Breathe In, Breathe Out
May 16, 2021 | Sarah Stewart
One thing we have learned from the COVID pandemic is that humans are part of the natural world. COVID-19 likely originated as a slightly different virus in the horseshoe bat in China. The World Health Organization reports that the most likely scenario is that it then spread to humans through an intermediary animal, perhaps a pangolin. Pangolins are a beautiful species, the only animal in nature covered head to toe in scales. Humans have hunted pangolins nearly to extinction; they are the most trafficked mammal in the world (Rørmann 38, 40). If we think of ourselves as over and above nature, then hunting animals for their meat and scales is our right. But if we are part of nature, then the interaction goes both ways: we are susceptible to death at the hands of the horseshoe bat and the pangolin, too. We should respect the animals and plants of the natural world.
When we remember that we are embodied creatures, our nature becomes more apparent to us. Like any mammal, we are only comfortable within certain temperatures. We need food, water, warmth, other people, and shelter to survive. We suffer injury, become ill, and eventually die. Humans are also en-souled creatures, who possess consciousness and awareness of the past and the future. We can create art and mourn our losses. While we are soul-filled beings, we cannot forget we are mammals. One of the connections between our spiritual selves and our embodied selves is our breath.
I have had to learn to breathe in order to exercise. That’s a strange thing to say—we are born knowing how to breathe and we never forget. Still, when I started serious exercise and weightlifting my breath was trapped inside of me. I walked into the gym full of fear. I almost cancelled my appointment. Had I known what was coming, I might have ghosted after all: the first seven-minute workout I did with the coach at my gym left me gasping for air, and sore for days afterward.
The gym is a cavernous space built into the old Coca-Cola bottling plant on Shrewsbury Street. There’s a long bench against one wall where members store their things and wait for class to begin; that’s where I sat on my first day, awaiting the coach who would introduce me to lifting. Men the shape of trucks faced the squat racks, the ends of their iron bars bending under the weights they had slid on the ends.
A young man, tall and wiry, came up to me and introduced himself as a coach. Did I know how to do a burpee? he asked. Of course, I answered. A burpee is falling down on the ground and getting up again. He watched me do one burpee, one air squat (a squat with no weight) and one sit-up. I looked at him for approval. He gave me a look that was half smile, half grimace and said, “Uh, ok, are you ready?” I began to have the feeling that this was not going to go according to plan.
“Three! Two! One! Go!” the coach shouted and started a clock on his phone. Seven air squats, five sit-ups, three burpees for seven minutes. I thought I would be fine. Soon I felt like I was dying.
There are two ways to do a lot of burpees. The first is to do what you can, hands out, jump back, chest down, jump in, arms up, again and again. Some people have built an engine out of their heart and lungs that can maintain a fast pace for a long time. When I try to do burpees this way, without thinking, I quickly run out of breath.
That’s a strange metaphor. Running out of breath ought to be impossible since your lungs pump air nonstop. Imagine what it feels like: you’re panting for breath, lungs expanding and contracting as fast as they can, heart beating fast, sweat pouring off your brow. Even though it’s impossible, the metaphor fits. Your cells strain to use oxygen to burn calories for fuel, leaving water and carbon dioxide as waste. You breathe out the useless CO2 and gasp for the oxygen that keeps your body moving. Your breath runs away from you, out more than in, faster and faster, heart speeding up to keep up with the demand, until you are drowning. Drowning from lack of breath on dry land because you have slipped beneath the surface of your own breathing. Cross that red line, and you will get to the point that only total rest will bring your breath back to you. Your created body is good, but there is only so much it can do. That’s how I did burpees on my first day.
The other way to do a burpee is to count your breaths and move your body at the speed of your breath. Your body is like a boat floating on the waves of your breathing and you go only as fast as your breath will carry you. Focus on the exhales, on your divine breath going out from you. The world has become a part of your body through the inhale and goes back into the world in the exhale. You and God have created this pace together, your natural aptitude combined with the practice you have put in so far.
Even now, having done burpees for years, I must bring my mindfulness to them and not allow them to become a mere habit. In a habit, the impulse to begin creates a cascade of subsequent actions. Starting to enter your ATM pin on the pad leads to the rest of the number, even if you couldn’t recite it out loud. Brushing your teeth leads to brushing your hair. Doing one burpee, once they’re a habit, leads to doing another. But I will still run out of breath if I do them in that habitual way, so I must bring my mindfulness to the practice and count my breaths. As with prayer, I resist the pressure of habit. Burpees require my full attention.
In this way, a burpee is a series of breaths. Standing tall, place your hands on the ground before you. Breathe out. Breathe in. Kick your feet behind you and let your chest drop to the ground. Breathe out. Breathe in. Jump your feet back in toward your hands. Breathe out. Breathe in. Jump up with your hands above your head. Breathe out. Breathe in.
To lift a heavy weight, on the other hand—to press a barbell overhead or rest it on your shoulders and squat—you have to hold your breath. Breathe down into your belly, letting your diaphragm push out the walls of your abdomen. It’s easier to breathe in through your nose to get the right effect. The breath acts like a brace around your torso and helps support the weight. Hold your breath through the squat down, and the stand. Your breath holds the bar up.
