If there is an art to breathing, Jill O’Bryan has made a career of it. Since 2000, the NY artist has focused on a series of drawings based on capturing her own breaths over periods of time. Along the way, she has calculated that in a 97-year lifetime, she would breathe a billion breaths. To celebrate longevity and a life well-lived, she has created a piece that has been installed outside the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.
When you walk by “One Billion Breaths in a Lifetime,” you’re invited to complete the art by gazing at your own reflection in the polished chrome of the letters. Reflection, not just of your face, but of your life, feels called for. If we each have around a billion breaths, how will we use them?
Do you take a breath to say words of love, or to say words of hate? Do you take a breath to whisper a secret or to shout a curse? To slow your heart or to fuel your passion? The breath is something that we take for granted, and yet it is the first thing we wait to hear when a baby is born, and the last thing we look for when a person dies.
We can use our breaths in so many positive ways:
To sing a song
To laugh out loud
To whistle a tune
To blow bubbles with a child
To blow out candles on a cake
To blow a kiss to someone
To warm our hands
To say a prayer
To run a marathon
To release tension in the body
To ease our pain
To help us sleep
Yet much of the time modern life works against us, and we subconsciously inhibit our natural breathing rhythm. Our breaths are shallow and tense as we wait for traffic to move, or as we practice the angry words we are waiting to say to someone. Compare that tight feeling to the relaxation that occurs after you use your breath for a big, unrestrained belly laugh. When was the last time you laughed that way?
The breath is so important in the yogic tradition that we have an entire practice, pranayama, for learning how to control the breath, or life force. Focusing on the breath, especially to deepen it and slow it down, is the best way to get in touch with our autonomic nervous systems and to counter the effects of stress and anxiety. Because the breath links the body and mind, it can be useful at those times when body and mind are discordant. Thich Nhat Hanh suggests focusing on the in and out of breathing to bring them back together again: “Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in…Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.” In, out, in, out, in, out – until the mind and body are unified and peaceful once again.
The idea of a billion also represents abundance, but we know all too well that something that is plentiful is often wasted. We even have an expression, “Don’t waste your breath,” and although it means something different, it’s good advice to follow. At 12-16 breaths per minute, even one billion breaths don’t last forever. We have no choice but to breathe — we cannot hold onto our breaths, or save them for some unknown future purpose. We can only soften our grip and choose each day how we will make the most of them.