March 19th, 2012

The Sacred Breath: Teachings from the Inner Landscape

By Jennifer Finn


Jenny Finn reminds us that we all carry a full geography of internal landscapes, embodied in the simple act of breathing.  As we consider the deep and complex issues that entering learning about sustainability in the outer world, is it not essential, she asks, that we connect, profoundly through each breath we take, with those internal landscapes?

When we devote no time to the inner life, we become strangers in our own lives.

~ John O’Donohue

Every breath is a sacrament, an essential ritual.

~David Suzuki

When we think of landscape we often think of external geography; rolling hills, never-ending plains, tall pine trees rising towards the blue sky or the place where the ocean meets the jagged rocks. But there is another landscape that we are invited to consider in this human life, and it is the one that we cannot see; the landscape of the interior. As human beings we are given the gift of self-reflection, and through this gift, we are able to experience the depths of what it means to be human. Self-reflection is a choice, and like in any relationship, in order to learn from the interior life we must choose to pay attention to it. Turning towards the inner life is not easy. To traverse this inner territory takes great courage and discipline and a willingness to embrace the unknown. There are ultimately no maps, road signs or landmarks to help us on this exploration. As we descend more deeply into who we are, we might find ourselves in unknown, and even frightening, territory. For those of us who choose to embark on this inner journey, we need something to hold onto.  Amidst the wide-open spaces within, the breath is often the only constant we can find. The breath invites us to surrender and offers us an anchor to hold onto as we navigate the depths of ourselves.

Sustainability Education: Leading Forth From the Inside Out
Stephen Sterling (2001), in his book Sustainable Education: Revisioning Learning and Change, focuses on the importance of education as a primary agent for individual and collective change. He takes a holistic approach and writes that education today should educate the whole person, which includes the interior life of the individual. The interior is important when we are considering how we educate, and in mainstream curricular development, the inner landscape is often neglected. Classrooms today are not made for movement and teaching schedules are not made for creativity. We live in a world where data and testing overrules the inner geography of our children. Stephen Glazer (1999) in his book, The Heart of Learning: Spirituality in Education, speaks to this: “Education can serve as the core of a lifelong journey towards wholeness, rather than merely an accumulation of facts, figures or skills.” (p.3) To live into this transformative educational paradigm, we must be willing to experience the interior of our lives.

Nearly three years ago, I taught a class called Let it Shine in the public school system, where we used creative expression to build a sense of interconnectedness. In a second grade class, we explored our relationship to different emotional landscapes through movement and art process. In the middle of the class, students began to share stories of loss with each other. “I remember when my goldfish died.” “I was there when my grandmother died.” “My cat Oscar died last week.” Slowly, tears began to fall from their eyes, and in a few minutes, more than half of the class was sobbing. I knew that I had to get them back to math class in five minutes where they would be sitting at their desk with pencils in hand. I was panicked as I wondered how I was going to quietly transition these children down the hallway to math class. Needless to say, it did not happen. As the teacher scurried them back to their desks, I felt like a failure. The next day, when I met with the principal he said to me directly, “Though I fully support your program, the current educational system does not have the capacity to hold the emotions of these children.” I wanted to argue with him, but I knew that he was right.

The inner geography of our children is being left out of the learning process. With all that these children must “learn”, we just simply do not have the time for the landscape within. Parker Palmer, an advocate for holistic education writes, “Attention to the inner life is not romanticism. It involves the real world, and it is what is desperately needed in so many sectors of American education.” (Glazer, 1999, p. 16) Education can be a pathway to wholeness and a process by which interrelatedness is cultivated. But we must be brave and creative in reclaiming the inner landscape as an important aspect of this human journey. In order to respond to the brokenness of this world, it is the responsibility of sustainability education to address the whole person. The planet and its people need more than just facts and figures, as Glazer writes. We need a wholehearted response that includes not only the rational aspect of who we are, but the heart and soul too. Sustainability education is responsible for showing us the way and leading us forth into wholehearted living. But where do we start on this obscure and unmarked pathway inward? This is a journey that can overwhelm us to the point of apathy or overreaction. But we can simply go back to the basics, by starting with the very breath that breathes us—with the breath that our ancestors called sacred. The breath could be our starting point to a new way of educating and living in the world.

