“Remember to breathe.”
I often say this to people under stress—whether it’s distress or eustress. It’s something I have to tell myself.
We don’t have to think to breathe. If we did, we’d fall asleep at night and suffocate in our beds. But like all gifts, autonomic breathing also holds liabilities. We can go months, years without consciously breathing, taking deep breaths, feeling the inrush of inspiration and the relaxing peace of letting it all go. Fear and anxiety can reduce our respiration to shallow panting and we’re not even aware of it. For our Hebrew ancestors the name of God means breath. To breathe—and know it—is to be one with the divine. It is really that simple.
Perhaps we can learn something from whales and dolphins, mammals that must breathe for life, even though they live more than half their lives under water. They must think about each breath. Now I must return to the surface. Time to breathe. Even in their sleep. For two-hour stretches while they swim near the surface, half of their brain stays awake—barely, as if in power-saving mode—and sends the message to surface and take on fresh oxygen. Then the resting half of the brain takes over and allows the working hemisphere to shut down and sleep. Back and forth it goes like this, until they get eight hours of sleep.
In some mysterious way, dolphins and whales live in perpetual awareness—the holy grail of spiritual life. They never forget to breathe.
A life of prayer, in which we set aside time simply to breathe and know it, can change the human brain—make it more like those sea mammals’. You must go to work and care for children and wash the car and sort the mail and call your mother, all things that demand your full attention so that you are always in danger of forgetting to breathe. But time spent in prayer slowly changes your brain so that even when you are in the heat of battle one half of your mind is still—at the lowest level—sending out that message. It is time to breathe.