At The End of Breathe

I had the pleasure of attending a Buddhist meditation retreat in May 2014. At the beginning of the retreat there were introductory presentations about meditation by some of the participants.  One of the presenters was a dear friend who talked about the role of breathe during meditation. He described how he focused on the in-breathe and paid careful attention to the point where the breathe paused and the in-breathe turned to an out-breathe.  His words returned to me a few hours later while meditating alone in the garden.  I focused intently on the in-breathe as it passed through my nostrils and filled my lungs with the cool and fresh mountain air. Then, just as my friend had suggested, I shined by attention over and over again on the point where my in-breathe turned to an out-breathe. 

After a while I let my attention shift to a place I had never noticed before - the other end of the cycle - the transition point between the out-breathe and the in-breathe. I breathed out until all the air was emptied from my body and noted a very brief pause while my body prepared to perform the in-breathe. After observing this for a few minutes, I noticed how different the pause between the out-breathe and the in-breathe was from the pause between the in-breathe and the out-breathe.  It entered my awareness what a miracle each in-breathe was because it depended on thousands of conditions. My ability to breath in depended on the proper functioning of my body, the lungs, the heart, the muscles, the brain. It was also conditioned on the availability of air in my environment and the proper atmospheric pressure. It depended too on the temperature of the air being with in a specific range. It depended on this little planet rotating at just the right speed and being at just the right distance from the Sun. And it depended on innumerable other conditions. I realized that the ability to take one in-breathe was more than a gift, it was truly a miracle.

Pursuing this contemplation more deeply, it became clear that if the number of conditions that had to exist to allow me to take just one in-breathe was miraculous, the fact that each of those innumerable conditions had occurred not once, but thousands of times each day was astounding and almost incomprehensible. What's more, this miracle happened perhaps ten million times every year and had occurred more than half a billion times during my lifetime. I was literally awe-struck by this revelation.

Each and every time I focused on my breath, whether during meditation or otherwise, an internal  bell of mindfulness rang at the end of each out-breathe, reminding me of the miracle of the breath and the inescapable fact that each in-breath and my continued existence was conditioned on ten thousand things over which I mostly had no control.  And the same was true for each and every other being in the universe.  

Savasana or “corpse” pose ends every yoga session.  In Savasana we relax on our back with our hands at the sides of our body and return to a quiet breathe.  After a group yoga session one day I settled into Savasana and focused on my breathe, which at the time seemed somewhat incongruous with posing as a corpse.  As I imagined myself as a corpse for perhaps the first time, I had a revelation that led to a deeper truth about the breathe:  It was absolutely inescapable that my body would eventually exhale its final out-breathe and that last out-breathe would not be followed by an in-breathe.  At some point, whether in the next minute or many years from now, but at some point, this cycle of breathe would end for me.  One of the thousands of conditions that had miraculously come together hundreds of millions of times over my lifetime and allowed me to take an in-breathe each time I needed it would not occur.  Maybe my lungs would give out.  Maybe my heart would stop beating.  Maybe I’d suffer some trauma.  Maybe there wouldn’t be air to breath.  

I also realized that this inevitable end mirrored the beginning of my life. In the beginning there was an in-breathe that did not follow and out-breathe; in the end there was an out-breathe with no in-breathe to follow.  It is so beautifully simple: An in-breathe marks the beginning of our existence and an out-breathe marks the end.  It also seemed perfectly fitting that the beginning of existence and the end are both about breathe.

These revelations do not make me sad, but are instead a great comfort because they have allowed me to foresee the future.  I now know with absolute certainty what the end looks like.  The future It requires no speculation or guesswork.  The details of how and when aren’t really important.  This revelation of the future is very freeing.  When I am mindful, I am aware at the end of each out-breathe how tenuous my existence is.  That makes every single moment immeasurably precious.