The Sacred Breath

We are breathed. We need not plan it or control it. The breath involuntarily moves in and out of our bodies without any effort on our part. Whether clenched in pain, sound asleep, or dancing in celebration, the breath keeps moving. In a culture of scheduling, planning and busyness, the breath itself reminds us that there is something that is out of our control; something bigger than our calendars and plans. Breathing is the invisible bridge that connects us to the human body where we experience our lives. The breath and the air we are immersed in is invisible, constant, interconnecting, hidden and mysterious- all words that we might use to describe a transpersonal or spiritual presence. Our ancient ancestors made this connection between the breath and the spirit as well. David Suzuki (2007) scientist and environmentalist writes, “the word “spirit” expands from its Latin source “spiritus” meaning “breath” or “air”, into so many other lively meanings- the soul, the animating principle, intelligence, emotional vigor, liveliness…each one in opposition to deadness or dullness. Our language knows better than we realize the vital nature of the air we breathe. It is the whirlwind and the breeze, a moving ocean of invisible forces in which we swim all the days of our lives, from our first gasp at birth to our last, slow exhalation at death. (p. 50-51)”

The ancients acknowledged the sacredness of the breath and honored how breathing connects us to ourselves and to what surrounds us. The word for spirit or soul in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Sanskrit all refer to breath or wind. We cannot live without the breath, and with the earthly degradation that we face, it seems that we have forgotten the resource that the breath truly is. Breathing not only keeps us alive, but allows us to thrive. The breath can teach us about the qualities that it embodies; qualities that we desperately need in relationship to ourselves, each other and the planet itself.

Teachings From the Invisible Landscape
The breath does not discriminate. The breath of life unifies and it tends towards diversity, not uniformity. The breath articulates itself in an infinite number of diverse ways, as every living thing occupies its own uniqueness. The breath breathes into all form and does not distinguish between a feathered friend, the color of one’s skin or how one chooses to live his or her life. It is everyone’s for the receiving. We experience this breath through the form of our own bodies or by witnessing it in the form of another; a flag blowing in the wind, the flickering of a flame, or the rise and fall of a person’s chest. Though the breath is universal, it is experienced differently. We all breathe to different capacities and take in varying amounts of this bountiful resource. The tree that stands in the middle of smog and pollution breathes differently than its neighbor in the forest. One who has suffered abuse at the hand of another breathes differently than one who hasn’t. Life itself shows us that what is universal births difference and is complex, organic and moving. When we forget the sacredness of the breath, we begin to see difference more starkly than we would if we were resourced by the universal breath. The breath is a resource for us to hold the tension between sameness and difference as neither needs to be overridden. Breathing naturally and gracefully holds both the diversity and unity of all life.

The breath pulses through this living planet. The tree breathes as does the squirrel that bounces from branch to branch. The mountain breathes as does the red scrub oak that grows on it. The wind blows through every living thing; those we know and do not know, those we like and do not like. The breath breathes in the winged creature trying to survive in the polluted waters off the coast and the pigeon that soars high up in the clean blue air. We breathe in the air that was breathed in by our ancestors; by the ancients whose scriptures we study and by those who have left the bodily form of this life. We breathe in the air of those who have not yet been born and when we do, we breathe in possibility and the unknown. The breath is not just a metaphor for interconnectedness, it is the invisible web that connects us to each other. The receiving of our own intimate and immediate breathe is not just a metaphor for life, it is life. We literally cannot live without it. We need the breath. We depend on it. And this very vulnerable truth can be so humbling that we often desperately avoid our humanity because of it.

The breath points the way to an invisible mystery breathing us into life. Not ultimately knowing the great mystery of life is humbling. John O’Donohue (1999) writes “ we endure the invisible by forgetting it- as long as we can…the invisible is one of the most powerful forms of the unknown. It envelops our every movement…there is no map with which to discern territories of the invisible. It is without texture. This is probably why we long to ignore the
invisible. There is a sense in which the invisible is the home of fear. We tend to be afraid of what we cannot see or know.” (p. 28) Our lives depend on the invisible air that surrounds us and fills us. We live within an atmosphere that is on average 7 miles high, and if we rise any higher than that, life cannot survive. The mystery of our breathing bodies is largely unknown and we are not ultimately in control of our precious human lives. We do not know and cannot describe the great invisibility from which we rise and die to. Rather than embracing this unknown, we tend to ignore it because the uncertainty can be too much to bare. The breath, in its ever-present generosity, can teach us how to surrender to the mystery that is this life. We can learn with the breath to receive the full range of the human experience. When we ignore the invisible, we ignore the patterns that connect us, the relationships within us and between forms. The breath can concretely teach us about the power of the invisible and how it connects us to each other and all living beings.

