(An exploration into the connection between breath and writing)
Since so many of us have been having trouble breathing, I’ve been thinking about the power of breath, and remembering the critical paper I wrote about the connection between breath and writing (threaded with personal essay) twenty years ago under the mentorship of Alma Luz Villanueva when I was an MFA student at Antioch University Los Angeles. As a faculty member at Antioch in more recent years, I taught a seminar that drew upon this paper— amongst other exercises, I gave everyone each a little bottle of soap bubbles so they could watch their breath made tangible in the air. This paper appeared, in slightly different form, in The Healing Breath many years ago; I’m happy to share it again now (missing some formatting bells and whistles from the original — the endnotes, bibliography, indented quotes, etc.) Wishing you all inspiration and easy breathing.
I blow a circle of breath onto the back seat window of our family car, then write on the slippery surface with my ten-year-old finger. As the dark world whizzes by, light from a row of street lamps seeps through my words, turning them luminous, turning the condensed beads of my breath into stars. Dazzled, I smear them with my palm, then blow a new puff of air so I can write some more. My right hand is wet from all the moisture in my lungs, all the words that have shaped themselves there. In the morning, if the sun hits the window right, I can see some of those words glint on the glass, ghosts of my drawn breath.
I watch my son and daughter play with a set of Blow Pens. The bright words on the box identify it as an “air coloring system.” The air my kids color is their own. They put the mouthpiece end of a pen between their lips, then blow. A fine mist of color sprays the paper. The kids form words, draw butterflies, fill in stencils, with subtle movements of their mouths and hands. They are literally drawing breath, their breath mapped out on the page in every shade of the rainbow.
I watch them blow and color, blow and write their names, and I think, this is what writing is…finding a way to let our breath live on the page. Finding a way to tint each exhale so the colors that live inside us can find their way out into the world. Dragging our fingers through the vapor of our lungs and seeing what shapes we leave behind.
Seven centuries ago, Rumi said “Here’s the new rule: break the wineglass,/and fall toward the glassblower’s breath.” Here’s the new rule I propose now: break open a poem, a sentence, a word, and fall toward the breath of the writer. Just like glass, our words are shaped by breath and fire. Breath is an integral part of our language, intimately woven into our alphabet, our grammar, our creative process. Here, we will break open the goblet of writing and seek out the breath that swirls inside, the breath we as writers sometimes catch, sometimes free. The breath we draw, the breath we draw from, whenever we sit down to write.
In “Poem Out of Childhood,” Muriel Rukeyser instructs “Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry.” When I inhale here, I bring my own experience with breath to the page; when I exhale, I survey the ways in which breath informs our writing, from our oral roots, to the breath of inspiration, to the ways in which we can touch the breath of our readers. In echoing the pulse of our lungs, I hope to mirror the reciprocity between self and world that exists within the acts of both writing and breathing. “There is a furnace in our cells,” writes Diane Ackerman, “and when we breathe we pass the world through our bodies, brew it lightly, and turn it loose again, gently altered for having known us.”
In most cultures, the word “breath” is synonymous with life force, or spirit. Spiritus in Latin, pneuma in Greek, ruach in Hebrew, prana in Sanskrit, ch’i in Chinese, nilch’i in Navajo, all link breath with vitality, breath with the divine, creative, spark. John Fire Lame Deer, a Lakota medicine man, calls upon “Woniya wakan — the holy air — which renews all by its breath. Woniya, woniya wakan — spirit, life, breath, renewal — it means all that.”
According to Ojibway creation stories, Nanabush created the earth with his breath; in The Holy Bible, “the Lord God formed man of/the dust of the ground, and breathed/into his nostrils the breath of life;/and man became a living soul.” The Taoist treatise Huai-nan-tzu instructs that everything originally came from one “Primordial Breath,” which split into “the light ethereal Yang breath, which formed Heaven; and the heavier, cruder Yin breath, which formed Earth. The warm breath of Yang accumulated to produce fire, the essence of which formed the Sun. The cold breath of Yin accumulated to produce water, the essence of which became the Moon.” By all accounts, we are made of breath; breath enlivens us, acts as conduit between ourselves and the elements, ourselves and the divine.
Brimming with such essential creative spirit, it is not surprising that breath has also long been connected to creative human expression, to Word. In the Ojibway myth, “when Nanabush blows gently, his breath is also the breath of language. Words become stories and stories become whole new worlds…To create meaning one must reach down inside and transform through the breath of creativity.” The Navajo similarly believe “the four Winds of the cardinal directions are also called the ‘four Words.’ Since we speak only by means of the breath, Wind itself — the collective breath — is said to hold the power of language: ‘It is only by means of Wind that we talk. It exists at the tip of our tongues’.” Ogotemmeli, a Dogon African wise man, also affirms “The life force which is the Bearer of the Word, which is the Word, leaves the mouth in the form of breath, or water vapour, which is water and which is Word.”
