Sometimes breathing feels like drinking. You know when you’re really thirsty and a thick cold smoothie hits the back of your throat? Like that. On a holiday in Ireland, I had cycled, alongside my wife Sophie, from Belfast on the North-East of Ireland to the North-Western coast, covering about fifty miles a day – which for us was plenty – and camping at night. I will never forget the day we arrived after hours riding through driving rain on a remote peninsula only to discover that the youth hostel on our map had been closed for months.
We pitched our tent on a grass verge and bedded down, tired and soaked by the heavy downpour. When we woke up the next morning we found ourselves on the edge of a beach overhung by a clear blue sky. We walked over the sands and just breathed it all in; I found myself wanting to swallow the air, almost greedily. On this coastal edge, the rain-cleared air felt unlike air I normally breathe: it could almost be described as delicious. Breathing – just breathing – became a luxurious gift.
And it is a gift. My dad died some years later from something called “pulmonary fibrosis” or “scarring of the lungs”. He was insistent that he was mostly fine, pretty much right to the end of his life. He often said, “I’m alright, it’s just my breathing.” “Yes, dad,” I said, “But breathing is sort of important!” I am a big fan of breathing, for its own sake and even as a pastime. In 2014 I was challenged by a spiritual adviser to spend twenty minutes every day in contemplative stillness. Each day I would sit down in the same seat: back straight, feet flat on the ground, body relaxed but upright, and then I would breathe.
To try and avoid worrying about how much time was left, I set a gentle alarm to go off at the end of the time. For the first few days I didn’t really trust the alarm and kept opening my eyes to see if it had failed to go off. It hadn’t. I decided to focus my attention very deliberately and carefully on just one part of my breath. I recommend this as a method since it simplifies the experience and makes it a more of an intimate encounter your own body. Behind your nose is a large sinus chamber; like a cave in your head. This ancient cavern is quite roomy and it connects back to your mouth and to your throat.
This chamber is the welcoming lobby of your in-and-out breath; it is where it is first introduced to the inside of your body before it journeys down into your lungs to be transferred, transformed, and united with you. I concentrated all my attention on this bit of the journey: in through the nose, filling this lobby and out again. Nothing else. I gave no thought to the stages of filling up the lungs (top, middle, and bottom) that is often usefully attended to in yoga. Twenty minutes on the arrival of the breath in the body; every day for forty days.
I soon discovered how difficult it is to still the mind and focus attention on a single thing. It got easier but I would say that by the end of forty days I was able to manage about thirty seconds of stillness per twenty minutes of mindfulness. Nonetheless, I’m convinced that like others I discovered new things through this practice: none of these things came from thinking or experiencing in the traditional sense of that word. Rather, the changes came about at another level of being that seemed to gradually wear away the distinction between me and the rest of the universe.
While I sat breathing – expiring – I began to ‘breathe with’ the rest of the material and spiritual reality. To “breathe with” is to “con-spire”. I love the idea that attentive breathing is a way in which the individual might conspire with the rest of creation. Perhaps when we hear the word “conspiracy” we think of powerful elite businesses and government figures plotting to exploit and oppress us; or terrorist organisations planning an abrupt attack on our sleepy civilisation. But these conspiracies are pedestrian compared to contemplation: the conspiracy of attentive breathing. Simply attending to our breathing is the starting point of a journey.
This journey explores the mystical reality that both exist as a separate self and at the same time does not exist because breath both enters us as seemingly separate but also becomes part of us as we breathe. Unless we retrace our steps back to the source of all being, we cannot change anything. This is true because we are not able, nor are we morally permitted, to change something we are not a part of.
To try to change a universe that we experience as totally separate from ourselves is to treat it as an object to be acted on rather than a unity to be participated with. This experientially disconnected approach to social justice leads to domination and new, perhaps unintended injustices, because we do not see ourselves in the other. Unless we relinquish our separation and return our souls to ‘the other’ we cannot be part of the change.
Perhaps you have tried attentive breathing yourself and, like me, you find it a difficult and frustrating experience. Finding a word or phrase to repeat can often be helpful. For some people the simple word “Om” repeated can fix the mind like an anchor. In many Indian traditions this word represents an echo of the foundational sound of creation and so is a perfect word to use when inviting a conspiracy with all of time and space. For others it is the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,” or simply a single word like “love” or “hope”.
For me the word hope is a great one because it reminds me of the French, “J’espere”, which in turn sounds a bit like “conspire”. To conspire with all things visible and invisible is to hope for change. If you use this tool it’s important not to get too hung up on the meaning of the word that you have chosen. The meaning should not be part of your contemplation. If you want to spend twenty minutes repeating the word love don’t spend twenty minutes thinking about what love means.
Empty the word of all meaning; just focus on the very word itself. To breathe is to both give and take in equal balance. To find a balance of mutuality and co-dependency with the rest of the natural world is to begin to change the world. If we can recognise this in our most primitive and fundamental act – breathing – we can begin to practice it in the wider of sphere of our acting.
Despite the fact mysticism points us towards the strangeness of reality, the word itself is not very mysterious. It simply refers to the possibility of knowing, at some level, that we are not separate from the rest of being. Mystical experience need not involve visions of other worlds and great ecstasies. It is just that we find ways of blurring the space-time boundaries of our perception enough that we begin to integrate all things both internal and external to ourselves.
This has ethical implications. Simone Weil, celebrated twentieth century mystic, writes about the “death of the I”, the only thing we really have to offer, for what she calls “annihilation” by God. Weil makes annihilation sound like a good thing; most of the time it does not seem that way to us. We cling to our separation, our discernible being, many of us hope that in some way, even after bodily death the “I” will continue through legacy or through some notion of an incorruptible and separate soul that is still in some way imprinted with a notion of personality.
The experience of feeling like we are not separate can be elating. It can lead soldiers at war to sacrifice their lives for their fellow fighters with whom they see no separation of life. To experience flow as an artist or musician is to have a mystical experience. My wife plays the oboe and is brilliant at it (she crossed that bit out during proofreading but I kept it in anyway) but when she is at her most brilliant she is the least aware of her music-making.
That is to say that there is no consciousness of self or oboe, or of the score on the sheet. In the moment when a musician is flowing with the music there is pleasure but not consciously so. This is mysticism. It’s flow, it’s the collapse of our perception of the silos of me, you, them, and that which is beyond us all, as though they were all separate things. Mysticism is not the belief in oneness. Mysticism is the fleeting experience of oneness that leaves echoes of its ethic in our everyday lives.
This article is an extract taken from Keith’s book “Re-Enchanting the Activist” which is available to buy on eden.co.uk.