Taking the Breath for Granted
It is easy to take breathing for granted. We do not consciously control our breath. Suzuki (1997) writes “breathing is controlled by the oldest part of the brain stem, a relic that originated before the dawn of consciousness. Breathing is such a vital act that it has never given over to the control of the later arrival- the conscious brain.” (p. 54) Our breathing has nothing to do with our willing the breath to come forth. Even as you read these words on the page, rest one hand on your chest and feel it rise and fall as the air enters your body and leaves it. Respiration, in one form or another, belongs to all living creatures and exists ultimately as a mystery in our midst. We do not know where it begins or where it ends. The very fact that breathing is involuntary connects us to a time that was “before the dawn of consciousness,” before rational thought even existed. For human beings, who for centuries have followed philosophies and theologies that put the human species superior to all others, the ever-present and involuntary breath could bring us face-to-face with a deep sense of surrender and humility.

We might also take the breath for granted because the mechanics of breathing itself are hidden within the flesh and often what we cannot see we tend to forget. Mark Johnson (2007), a contemporary philosopher who has made significant contributions to both the fields of embodied philosophy and cognitive science writes “…the bodily processes hide, in order to make possible our fluid, automatic experiencing of the world.” (p. 5) He writes “the body does its marvelous work for the most part behind the scenes, so that we can focus on the objects of our desire and attention…we may survive and flourish precisely because our “recessive body” is going about its business.” (p.6) Because the vital processes of the body are hidden, the forgetting of our embodied existence is easier to understand. Drew Leder (1990), author of The Absent Body and a medical doctor and philosopher theorizes on why we might forget that we live in bodies, “It is the body’s own tendency towards self-concealment that allows for the possibility of its neglect and deprecation. Our organic basis can be easily forgotten due to the reticence of the visceral processes.” (p.69) Breathing, the most vital act of any living creature is hidden from our consciousness, so it takes some work to remember that breathing air is a precious, sustaining gift that if we pay attention to, might actually have something to teach us.

Finally, not only do we forget that our bodies breathe, but we can never touch or see the very air that we breathe. The air is invisible and is easy to forget. When we ignore this vital resource, we do so at our own expense and that of those around us. David Abram (1996), ecologist and philosopher writes that the air is “the medium through which we see all else in the present terrain. And this unseen enigma is the very mystery that enables life to live…it is that most intimate absence from whence the present presences and thus a key to the forgotten presence of the earth.” (p. 226) We do not realize that this air that we breathe not only connects us to our own embodied experiences, but those of others as we all breathe into this global commons of the atmosphere. We can also look to the ways in which we have treated this commons to see how we have forgotten its value and the sustaining presence that it is. Suzuki (1997) writes “air is not a national or a local resource but a global commons into which we contribute our wastes and from which draw air to fuel our bodies.” (p. 75) As we watch the levels of carbon dioxide rise beyond  levels that we humans can manage, it is clear that we have not taken care of what is absolutely necessary for life to thrive. Devaluing the air that surrounds us speaks to the high level of disembodiment that we humans live with. We cannot live without air, yet we dispose our waste into it readily at the expense of the health of all living creatures. It is difficult to understand how the human species, the greatest polluters of the air, could degrade a resource we most vitally need. Suzuki reminds us that “we need to acknowledge our responsibility to protect the air that we breathe” (p.79) and “once we have restored the breath of life to its rightful primacy- the first above all other human rights and responsibilities, the reference point from which all decisions flow- we can start to work in the long term to revive an ancient equilibrium.” (p.80) Life begins with the breath, so our relationship to air is fundamental to everything else.

From The Inside Out
Paying attention to the breath can bring us back into the body and all that lives within it. The inner journey paradoxically fosters relationship to the outer world.  When we traverse the inner life beginning with the breath, we find a sense of place in the body, and navigate the outer world with a greater sense of belonging and safety. When we come back to the earth of our bodies we return to the larger Earth body that we are intimately a part of. With great discipline and practice, the intimacy of this relationship between the inner life and outer world deepens so much so, that the boundaries between the two begin to blur. Unity and unique both come from the same Latin root unus, meaning one. When we take the journey into our own unique world within, our own singularity, we find unity with the world around us. We have the choice to breathe into this unique inner landscape that is experienced within the body. When we make the choice to turn inward, to know ourselves more deeply, we begin to awaken to the world around us in new ways. It is from this embodied and awakened place that reverence and care for all life is possible.

Abram, D. (1996) The spell of the sensuous. NY: Random House.

Glazer, S. (1999) The heart of learning: Spirituality in education. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam Books.

Johnson, M. (2007) The meaning of the body. The University of Chicago Press.

Leder, D. (1990) The absent body. The University of Chicago Press.

O’Donohue, J. (1999) Eternal echoes: Exploring our yearning to belong. NY: Harper Collins.

Sterling, S. (2001) Sustainable education: Re-visioning learning and change. Devon, England: Greenbooks.

Suzuki, D. (1990) The sacred balance: Rediscovering our place in nature. Vancouver, BC: Greystone

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Comments (1)

  1. Byron Havis says:

    This is great! Thank you!