How often have you used the phrase, “it took my breath away?” The other day I pulled over to allow an ambulance safe passage. As I listened to the screaming vehicle fast approaching, the sound literally took my breath away. Finally I saw the ambulance come over the hill and the driver barely looked both ways at the intersection before flying through the red light. Whoever was in the back was relying on this blessed soul to deliver them to safety, to deliver them to life.
I felt my breath slowly return as my body filled with anguish, imagining the terror that person might be feeling lying in the back. To be so helpless and afraid, to wonder if you will live or die, to give your life to another’s care, to be at the mercy of the unknown, maybe feeling the dark blanket of death slowly covering you.
The powerlessness of my own recent brush with death surfaced violently as my eyes blurred with tears – and I felt my breath return as never before. The same moment that took my breath away, was the same moment that was breathing new life into me. In that tiny cloud moving in and out of my mouth and lungs, I could hear everything that had ever lived in me, and yet it made space for what was yet to emerge, an entire new world.
As I was breathing my way through those few seconds with the ambulance, the piercing sirens, flashing lights, the driver and those in the back I couldn’t see, the words “you breathe in me” flooded my being. Accompanied by the penetrating and overwhelming reminder of my life a couple months ago, of being confronted with losing the last thing I thought I had control over – my own breath.
We are a culture that has become obsessed with self-help, a $10 billion per year industry in the U.S., and one of the major focal points in all these self-help remedies and practices is breathing. Deep breathing, shallow breathing, mindfulness breathing, pranayama yogic breathing (and that has 4 types), cleansing breathing, circular breathing, equal breathing, nostril breathing, heart breathing… to name JUST A FEW. All for the purposes of health, stress reduction and overall well-being. All important and necessary. But that’s not the kind of breathing I am talking about.
I am talking about basic, survival type breathing. Just the ordinary, involuntary mechanism of the nose, mouth and lungs. The kind you do when you first come into this world and no longer use your amniotic sac for life-giving oxygen. The kind of breathing you never think you will abdicate or have to learn how to do all over again. The kind of breathing that is your last thread of life. It is the most basic and mundane of activities. It just happens.
It just is.
As I lay in that hospital bed, lungs filling with fluid, sepsis spreading and my body shutting down, life got very simple. Each time the machine forced air into me, I struggled to find my own rhythm, my own timing of when to inhale and when to exhale. But I was to be denied this. The anxiety grew to staggering and paralyzing levels as I fought the forced air pushing at me, sounding like a freight train running through my head.
Madness started to peek through my consciousness as I silently screamed to take back what I thought was mine. I railed against a powerlessness I had never known – loss of control of the one thing I thought I could control – my breath, the most ordinary expression of life.
And then it happens. You surrender. Not to the machine, but to life. You find yourself wanting less and less. What you do for a living, your purpose, your search for meaning or to be seen and heard, your desire to be known – it all disappears into that machine that is breathing in you that you now refer to as “the alien.” Finally, all you ache for is that simple, humble breath. In all this, you learn to hold nothing back because there is nothing left.
When fish breathe they take in water through their gills, and extract the oxygen from it, and the water becomes the air they breathe. Water will drown we mere mortals. I know! My lungs and heart were fighting the liquid inside me. Yet the congestive heart failure, the respiratory failure, the sepsis all belied the life, unbeknownst to me, that was transforming deep underneath.
Out of sheer exhaustion I stopped fighting. I looked at the heartless beast made of metal, plastic and tubing as if to say, “Fine! Go ahead! You win! Breathe in me you bastard!” And with that, I collapsed into peace, sleep, and somewhere else. The soft underbelly of life had revealed herself as soon as I learned to hold on to nothing, and hold nothing back.
My basic understanding of life had been altered permanently. In seeking air, that which is fundamental and essential for living, I became essential in a way I had never known before. I had become the “gills” of my own life, extracting from my experience what I needed most to keep me alive – to know we are each other, that we belong to each other – you breathe in me and I in you.
“You breathe in me” means risking holding nothing back, much like that ambulance driver. It means allowing the unrehearsed moments in each day to become the new ordinary. What I keep inside me I bring forward, knowing it might be sacred, or it might be scary. Perhaps it’s something I think is too fragile to be touched, or maybe it’s cold and heavy, with the potential to hurt another. But for me to embrace “you breathe in me” means to be who I am when no one is looking. It means bringing those parts of me into the light that I have held back from the most difficult experiences that have taken my breath away.
Every breath becomes my reason to be fully immersed in humanity. When it is taken away, I am cut off from life and this is my signal to unmute my heart and live out loud. But I must wait, wait for that breath to return, just as I did in the car as the ambulance raced past me. This is all I have, to wait, and to be willing to awaken the perpetual risk to hold nothing back – to let you in when I need saving and allow you to breathe in me… to be essential to life.
I imagine as I go through life holding nothing back, I will be loved by some and yet others will never forgive me. I will know joy, and embrace the pain. I will probably leave every encounter with something left unsaid or undone. And when I die, there will be some way I could have loved better. That’s OK. For right now this is what I know.
It’s only in approaching death that I got a glimpse of living. Not in a panic sort of way. And not “I almost died, I will be more loving from now on,” kind of way either. While that’s certainly a possible outcome, it’s beyond that. Listen for when your breath is taken away, watch for the soft underbelly of new life emerging, for when your breath returns, each inhale and exhale will have opened everything. Anger is weakened, the icy walls melt, conflicts ease, burdens are lifted, and the stars shine on your heart igniting passion in the most ordinary expressions of life.
Reflecting on the ambulance, and those 4 little words, “you breathe in me,” I find they are the only words I have right now to know the connection of life that is everywhere.
There are moments when I need another for my own survival, just as I needed a machine for life giving oxygen. I don’t think we often pause to recognize we are designed to go together, to feed each other physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. To grow, nurture and embrace each other. We are each other’s saviors. Strong language perhaps, but oh so true. Who have you breathed in today?
P.S. Wondering about those moments that take your breath away because they are so magnificent, awe-inspiring and moving? Yes, you breathe in me during these times too because we belong to each other, we are essential and celebrate as one.