A dear friend of mine recently succumbed to emphysema. Before he became ill, he’d been a scholar and a poet and a social activist. He’d had a passion for beauty in all its myriad forms. His life had been rich with rare experiences and fascinating people, and the whole of the world had been his home. But in his last few years, shortness of breath and a nasal oxygen tube had tethered him to an ever-shrinking sphere of existence — first to his apartment, then to his chair, and finally to his bed. The simplest of activities exhausted him. On bad days, he’d require hours to recover from a simple trip to the bathroom. When he’d try to speak, he’d lose his breath, so the only visitors he’d receive were his daughters and his hospice nurses. I’d write to him on Facebook and, when he had the energy, he’d respond. In one of our last communications, I asked him how he found the strength each day to carry on. He replied, “I pray with every breath.”
Since my friend’s passing, I’ve wondered what he meant when he wrote that lovely sentence. For me, he was a holy man, but as far as I knew, he’d never expressed a faith in a personal god. It could be that he’d suddenly found religion (as some people do on their deathbeds), but that seems to me unlikely. Perhaps he’d taken to silently reciting one of the “breathing prayers” (the Celtic anal-duccaid, the yogic satyam, or the Christian Jesus prayer) as his first and final act of faith. I’ll never know precisely what he’d meant to convey with those words, but what I’ve come to understand is that, for him, each breath had become a spiritual experience.
Breathing is a curious, seemingly miraculous phenomenon. It is the most basic of our voluntary behaviors and yet, as long as we are healthy, it doesn’t require any volition at all. And if our “thinking mind” can be prompted to vigilantly shadow our breath, our self — the volitional point person in our brain — begins to fade away until only pure awareness remains. Given its power to effect such a transformation, it’s not surprising that practitioners of both Eastern and Western meditative traditions conceptualize the breath as sacred. But breathing is also a physical baptism.
Although we rarely stop to think about it, we are cleansing and revitalizing ourselves with each and every breath we take. Our bodies are designed to expel an impressive 70 percent of their toxic load via respiration. This cleansing process begins at the cellular level. As our cells convert sugars into a simple form of usable energy, carbon dioxide is generated as waste. This toxic gas is then absorbed into our bloodstream, transported to our lungs, and released into the atmosphere, when we exhale. Then the plants, with which we share the planet, take in our expelled carbon dioxide and use it to create the energy that fuels their existence. And, fortunately for us, they then release the waste product of this photosynthetic process into the atmosphere — the oxygen that sustains our own existence. In this unparalleled display of the elegance of co-evolutionary design, the plants and animals of the earth are cleansing and nourishing and renewing each other, every moment of their lives — a quintessentially physical phenomenon that displays all of the hallmarks we usually ascribe to acts of divine grace and spiritual love.
It’s twilight now, the time of day when my friend would sometimes leave me a poem or a few kind words on Facebook, and I’d respond with gratitude and a sentiment aimed at soothing his discomfort and loneliness. I miss him very much, and, for better or worse, I’m unable to comfort myself with the notion that we’ll someday meet in heaven. But I can remember him and all that I loved about him. I can recall the ease with which we communicated and made each other smile. I can reflect upon the simple gifts of attention and appreciation and companionship that we gave each other freely and that meant so much to us both. And as I lie in bed at night, waiting for sleep to overtake me, I can breathe a prayer of gratitude for the blessing of his friendship and the promise of my next breath.