In Eros the Bittersweet, Anne Carson writes about how ancient Greeks found their own connection between breath, spirit, and language:
“For the ancient Greeks, breath is perception, breath is emotion. The phrenes seem to be roughly identifiable with the lungs in ancient physiological theory and to contain the spirit of breath as it comes and goes…Words, thoughts, and understanding are both received and produced by the phrenes. So words are “winged” in Homer when they issue from the speaker and “unwinged” when they are kept in the phrenes unspoken.”
Our lungs are wings inside our chest, beating with each word we speak, letting us soar to dizzying heights. Our lungs are receptors for, and conductors of, pure creative spirit. Carson mentions that “such a conception is natural among people in an oral environment…Breath is primary insofar as the spoken word is.” David Abram, author of Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World, agrees: “In the absence of writing, human utterance, whether embodied in songs, stories, or spontaneous sounds, was inseparable from the exhaled breath.” He contends, however, that breath continued to hold a place in early forms of writing, especially within the traditional Hebrew aleph-beth. The absence of written vowels in this system, he writes “has to do with the nature of the vowel sounds themselves. While consonants are those shapes made by the lips, teeth, tongue, palate, or throat, that momentarily obstruct the flow of breath and so give form to our words and phrases, the vowels are those sounds that are made by the unimpeded breath itself. The vowels, that is to say, are nothing other than sounded breath. And the breath, for the ancient Semites, was the very mystery of life and awareness, a mystery inseparable from the very invisible ruach — the holy wind or spirit…It is possible, then, that the Hebrew scribes refrained from creating distinct letters for the vowel-sounds in order to avoid making a visible representation of the invisible. To fashion a visible representation of the vowels, of the sounded breath, would have been to concretize the ineffable, to make visible a likeness of the divine. It would have been to make a visible representation of a mystery whose very essence was to be invisible and hence unknowable — the sacred breath, the holy wind. And thus it was not done.”
In the 8th century B.C.E., Greek scribes adapted the Hebrew aleph-beth for their own use, and, in the process, added written vowels to their symbology. This, according to Abram, had dire consequences. “By using visible characters to represent the sounded breath,” he writes, “the Greek scribes effectively desacralized the breath and the air.” The absence of vowels, he explains, had “provided the pores, the openings in the linguistic membrane through which the invisible wind — the living breath — could still flow between the human and the more-than-human worlds.” This all changed with the new Greek system:
It was only with the plugging of these last pores — with the insertion of visible letters for the vowels themselves — that the perceptual boundary “established by the common language was effectively sealed, and what had once been a porous membrane became an impenetrable barrier, a hall of mirrors. The Greek scribes, that is, transformed the breathing boundary between human culture and the animate earth into a seamless barrier segregating a pure inside from a pure outside. With the addition of written vowels — with the filling of those gaps, or pores, in the early alphabet — human language became a highly self-referential system closed off from the larger world that once engendered it.”
Once these written vowels entered human consciousness, the individual self became, for the first time, sealed inside the skull, cut off from the rich swirl of life. Words were suddenly severed from the landscape, from the senses; abstractions began to multiply in a rarified, unbreathable air, not the air warmed by the lungs, the air that teems with scent and song. Fortunately, writers have always found a way to punch through this new membrane, to let breath seep back into the language, to let our shifting selves seep back into the world, back into the Word.
I open my throat and let vowels pour out. The letter “A” buzzes from mouths all around me, filling the room with rich, multi-layered, vibration. I can feel the vowel burrow its hum down into my belly. A collective breath is taken, then “E” begins to suffuse the air. I feel like Rilke is in the room, coaxing all of us: “feel how your breath is still increasing space./Among the beams of the dark belfries let/yourself ring out..”
I am a member of Theater of Life, an experimental theater troupe grounded in meditation practice. We begin each rehearsal in silence, following our breath, until the director, Denise Taylor, asks us to chant vowels, extending each one the length of a full exhale. All of the vowels — A, E, I, O, U — have a different frequency, a different vibration in the throat. Each one fills my breath, rocks my whole body. I am amazed by the power of these vowels, how they expand to enter every bit of space in the room, how they saturate the breath with their pure open sound.
I think about how I use these vowels countless times every day — when I speak, when I write — but I have never understood their full power, their full breath-taking, breath-shaking, glory, until now. With each new letter, I can feel the walls I’ve constructed within my lungs, around my “self”, begin to break down. I can feel my self and the world flow together, a free and vital exchange.
The holy wind enters us again and again, from the moment of inspiration, a word inseparable from the breath — its root, inspirare, literally means “to breathe in.”
