There are more molecules of air in a single breath of air than there are breaths of air in Earth’s entire atmosphere. Therefore, some molecules of air you inhale passed through the lungs of Billy the Kid, Joan of Arc, Beethoven, Socrates or any other historical person of your choosing.—Neil deGrasse Tyson
I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am. ― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment I know this is the only moment.―Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace
The Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.—Genesis 1:2
“Find your breath,” she says. The class inhales, slowly, in unison. “Breathe in. Hold it. Breathe out.” Twenty pairs of lungs push out, the air mingling and hovering above them. The students breathe each other’s breaths, as they breathe a bit of breath from everyone who has ever breathed in this room.
The first thing you do when you enter this world is take a deep breath in. The last thing you do when you leave this world is let a deep breath out. Life is literally breath-taking. But our breath is more than just the mixture of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon and hydrogen that we breathe in and out. Our breath connects us to each other, and to all creation.
There are many wonderful things about the creation stories in the Hebrew Bible, but scientific accuracy is not among them. In Genesis, the primordial earth is covered with water, before the creation of the sun. Above it moves a great wind. The Hebrew word here is “ruach:” breath, spirit, an invisible force that creates all other things. The Hebrew poet that wrote these words knew nothing about the molecular structure of the air we breathe, or the symbiosis between plant and animal life. But the poet knew that breath creates us all. Later in the story, Yahweh takes some mud and makes a mud person. Then he breathes into its little mud nose and it comes to life. Now this is mythical language—a form of poetry, if you will—that is trying to express a truth to us: nearly every living thing on this planet “breathes,” in some way. Breathing things are living things.
To be sure, there are a few, very simple life forms, generally single-celled animals that live deep under the sea floor and apparently don’t need oxygen to survive. Oh, and there is the cute little “water bear,” whose genome was sequenced last year, that can apparently go for years without air or water and survive. But these are the rare exceptions. And Genesis was not written by Neil deGrasse Tyson. If it had been, it would be funnier, have a better soundtrack and way more equations. We are talking poetry here, not science.
The poets, along with the prophets, urge us to breathe, really breathe. For it is only in breathing and being aware of our breaths, that we become truly mindful of our bodies and the bodies of all those around us. We know we are alive through that mutual breath. We know the others are too. Being alive together, breathing the same air unites us, as nothing else does. And if we all share the same breath, do we not all share the same life?