We have to conserve and plan our physical breaths because our bodies have natural limits and natural capacities. I did not think of myself as an athlete before beginning weightlifting five years ago. I don’t have the natural talent some of my friends at the gym do. Some of the world’s best athletes have exceptional abilities to hold oxygen in their blood and use it to fuel their cells. Most of us have limits that are far below Michael Phelps or people who climb Mt. Everest.
In Jewish imagery of God, God’s breath is limitless. In Genesis, God’s spirit hovers over the waters before the creation of the world. Then God speaks—breathes—all of life into existence. God’s breath is so great that it creates dry land, animals, trees, fish and birds, human beings, stars, moon, sun, and sky. In Proverbs, Wisdom speaks as God’s companion. She is sometimes equated with the Holy Spirit in Christian theology. And she implies that she was that breath, that creative spirit that went forth from God and made the world. Even the word “spirit”—in Hebrew as well as in English—means both “soul” and “breath.” With inexhaustible wisdom, the world bursts forth from divinity.
So, when we breathe, too, we create the world. What we say, what we focus on, and how we direct our energies all create the world around us. We are co-creators; the divinity that lives in each human being can make the world for good or for ill in each moment. Our spiritual task is to use our breath with a force for good. Every breath is a chance to create something and say, “It is good.”
During the pandemic, my prayer practice has been walking. Last spring, I knew that I could not face one more moment sitting in the rooms of my house: my bedroom, with the invitation to a nap; my kitchen, where online school was happening; my living room, where my husband worked from home; my cold basement, where I wrote my sermons. In walking I notice the world around me, and as my worries and objections crop up, I try to release them and meet God in the world. My body, my breath, and everything I see is part of the goodness of creation. I notice birdsong as spring begins. I notice Legos scattered across the neighbor’s sidewalk. I see a rat down by Beaver Brook, which winds its way through the abandoned lot that used to house a factory. I notice the bite of the wind and the sun low in the winter sky. I feel my own self-centeredness, and yield to the fact that I am nothing in relationship to the totality of creation. Except that I am the one who notices, just as God notices all living beings, including me. I am held in the regard of dignity, and I am invited into that regard for others. Beauty winds its way into me and through me and makes of my being a blessing.
The rat is an interesting thing. I would hate to see a rat in my house, or even in my yard. Yet I know that wherever there is water, there are rats. Wherever there are people, there are scavengers. By the brook, I’m able to watch the rat without disgust. She sits on a rock in the sunshine and washes her face. Her tail curls elegantly around her haunches. She is simply herself, not defined in relationship to my feelings. She, too, is held in God’s regard. Her breath is part of the sacred world.
St. Paul advised the church in Thessalonica to “pray without ceasing.” Yet breathing is the thing we do without ceasing, from the moment we cry coming out of the womb to the moment our breath stops rattling in our chest. When we breathe, we pray.
In the story we heard this morning by J. D. Salinger, Franny says that repeating the name of God transforms our breath into prayer. She begins to dedicate her life simply to repeating the name of God—which looks like a nervous breakdown to the people around her, who love her. It looks like sinking into the grief over loss and abandonment. I’ve felt that way, in my lowest moments—perhaps you have, too—when some ritual or activity feels like the only thing that will protect us from sorrow and loss. Franny drops out of school and lies on the couch. Her mother brings her soup, and she refuses to eat it. Her brother chastises her: “You don’t even have sense enough to drink when somebody brings you a cup of consecrated chicken soup—which is the only kind of chicken soup ever brought to anybody around this madhouse.” Franny is traveling a pathway of prayer, but she hasn’t yet reached her destination.
The truth is, it’s not enough to breathe. It’s not enough to count breaths through a burpee, or repeat the sacred name of the holy, or count our breaths in and out of our body in meditation. The breath is a tool. When we turn our breath toward praise of the beautiful world and work for its well-being, we are honoring the divine-in-us. When we connect the work of our bodies with the work of our souls, we are wise. Spiritual practice matters. It helps us feel, in our hearts, the connection between ourselves and all spirit, the truth of God-in-us. But we then stand up from our meditation cushion or our time of prayer and continue to let that breath move through us to create the good world we want to see for all people. This is the wisdom that was present when the world began. It lives in us. This is prayer without ceasing.
During COVID, we had to change what we thought about breath. All of a sudden, last March, our breath stopped being a blessing, or even a value-neutral autonomous function. Breath became a threat. Anybody breathing could be sharing the virus as they exhaled, even if they themselves did not feel very sick. When we had to go out, to the grocery store or some unavoidable appointment, we were hyper-aware of everyone breathing around us. We hoped masks would protect us. The wisdom of breath, for these past 15 months, has been to keep it to ourselves. Breath became fear.
Now, as we emerge into a world with effective vaccines, let us return to our breath to remember how to live in community again. I’m grateful to live in Massachusetts, where 70% of adults have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. More and more people are getting vaccinated, and children as young as 12 are now eligible for vaccines. Younger children may be eligible before the year is over. I’m grateful for the science and public policy that allowed these vaccines to be developed. I can see a day when we are gathered here in the church together, breathing together, no masks, even taking big breaths in to sing together in joy. That day is not today—and even with the updated guidance from the CDC, we will be proceeding cautiously and following all the state regulations for safe worship services. But that day will come. We will remember those we lost and breathe together to create the world in joy. We’ll do what we can, one breath at a time, one step at a time, honoring every being as a child of the spirit, living our wisdom through our breath. I love you all. Amen.