How to use a billion breaths

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.DSCN3750

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.DSCN3754

Seeking a muse

Where does inspiration come from? A stray word overheard on the street, a beautiful view, an ironic piece of art, serendipity? Should we seek inspiration or let it come to us?Lake Como_373

All week, I’ve been suffering from a bad case of writer’s block. I don’t know if it is a result of boredom, going on vacation for a week,  or waiting for a spring that never seems to arrive. Sometimes I think it has something to do with the loss of my yoga teacher (no, he didn’t die, just stopped teaching for a while). He would often say something simple in class that would set me off on some whimsical train of thought. Whatever the cause of the barrier, I find that desire for relief makes it hard not to work at finding an idea; hard to relax and trust that something will come.

Thomas Edison famously said that “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” but he didn’t actually say where he got that inspiration. There seem to be two schools of thought on this – the first is what I call the “Just do it” school, and the second is the “Wait for it” school. Jack London was in the first category, saying that “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” Pablo Picasso too, thought that “Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.”

Waiting for inspiration is a little like calling on the muses from Greek mythology. The ancient Greeks believed that poets, artists, musicians and even scientists got their inspiration from one of the nine muses, goddesses that were the source of knowledge. Amy Tan has said, “Who knows where inspiration comes from. Perhaps it arises from desperation. Perhaps it comes from the flukes of the universe, the kindness of the muses.”

Consider another definition of inspiration – “the act or process of inhaling” – and compare creative inspiration to the act of breathing. We know that the breath doesn’t have to be forced. It will happen without us doing a thing. We are born without the need to control the breath, yet it’s incredibly difficult to give up control of other things we want. We don’t have the patience to just let them come.

If we have both open airways and clean air, we trust in our continued ability to breathe. If I keep my mind open and let the breezes of experience flow through, can I learn to trust that ideas will come? I am reminded of two of the qualities of mindfulness: non-striving, which is about being, rather doing; and non-attachment, which means letting go of the idea that things have to turn out a certain way.

Maybe I am my own muse. By being and trusting who I am, letting go of fixed ideas, and not being afraid to wait, inspiration will come – just like my next breath.

The Space Between

The other day my yoga teacher was talking about pausing between breaths, and how that relates to taking moments of stillness between life’s activities. I thought about how we tend to focus on what we do, hear, say and see rather than on what we don’t. A couple of years ago, I went to a concert where the musician commented that the space between the notes is still part of the music. When I teach communication skills, I remind students that silences are still part of a conversation. White space in an advertisement is part of the message. And not doing can often help you get where you want to be.

Too often, we have the urge to fill those spaces between. We barely wait for someone else to finish talking before we begin. We fill all the space on the page with words and pictures. We fill our houses with stuff. We fill our days with activity after activity. We are uncomfortable with silence, we mistake simplicity for emptiness, and we confuse activity with accomplishment.

In his book, Wisdom 2.0, Soren Gordhamer suggests that our stress and irritation whenever we have to stop and wait for something (traffic, checkout lines, slow computers) might come from our disconnection with our inner life.  We just feel uncomfortable being alone with our thoughts and feelings, even for a few minutes.  To restore that connection, Gordhamer recommends viewing these forced pauses as an invitation to relax, to breathe, and to take a break. Yes, it’s frustrating to wait when you might already be late, but since you cannot change it, accept it as a gift. Use the time to breathe deeply and notice what’s going on around you, and “be present as you wait.”

I tried this yesterday while waiting in line to pick up a prescription. Everyone in front of me was taking a long time. But I didn’t get impatient; I just waited, and breathed. I even let the person behind me go ahead of me because he seemed to be in distress. I felt pretty good when I left the store – at exactly the same time, but in a much better frame of mind, as I would have left if I had been fuming the whole time.