred teachings refer to the soul as breath, often using these terms interchangeably. In some languages, they are the same word – prana, spiritus, ruach, hu. Breathing connects us to ourselves, our soul, and those around us.
“One conscious breath in and out is a meditation.” ~ Eckhart Tolle
Recent research has taught us the Earth itself has “lungs.” Millions of lung-like structures on leaves allow plants to take in carbon dioxide and return to us life-saving oxygen. But we’re currently pouring more CO2 into the sky than the plants can keep up with. Humans have put the earth in a choke-hold, and the planet cannot breathe.
The deforestation of the Earth, which has caused a great reduction in the planet’s breathing function, has a direct correlation to Covid-19. A study by Stanford shows us that as humans continue to wreak havoc on natural habitats to turn them into agricultural land, we will continue to see an increase in animal to human viruses. Usually, these lands are deforested to either grow food for livestock or to raise livestock for human consumption.
We are choking the Earth for hamburgers.
“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.” ~ Gary Snyder
Which brings me to Covid-19. In our lifetime, we have not seen such a virus that attacks the body so relentlessly and so horrifically. A shortage of ventilators early on told us this is a virus that threatens our very breath, our prana, our spiritus. Those deeply and personally affected by it speak of having no breath. Their breathing becomes anything but automatic, requiring complete attention and effort, and it’s still not enough. I can’t imagine a more frightening feeling. Those not personally affected are told to stay home for their own safety and the safety of others. And do what? For many of us, it became a reminder to slow down and breathe.
In public, we wear masks. Our breath, though precious, is suspect. I could have the virus, you could have the virus, the cashier could have the virus. We’re grateful to be out, but sometimes it’s hard to breathe behind the mask. (Tell that to doctors and nurses in full PPE.)
Like a meditation, we were comfortable with that for a short time, but then we got restless. We upped our heart rate, shortened our breaths, and got eager to return to “normal” life. But at our core, we know, don’t we? We know we can’t go back.
“The link between you and God is through the breath of life,” ~ Yogi Bhajan
Which brings us to the heartbreak of George Floyd, robbed of his breath by hatred and a long-broken system. His death, his cry for breath, was too much for a world already gasping for air. We can’t go back. We won’t go back. We must breathe into the change that is coming. We must breathe life into the protests. We cannot take breathing for granted any longer. We must breathe for the planet, for those on ventilators, and for George and the long-overdue systemic change that is happening.
“We have to learn to live our life as a human being deeply. We need to learn to live each breath deeply, so that we have peace, joy and freedom as we breathe.” ~ Thich Nhat Hahn
The ultimate truth and realization we must come to is that we are all one organism. If one cannot breathe, the whole will suffer, the whole will eventually be gasping for air. We cannot shortchange the Earth its pulmonary function and expect to not be affected. We cannot ignore this virus, but must learn how to live for a time with it, caring enough for our fellow humans to wear masks and socially distance for as long as it takes. And we cannot turn our backs on an entire race that has cried out for the freedom to breathe, to be equal, to be shown respect, demanding change so that one day those freedoms will be taken for granted, like breathing.
So breathe, if you can. Breathe with purpose, breathe with compassion, and breathe for those who cannot.
But remember to put on your own oxygen mask first.
You are Still Beloved.