What does “the breath of life” mean?
As you breathe out you are already preparing for new breath coming in. And yet you don’t have to do anything about it - breath comes in and nano-moment by nano-moment you are propelled forward to the next momentary new phase of your life. On a larger scale you may be breathing in the air of a new job, or travel, or a well-deserved vacation. Or, metaphorically, in life terms, you may be breathing out very, very slowly, letting go slowly because you have no idea where the next breath is coming from.
In the experience of relaxed, natural breathing (an experience I, as a voice teacher, spend a great deal of my working life examining) there is a moment between exhalation and inhalation that is a moment of nothing - a natural, involuntary nothing. And into this nothingness the next breath enters, drawing in a sense, the future into the present. For me, that moment of nothing, between the outgoing and the ingoing breath, between the past and the future, is my only reliable experience of faith. If I leave myself alone breath will enter of its own accord - I will be breathed - I don’t have to breathe in, I can have faith in the air around me and its agreement with my respiratory system to keep me alive.
This seems a handy metaphor, or model, for the art of living.
Respiration is made up of expiration (breathing out, expiring, dying a little) and inspiration (breathing in, inspired by life and hope). An involuntarily creative act. But you don’t get the inspiration without the expiration and its accompanying moment of nothing.
This is a pattern repeated in hundreds of different forms in every aspect of living in this world: you have to risk the moments of nothing in order to leave open the possibility of receiving the surprise gifts that Life has up her sleeve for you; you have to endure expiring in order to reap the harvest of creativity; you have to suffer repeated deaths of the ego for the true self to emerge from its chrysalis.
The in-between, nothing times are all Transitions - from the nano-transitions of the natural breathing rhythm to the personal and professional mega-transitions that move one from wave to wave in the grand surf-ride of life. Often, a transition feels like a really deep trough out of which no new wave will ever rise. We have all experienced those troughs - and they go on - those dark nights of the soul, those gnawing, icy pits of frustration, confusion, fear.
We want to be happy, we deserve to be happy, we enter into a legitimate pursuit of happiness - but we must learn quickly how to deal with what happens when happiness doesn’t happen. How do we create an emotional democracy in ourselves so that we are not always voting for joy, satisfaction, love and contentment and plunging into numb despair when the rebel powers of sadness, anger, melancholy or fear (even hate) stage a coup and impose a dictatorship on our human condition. In my experience, if I don’t allow these darker emotions to have a place in the emotional democracy of my personal nation state they behave as terrorists and guerrilla fighters, going into hiding, gathering forces and waiting for the chance to blow my life up.
Looking back at my long life a spotlight immediately illuminates all the good things - all the amazing, ordinary and extraordinary things that happened to get me here. I see a pattern: looking in the rearview mirror my life looks logical and planned. When I think a bit harder and look a little closer, aiming the flashlight into the dark corners, culverts, dead-ends, crooked lanes, bogs and swamps of memory, I unwillingly recall the midnight terrors, the abyss of failures, the 3 a.m. wakings and shakings and weepings of hot tears into comfortless pillows - the boredoms, frustrations, desperations and fears. Although the crests of the waves catch the sunlight of recollection the troughs and transitions lurk in the shadows still. I know that every life plan or ambition I have had turned out differently from what I’d intended. Of course, nothing at all would have happened if I had not had intentions and plans, and indeed, if I had not been quite passionate about them. But I had to be open always to Life’s input and desires, her intentions - and be ready to follow a sudden, new, unexpected direction offered by her.
Enduring the pits and troughs was inevitably one of the keys to my creative potential: embracing, eventually, the despair, the sadness and the tears as necessary nourishment for my soul. You can’t expect Life to be an equal partner with you unless you take her on in all her reality. Quite a number of great artists seem to court a melancholy state: “But when the melancholy fit shall fall….Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose” says John Keats - in his Ode on Melancholy; and “…Joy, whose hand is ever at her lips/ Bidding adieu, and aching Pleasure nigh/ Turning to poison as the bee-mouth sips/ Ay, in the very Temple of Delight/ Veiled Melancholy has her sovran shrine…”
Why were my parents, then, so intolerant of my gloomy moods! “Cheer up!” they’d say. “Pull yourself together!” “Snap out of it!” “Smile!” “Don’t be so self-centered - don’t take yourself so seriously.” However it becomes clear as the years roll by that being able to feel and accept one’s own darker emotions creates the condition for compassion - feeling with others, and compassion is the prerequisite for responsible citizenship. And, perhaps, for legitimate, if fleeting, happiness.
Next to “To be or not to be…” one of the best-known quotes from Shakespeare is “All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players/ They have their exits and their entrances…” The world stage is full of whirling melodrama. (*N.B. I wrote this originally in 1997) Look around the globe at the huge life and death dramas, daily tragedies, genocides, massive corruptions, all marinading in a stew of moral decay. The rich, muttering platitudes about free enterprise and free markets, get richer at the expense of the poor getting poorer. Life is seething with dark passions under a veneer of glitter. To be on stage in a passionate affair with Life one must build emotional muscle, become an emotional warrior, and develop the capacity for compassion to a high art.
Compassion is not warm and fuzzy. Compassion means staying awake to the tragedies of the world, opening oneself over and over again to the unacceptable facts of suffering, witnessing and protesting what is unfair and unjust, not switching off, not going numb, not shrugging one’s shoulders free from the burdens of others, not being in denial of global trauma. And meanwhile getting on with the moment to moment staging of one’s own life which may swing from tragedy to stand-up comedy to kitchen-sink drama to soap opera within one day. A sense of humor is, to be sure, essential.
Laughing till you cry, and crying till you laugh, feeding one’s mouth and heart with words, with poetry and song, getting knocked into annual ecstasy by the miracle of springtime and marvelling at the glories of fall. The senses and the emotions they bring must nourish the heart if it is to prosper.
Music and theatre, singing and dancing, painting and sculpting and poetry-making are the arts that keep our humanity alive because they are rooted in the senses and the passions. They are the best arenas to give the muscles of empathy and compassion regular exercise. Without them humanity is a risk because the soul of humanity is a feeling place, not a commodity.
You can feed your soul and live life to the fullest by paying attention to your breathing (not organizing it, just watching and feeling it), by living at the centre of the democracy of your emotions and by creating art on a daily basis by living in open, expressive communication with other folk; by using your feelings, by voicing them.
Give your inner life breathing space. Don’t be afraid to stop for long for short or long moments of nothing, until the next moment, the next breath of life happens to you. Listen in to yourself. Have faith in transitions. Be willing to respond. (Mind you, if you find the moment of nothing is stretching on and on and you are atrophying, then take a big gulp of air and jump-start the batteries of your life any way you can!)
And here is Lucille Clifton to help you launch your ship of life into the everlasting waves…..
may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that
blessing the boats by Lucille Clifton