The Breath I
East and West, Inside and Outside
For New Year’s 1868, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s gift to his daughter Edith and son-in-law William Forbes was an Aeolian harp. The aging philosopher-poet was sharing an instrument that had brought him much pleasure--spiritual insight and inspiration--through the years, both as sound and symbol.
As spiritual heirs of Emerson, we each have been gifted for new years, and for every new moment, not with a harp but with the trembling resonance of our respiratory organs. The breath is an exquisitely sensitive instrument set within the window of our awareness. It has not simply come to live with us; it is our home, our life. As we bring our attention to it--lend it our ears, so to speak--it can impart the promised secrets and mend and charm our days.
The breath is a rich and worthy focus for mindfulness practice, offering layer after layer of information, from direct sensory data on to subtle emotional cues and finally to elemental paradoxes that invite lifelong reflection. We can use these paradoxes as an organizing scheme for exploring this constant physiological process and our inconstant relationship with it. An abundance of these paradoxes can be nested within just three distinct pairs of opposites that point to basic characteristics of the breath. From each pair an array of further pairs then cascades out, expanding our inquiries.
First, the pair outbreath and inbreath yields outside/inside, wind/breath, and present moment/passing time among its many possibilities. Second, the breath’s position as the only physiological process that is both intentional (voluntary) and automatic (involuntary) yields such pairs as universal/unique, willful/willing, and continuity/disruption. Third, the link to emotion suggests the pair revealing and regulating, which yields heart/head, threat/safety, and chaos/creativity. The more we learn and experience each of these core and cascading pairs, the easier it becomes to hold both sides, to resolve or dissolve the seeming paradox.
Let’s pick up again the metaphor of the Aeolian harp and begin exploring. Emerson’s own Aeolian harp was made of polished mahogany, an aesthetically designed and refined instrument for bringing the wind’s voice inside, to be savored in the study or drawing room. Thoreau had a harp too. His, however, was built to fit the wilder, outside strains of his life and thought. It affords us a clearly American version of the metaphor as it compounds the romantic and scientific, the spiritual and the commercial, the natural and the built environment. Thoreau’s Aeolian harp was new and monumental--the telegraph wire being strung in late summer of 1851 through the Concord, Massachusetts, landscape, on poles along the railroad connecting Boston and Burlington, Vermont.
In the early summer, even before the wire was strung, a harp was playing in Thoreau’s journal as rumor and metaphor. On June 21 he noted, “There is always a kind of fine Aeolian harp music to be heard in the air. . . . To ears that are expanded what a harp this world is!” By September 3, it was no longer abstract: “As I went under the new telegraph-wire, I heard it vibrating like a harp high overhead. It was the sound of a far-off glorious life, a supernal life, which came down to us and vibrated the lattice work of this life of ours.”
It is easy to understand how the wind, an invisible force revealed only through its effects, accumulated its metaphorical associations with the veering turns of change. In the tenth chapter of the Odyssey, for example, Homer tells how Aeolus gives Odysseus a mixed bag of winds for his journey home so he will always have a favorable breeze. When Odysseus is sleeping his men open the bag hoping to find riches inside and, instead, let all the winds out as a tangled gale that hurls the ship ever farther from home. The “winds of fortune” feel nothing like a metaphor to those clinging soaked and freezing to the pitching ship through the night, scanning uncomprehendingly the calm horizon at sunrise. When you’re out in it, the wind is starkly real, and fortune and health come together where the wind meets the body.
Making the Ancient Present
Finding the Past Now
Please don’t think of these historical perspectives on wind and breath as just background or introduction. They’re meant to prompt and support your informal and formal practice of mindfulness--to carry you into the present moment, into your bodily experience.
Our contemporary perspectives, understandings, and expectations may be dramatically different from the past instances we’re describing here. We have, of course, very different ways of being from the ways of those who came before us. Our culture in twenty-first century America grants little importance to the everyday wind, and even to the every-moment breath. We cannot recapture the embodied meanings with which the ancients lived. The precise experiences that their words and images captured for them are lost to us; we cannot step entirely outside our cultural conditioning to make them live again. We can, however, step further into our bodies to search where they searched--our common physiology--and perhaps find something of what they found. We can use the language they’ve left behind to help us experience new possibilities as we come into the present moment with concentration and curiosity.
Are you more apt to notice the metaphor of winds of change in your life than the actuality of the breeze against your face? For many of us that’s how it is; we’re not ancients, we’re moderns. We open our doors and notice storm or sunshine and don’t necessarily connect to the direction of the wind. Here’s a chance to come to mindfulness: Step outside and notice the motion of the air. Turn toward it and feel it on your face. What do you notice? Temperature, velocity, texture, moisture, particulates--how is it right now? Simple, intense curiosity about how it is to live in the world brings you here.