Jane Hirshfield writes “All written work retains some trace, however faint, of this initial sanctity of the Word: the breath inhabiting Logos and the breath of inspiration are the same, each bringing new life into the empty places of earth.”
Sometimes the call to write is felt in the breath first — a gasp, a catch in the chest. The breath fills us, and asks in turn, to be filled with language as we breathe back out. Helene Cixous writes “My body experiences, deep down inside, one of its panicky cosmic adventures. I have volcanoes on my lands. But no lava: what wants to flow is breath. And not just any old way. The breath ‘wants’ a form. ‘Write me!’”
Such volcanoes of breath open the channels for creative energy to flow freely through us. Allen Ginsburg discusses this sense of openness: “Inspiration is unobstructed breath, with that feeling of a hollow body, like the body as a reed, a kind of straight spine in a state of complete alertness and awake-ness and the air passing in and out of the column — the body becoming a column of air.”
Our bodies are wind instruments, ready to be breathed into by a greater set of lungs. In his study “Inspiration: Exploring the Experience and its Meaning,” Tobias Hart notes “In ancient inspired creativity, the Muses (by Hesiod’s account, they are nine daughters of Zeus who serve as the active force in infusing transcendent knowledge to humans) are described as whispering, breathing, or singing into the recipient.”
Many writers still can feel stories swirling in the atmosphere, waiting to possess us, waiting for us to breathe them in so we can give them voice. In his poem “Breathing Exercises” Richard Godden writes:
“With my hand up the back of my voice, which is theirs, I hear/alive within the radius of this throat/paseo, forum, pub. club, church and street — /as through while walking through a frosted breath/I had inhaled, on agitated air,/the ghosts which were, are, might be yet in words.”
Perhaps such sentiment echoes ancient cultures in which air was considered “the unseen repository of ancestral voices, the home of stories yet to be spoken, of ghosts and spirited intelligences, a kind of collective field of meaning from whence individual awareness continually emerged and into which it continually receded, with every inbreath and outbreath.”
Like breath, inspiration has a rhythmic, reciprocal, nature — a fluid relationship between self and other, self and world — as explored here by Andrew Metcalfe: “My nostrils are filled with the breath of life that is the divine medium in which I live. The word inspiration hovers between breathing into the other (inspiring them) and breathing in the other (inspiring.) Inside and outside, activity and passivity, inspiration and expiration: inspiration overflows such categorical boundaries. As would-be annunciator, I become a tangle of angel and flesh, or ink and flesh; I cannot say if I possess or am possessed by the thought which buzzes and grows insideme, demanding birth; I cannot say if I approached the world or itapproached me; I became inside and outside, sender and receiver,Gabriel and Mary.”
This overflowing of boundaries, this ability to slip in and out between “angel and flesh,” inner and outer, lies at the heart of the creative process. Ken Dychtwald writes “Just as a breath is made up of an inhalation as well as an exhalation, and loving relationships are built on the ability to give as well as receive, true human creativity lies in the ability to experience the world anew each instant, to have each breath begin fresh, and to express freely and openly each passion of the bodymind. In the unrestricted individual, the balance of soft and hard, in and out, giving and receiving, expansion and contraction, defines the power and beauty of the thoracic region of the bodymind.”
Breath is such a powerful metaphor for, and fount of, creativity, because it exists right at the nexus of body and mind. It is our only physiological function which is at once voluntary and involuntary, shifting between the two modes like an alternating current, dipping equally into both conscious and unconscious awareness. The breath can take us deep into our bodies, as well as up into our highest realms of thought, all the while reminding us how interconnected, how inseparable, these two paths truly are.
As Gretel Erlich writes “This whole business of dividing body and mind is ludicrous. After all, the breath that starts the song of a poem, or the symphony of a novel — the same breath that lifts me into the saddle — starts in the body, and at the same time, enlivens the mind.”
Allen Ginsburg also explores how the breath, through language, can unite seemingly disparate elements within us, just as the Taoist Primordial Breath holds both Yin and Yang within its infinite lungs: “You have thoughts which are mental and impalpable like heaven and then you have body, which is ground or earth. So when you speak, the breath comes out as a physiological body thing but it’s also a vehicle for the impalpable thoughts of the mind. So, you could say that speech joins heaven and earth, or synchronizes mind and body.”
With each breath we take, we have the potential to find this union, to tap both the depths and heights of our own embodied intelligence. With each breath, we have the potential to be freshly inspired, filled with new creative spiritus.
I. Can’t. Breathe.
My worst. Asthma. Attack. Ever.
I. Am. Six. Teen.
My mother. Drives me. To the emer. Gen. Cy. Room.
I hear her. Breathe. Oh no oh no oh no. As she watches. Me gasp. For. Breath.
