The Breath of Life
Updated: Sep 12, 2020
The recent pandemic of the Corona Virus, Covid-19, has sent the world in a tailspin. It has spread rapidly, infected exponentially, and has brought the world to a screeching halt – if not a complete stop, a major – and sudden – application of brakes. Nations have self-quarantined, ‘work from home’ is the order of the day and ‘lockdown’ with education to entertainment curtailed – this is the new normal. The marginalised are almost forgotten – refugees, migrants, the abused at home etc. With no one to their support, save providence – and the refreshing community action in some places – they are left to their own devices as governments scramble to make sense of the situation.
Financial ramifications are enormous. e.g., Airlines have failed or are struggling to stay afloat. Economies dependent on tourism have collapsed bringing along added woes. The stock market – barometer of wealth in today’s world – has decelerated faster than escape velocity with trillions of dollars vanishing into thin air. In the long run, this is not just a physical health crisis or an economic one, but a looming mental health one as well. An entity that is neither living nor dead has brought modern human civilisation to its knees.
Taking a deep breath?
‘Take a deep breath in’, has been an old expression – an activity to undertake when agitated or while trying to find one’s bearings. Today, the mainstay of life is itself dangerous, for the virus impacts the very thing we trust – the breath. To those who succumb to it, the virus attacks the lungs and air passages. For others, who are alive, what remains is a sense of dread – the air we take in that makes us live, stands contaminated – with fear. The heart of our human existence has been crippled; the very roots attacked. On the one hand, I experience despair and distress, and yet on the other, I wonder at its significance.
That crippling feeling
As a fellow human, my heart reaches out to those who are impacted – directly or indirectly. For some, physical lives are in danger – theirs or their loved ones. For others, because of the dominoes effect, their livelihood and next meal is a question mark. As a mental health, helping and healing professional, I empathise with the trauma and pain that comes along. For those in the medical and nursing professions – the most vulnerable in the moment – it is a daily touch with the god of death – you never know, when and in what instance, the transmission and infection can be passed on. For those offering essential services, it is also a daily close call. People like you and me, who will read this blog, are the privileged few who have access to the gifts of modern lifestyle. There are many who cannot simply practice what is being sought – physical distancing – simply because of their socio-economic circumstances. And yet, no matter who the person is, everyone is susceptible – to varying degrees. The ability of rapid progression makes everyone a potential victim, and – a potential suspect.
Breath – the thing taken for granted – is today a guarded territory. Human connect – a primal need – is to be shunned. With a carpet bombardment of messages across all media, our amygdala – the almond shaped processing centre of emotions in our brain – is bound to be on an overdrive. A very useful life aid, to alert us to a tiger lurking in the woods, in today’s times it may be constantly scanning for threats, real and imaginary, and lead the body to a state of perpetual hyper-arousal. And with it, we enter our own cage – of hypervigilance and yet helplessness, of arousal and yet fear, of activation and yet being crippled. We deal with an opponent who is not only invisible to us, but also impacts the mainstay of life – our breath!
Perspectives on air
Wind, Air, Vāyu: a few synonyms for that formless mixture of gases that envelopes the earth. We humans have had a fascinating relationship with it. It was considered by many ancients to be one of the ‘fundamental elements’, in addition to earth, water, fire, ether. From the dawn of human civilisation, these five classical ‘elements’ have been looked upon as the raw material that shape not just the universe but also the human being – a subtle anatomy, an energy matrix. Across cultures, overlaps can be seen. Greco-Roman medicine used the concept of four ‘humors’ to classify human temperament that in a very rudimentary way, paralleled the Yogic and Āyurvedic construct of dosha. Whether the oriental or the occidental, both base their theories upon these fundamental building blocks.
Though our modern scientific understanding of ‘elements’ diverges with our ancestors, we are still as closely associated with them than ever before. The feature that however captures my imagination is the link between this inanimate aspect of nature and its association with life itself. At one level, while breath is inanimate air, it is also representative of the life force present in our very being. Sanskrit prāna, Greek pneuma, Hebrew ru’ach, Arabic rūhh, and Chinese Qi / Chi – all of them carry with them conception of the vital force that animates the human body.
