When we think of our lives we might think of significant events: graduations, weddings, reunions, trips, and transitions. But why not consider life from the vantage point of something more basic: breath? We are born. We take a series of breaths – probably less than a billion of them – and then we die.
Life is several hundred million breaths. That’s what we get.
If this breath-centric perspective casts life a simple thing – oversimple, a caricature – what still can we learn from that simplicity?
As fledglings, you and I both began drawing air into our lungs and expelling it a few moments later, and we never stopped. Breathing is one activity that each of us has been doing continuously since we were born, no matter our personalities, nationalities, ages, hairstyles, heights and weights, gender identities, spiritual beliefs — any attribute large or small.
Breathing, of course, is not the only constant process in life. Our hearts have been beating since the womb, but look at how we talk about that. We don’t say we’ve been “beating our hearts.” That’s because while we can influence our hearts to speed up or slow down, we can’t control the duration and character of each beat. But it is we who have been breathing: even though breathing happens automatically when we’re not thinking about it, we can bring it under our control simply by thinking about it. Then we can govern almost everything about it – the pace, the depth, the muscles we emphasize, even the sound.
When we’re frazzled, they say we should take one step at a time, put one foot in front of another. But we could step sideways, trip, or walk backward. They say we should live one day at a time, but we might struggle to keep our minds from thinking of the next day or the one before. But we have no choice with breath – all we can do is take one after another. It’s impossible to take two at once, or go back to redo a past one, or skip ahead to one we’ll take tomorrow. Our breath is a sequence – in the truest sense of the word – starting from breath number one and progressing through breath number one thousand, and one million, and so on. Right now, each of us is situated at some point in that extended sequence, and all we can do is move forward in it, breath by breath.
Our breath sequence connects us to our past and to our future. As we take our current breath, we are mirroring our infant selves, doing the same thing now we were doing back then, and we are being like our elder selves – doing the same thing now we’ll be doing in that time ahead. We change as we keep breathing, year after year: our lungs change, our memories change, our thoughts about breathing itself might change… but the basic process of breathing is still inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale – that doesn’t change at all.
You could say that whenever we take a breath we are progressing one closer to our last — sounds grim. But you could also note that every breath we’ve ever taken helped us. And every breath we’ll take from now on will help us too.
Barring a special context like singing or freediving, there’s no point in saving our breaths. And while a breath can be painful at times — when we’re sick, each inhale brings the annoying risk of a cough — the broader truth is that there’s nothing to regret or redo about our past breaths or to anticipate about our future ones. Every past breath gave us life and every future breath will do the same.
There are so many things we can do in life that admit multiple interpretations and that have simultaneous positive and negative consequences, but every breath is simply good.
Whatever situation we find ourselves in – no matter how fraught – we can remember that breathing carried us into the situation and breathing will carry us out.
If we think of our many breaths as a great long chain that supports us through life, we could write the links in that chain, the inhales and exhales, on paper as I and E, and a fragment would look like this:
…..I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E I E…
I’ve italicized a few sections to represent conscious breaths – the breaths we happen to notice, to feel, to hear, to tune into.
We can strive, in our lives, to have longer and more frequent stretches of conscious breath — to witness more of our breath chain. But even if we just have one moment to take one conscious breath before we return to the hustle bustle of it all, that one moment might be all we need. In one moment, we can behold the same enduring chain we’d behold if we had an hour or a day to concentrate — the same chain that supported us years ago and the same one that will support us tomorrow. Listen to your breath, once or a hundred times — that’s you — that was you — that will be you.
It seems too simple to say that life is just a sequence of breaths; but on the flipside, life, as we conceive it otherwise, often seems too complex. We can find simplicity in life, perhaps, in contemplating the simplicity of breath.