Check your breath. Is it deep? Shallow? Quick and short? Calm and controlled? The breath provides great insight about the integrity of our lives. Think about it. Being alive in itself does not say much about the quality of such living; to understand this, we must understand the breath. Actually—first—let me take you back to where this all started.
I don’t particularly like showers—but it’s not what you think. I engage with the ritual to be clean, but there’s nothing inherently appealing about stopping my life at any given time because I “have to” take a shower. There’s something quite damning in conceding to the arbitrary demand of when to douse yourself with water and scented soap (I prefer Dove myself, actually). Should you do it in the morning, or the before bed? If you do it in the morning, what is the absolute final cutoff time—to the nearest second—that you can wake up in order to fit it in? If you do it at night and sleep on your wet hair, will you catch a cold (or Ebola)?
I’ve always had a big problem with unwritten rules (as well as the persons who enforce them) that presume to hold clout on par with the written ones. Having to take a shower at any particular time is a smug and rather conceited assumption that, until I began living with a woman, I did little to assuage with compromise. And yet, if it weren’t for the miraculous powers of solitude and reflection afforded by washing one’s body in a stream of water, I may have never began my writing career. I do my best thinking in the shower. But this post isn’t so much about showers as it is about this one particular shower.
I had begun to shampoo the humble beginnings of what may soon become the most gorgeous beard ever grown in America, when I realized that I was holding my breath. For no particular reason I had simply inhaled, and without conscious thought, held on to the breath. And then my brain turned on. I had just caught myself unconsciously holding my breath. And so, the inevitable follow up question was: Why? And yet, perhaps more important: How often is this happening?
This experiment in the consciousness of my breathing had resulted in the revelation that holding my breathe was actually a pretty common occurrence; I’d say it’s at least as common as the bathroom breaks I take daily. In moments of anxiety, thinking, anticipation, and even physical exertion, I found evidence that I had been holding my breath. Much like when it becomes revealed to us that we have an eyelash on our cheek, or a missed button on our sweaters, alerting our attention to small details ceases to make them small when it highlights something we had been missing all along.
It’s been said that any true appreciation begins with absence. Only in our being without can we understand the importance of such loss. This, too, applies to the breath. Now—I know. I know how this comes off. It’s another rant that pays homage to the glorifications of new age digital yogis and mediation culture that have now flooded the canvas of social media platforms like Instagram. The ubiquity of smart phone cameras has made everyone an expert it seems. But what is really meant to be highlighted in these words is the underlying intrinsic value of self-awareness that comes with simply noticing the breath.
If you look beyond the mass marketing of breathing cultures found in yoga and meditation, there exists a basic principle which becomes better understood in the light of the discovery that, sometimes, we unconsciously hold our breath. In both practices of yoga and meditation, the emphasis on conscious breathing is paramount. In comparison to our daily lives where we may hold our breath many times a day, mindful breathing while focusing the mind and body is an experience that truly is unique.
And so, this is the value in such practices; their stark contrast to the unconscious living that we do each day serves to underline the importance of their value as a unique experience. There is always more value in the things that have not been done, as the things that have already been done have already reached their maximum potential. In knowing this, we can push ourselves to live more consciously and the breath becomes the gateway.