Sometimes, it is the soul and other times, it is the carrier of the soul. Even today, in my native tongue Hindi, a euphemistic way of announcing death is to share that the prāna have left the body. What is itself non-life, turns out to be the biggest supporter of life! Yogis, mendicants and seekers through passage of history have sought the connection to themselves – often through the breath. ‘Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit…’ prayed St. Augustine while the Yogis in India found prānāyāma, the science of breath modulation, to be the shortest pathway to a retreat into oneSelf.
Isolation or Retreat?
The outer world – as it exists today (or has up until now) – is a field of action. And yet, the inner world is ever open for reflection. With the current space of ‘lockdowns’ the world over, we are forced to experience a shutdown of the outer world. ‘Social Distancing’, referring actually to ‘physical distancing’ is the new mantra. ‘Stay home, stay safe’ is the way to help the world cope with the gravity of the situation and to contain the spread of the virus. All of this has resulted in people being asked to stay at home – a rather tough deal for the homeless and the destitute. While acknowledging the privilege many of us have, the question that comes to me is, ‘what is the metaphorical and symbolic significance, of this event in our lives?’
One of the various messages floating around on social media is a quip or a variant thereof, ‘What we call isolation is retreat for a meditator.’ With its roots in Latin, insula ‘island’, the word ‘isolate’ seems suddenly very meaningful. The earth on which we live is also an island. It is on these islands we make our constructs of continents, nations, states and cities. The act of creating islands – be it physical or metaphorical – entails separation of land masses by water in between. The natural boundaries thus formed provide a distinct identity to each island. In the call to self-isolate, is inherent a call to build boundaries i.e., to define markers and limits to one’s territory – not just physical, but also the psychological.
The call within
Keeping distance from the other is not just a physical act but also a mental and emotional one. When we are too close to the other, to the collective, we end up being away from our own selves. The Swiss psychiatrist, Dr Carl Gustav Jung, provided us with a psychological definition of the ‘Self’, a concept he borrowed from the Upaniśads. As a psychic entity beyond the grasp of our ego i.e., our daily ordinary consciousness that helps us maintain a reasonably consistent identity, the Self is our guide to our destiny. If the ego helps in maintaining a continuity to our personal and professional life, the Self is our inner invisible guide that propels us to newer vistas beyond our conscious horizon.
Without being semantically correct, this Self has correspondences all across – whether you call it God or the Tao, spirit or the zen, the wise one within or the light within. Being with ourSelf requires a necessary distancing from the values and opinions of others. To find our own true nature, we have to engage in a personal journey – which can lead us like in fairy tales to strange lands and strange people. Only then, do we find our inner psychic centre – and for that we need distance, something that this pandemic enforces. Listening to the voice of the Self – the centre within – requires time, patience and wilful efforts.
Unfortunately, many of us shy away from examining the life we are currently leading. Though we are social creatures, I personally believe that the challenge of keeping distance becomes more painful because we are confronted with the demand of facing up to ourSelf. On the daily treadmill of life, it is easy to use the mirror to brush our hair to get ready to step out, and consequently forget ourselves. However, in the current state of affairs, the mirror holds the potency of asking us, ‘who are you?’
While biologically, humans and other primates are primed for social interactions, it is equally undeniable that we also have within us the deep yearning for meaning and purpose. Am I living my life, as I am meant to? Am I living up to my fullest potential, that I should be? Am I being the best, of who I am meant to be? Or, am I living someone else’s thoughts, desires, fears and concerns?
Even Steve Jobs – the capitalist lodestone of innovation, creativity and economic success – in his commencement address to students at Stanford University (2005), exhorted, ‘…Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become…’
I still recall a college time conversation with a man wise beyond his years. Lamenting upon the monsoon rains that had punched a hole in my well laid plans for the evening, I moped how they had played truant. After checking on the nature of my work, and its criticality to the moment, he replied softly, ‘… if the rains do not support this work, then maybe you can support the rain …’ He then proceeded to share with me all the various options I had to make that moment meaningful. I vividly recall that instance – when I realised that though I could be a victim of circumstances, I need not always be a victim of my choice. As I saw the silver lining in the clouds above, I sat down to enjoy a music show and examine my own patterns of responding to life events. From time to time, it behooves to question ourselves…
In the current instance, are we focused on finding solutions to get back to the old ways we are familiar with, or are we willing to examine a ‘new normal’? Are we focused only on what we think ‘we know’? Is our sole focus towards what we wish to do? Do we keep marching ahead, no matter what? Do we ignore obstacles coming our way as impediments, ready to conquer them? Do all problems in life seem like challenges to be surmounted – and not as potential moments of a pause?
What if the problems are not obstacles to be overcome, but invitation to a new way of being? Are we receptive to what the dreams are saying? Do we listen to our bodies and any dis-eases within – what do these symptoms talk to us? Are we mindful of the various little unconnected events that somehow weave themselves into the tapestry of our lives – whether we will it or not – and mould our lives in ways we could not even imagine? Do we look at the moon and wonder at the mysteries and how we are connected with the cosmos. Do the stars still call out to us?
Today, as we are called to being inside, the physical confines can be stifling. It is equally true that for many, being out physically, is the only source of relief, for the four walls of the house are a source of emotional, mental and at times, physical abuse. While praying for those in such distress, I would also like to invite those of us who view boredom or fear of self-confrontation as a disruption to our life. Is your boredom an invitation to a richer life? Could it be that behind the ennui lies perhaps the call to your destiny? Do you choose to run away – out and about – or, do you choose to go home?
The call to going home is not just physical, but a deep inner calling. On the one hand is the physical space, the four walls – and for the not so privileged, something that barely covers their head – on the other, there is also an inner home. What is this home?
Across ethnicities, languages and cultures, home stands out as not just a physical entity but also an inner psychological space. Seen from this lens, the heated debates and polarisation around refugees, naturalisation and citizenship concerns the world over have among other things, the differing conception of ‘home’ and ‘homeland’. In the Ramāyana, Lord Rāma is said to have uttered, ‘janani janmabhumiśch svargādapi gariyasi’ (mother and motherland / homeland are superior even to heaven). Mother across cultures, is considered the beginning and the end. From a personal mother is born a being, and to mother nature s/he returns. She is the original home – a sanctuary where we can come back to ourselves.
Though a whole host of symbolic and metaphorical meanings stand out for ‘home’, it is the inner psychologically felt aspect that makes the word so powerful – a space for in-dwelling. It is a place where we can be ourselves – without the need to put on a show or a mask. Home is the place devoid of judgments and thus symbolic of safety, comfort and wellbeing.
‘Stay home, Stay safe’ is the motto in this pandemic. And as we stay home physically, it is an opportunity to examine the inner home. Ask yourself these questions:
Am I living my life today – the way I should be?
When I look at the mirror daily, do I feel close or distant from the person I see?
Do I see my own Self or do I see someone else?
Do I feel I am really at home – on the inside?
Your own response to these questions will tell you how close to, or far you are – from your own inner home. It is telling that after a long day at work, we head back home – ostensibly to be refreshed and recharged. Do you like being in the inner home with yourself?
Home is the place that vivifies us, that animates us. The adjective ‘animate’ comes from Latin animare which means to ‘give breath to.’ Home is the place where we find our own spirits, our own anima ‘life, breath.’ We do not go about seeking – we can just be, for we belong. We are safe. Home is the place where we breathe – into our own spirit.
And the world cannot be discovered by
a journey of miles,
no matter how long,
but only by a spiritual journey,
a journey of one inch,
very arduous and humbling and joyful,
by which we arrive at the ground at our feet,
and learn to be at home.
~ Wendell Berry
Depth Analytical Psychology of Dr Carl Gustav Jung
Processwork (Process Oriented Psychology) or Drs Arnold and Amy Mindell
Philosophy of Yoga and Advāita Vedānta
Select References (last accessed 31 March 2020)
Elements, online at https://www.friesian.com/elements.htm
Encyclopaedia Britannica, online at https://www.britannica.com/science/amygdala
Etymology Dictionary, online at https://www.etymonline.com/
Steve Jobs’ Stanford Commencement Address 2005, online at https://news.stanford.edu/2005/06/14/jobs-061505/
The Unforeseen Wilderness: Kentucky’s Red River Gorge by Wendell Berry, online at https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/260436-and-the-world-cannot-be-discovered-by-a-journey-of