In the E.R. I breathe. Into. A. Spirometer. It. Measures. The. Flow. Of. My. Breath. It. Bare. Ly. Moves. I. Think. Of. Spirographs. I played with. As a child. How sometimes. The little wheel. Inside the other. Wheel. Would slip. And the pencil. Would. Make. A lopsided. Circle. An awkward. Skip. Of the graphite. A mess. On the page. And this. Is how. My breath feels. In my lungs.
Later I am admitted into my own hospital room, a mask across my nose and mouth, breathing in oxygen and bronchial dilators, adrenaline pumping into my body through an I.V. When night falls, I can’t fall asleep. I write poems all night long. One after the other. I can’t stop them. Maybe it’s the adrenaline turning me manic, churning frantic words out of my veins. Or maybe I’m just so happy to be able to breathe, so happy to have life flow, unobstructed, through my body again — in/out, in/out — that the words flow with this joy.
Breath enters our writing in many guises. It especially loves to cloak itself in poetry. The same word means both “to breathe” and “to make a poem” in at least one Inuit dialect. Edward Hirsch reminds us “For most of human history poetry has been an oral art. It retains vestiges of that orality always. Writing is not speech. It is graphic inscription, it is visual emblem. Nonetheless: ‘I made it out of a mouthful of air,’ W.B. Yeats boasted in an early poem. As, indeed, he did. As every poet does.”
Robert Pinsky agrees: “Poetry is a bodily art: its medium is not words or lines or images or thoughts or ideas or ‘creativity,” but breath, shaped into meaning in the throat and mouth.” Rilke also exults in the organic poetics of breath: “Breathing, you invisible poem!/World-space constantly in pure/interchange with our own being. Counterpoise,/wherein I rhythmically happen.”
Breath finds a way to become visible by inscribing its rhythms into our poetry. “Far from being artificial or unnatural,” writes Peter Viereck in his essay “Strict Wildness: The Biology of Poetry,” “poetry is your most physical expression, it’s basic throb your body throb.”
Formal poetry is especially attuned to the metric throb of our bodies. As Allen Ginsburg says “Nobody’s got any objection to even iambic pentameter if it comes from a source deeper than the mind — that is to say, if it comes from the breathing and the belly and the lungs.” Indeed, iambic pentameter is arguably the prosody most in synch with the breath. Viereck notes: “our old friend, our now oft-resented old friend, the iambic five-beat couplet… combines our external physique (two feet, five fingers) with our internal physique: pulse and lung. Pulse and lung, in turn, have a five to one relationship. One ta-TUM of lungs takes approximately as long as five ta-TUMS of heart (systole-diastole): five heartbeats per breath. In cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, the heart gets compressed five times for each mouth-to-mouth breath. Your very life depends on this fact: to save a victim of drowning, the lifeguard breathes into his mouth once for every five heart-massages. (Would you want a free verse lifeguard?).”
Mary Oliver also explains “The pentameter line is the primary line used by the English poets not for any mysterious reason, but simply because the pentameter line most nearly matches the breath capacity of our English lungs.”
In the 1950s, poets not working with formal prosody (poets who, in fact, were consciously trying to break free from form) began to rediscover the connection between poetry and the breath. In his essay, “Projective Verse,” Charles Olson proclaims “Verse now, 1950, if it is to go ahead, if it is to be of essential use, must, I take it, catch up and put into itself certain laws and possibilities of the breath, of the breathing of the man who writes as well as of his listenings” (613). He goes on to declare that “the line comes (I swear it) from the breath, from the breathing of the man who writes, at the moment that he writes, and thus is, it is here that, the daily work, the WORK, gets in, for only he, the man who writes, can declare, at every moment, the line its metric and its ending — where its breathing, shall come to, termination.”
Jack Kerouac argues that he, not Charles Olson, formulated the theory of breath as measure in both poetry and prose (although he says he formulated it in 1953, three years after Olson’s essay first appeared.) Jazz and bop inform his theory, he says, “in the sense of say, a tenor man drawing a breath, and blowing a phrase on his saxophone, till he runs out of breath, and when he does, his sentence, his statement’s been made…that’s how I therefore separate my sentences, as breath separations of the mind.”
Regardless of who came up with the theory — a theory which, in fact, existed long before the 1950s; a theory which had been practiced, if not articulated, ever since poetry began — the mid 20th century marked a wider public awareness of how the breath enters writing. Writers before and since have often spontaneously discovered this on their own, however. Haiku has been considered a “one breath” poem for centuries in Japan, while the French have said novels require un long souffle, “one long breath.” The connection between writing and the breath dawned on Natalie Goldberg during her Zen meditation practice:
“I had been breathing since I was born, but now I noticed it. As I sat, my attention wandered all over the place — to a fly on my knee, to a memory of my grandfather’s hat, to a thought of chocolate — but my breath continued, physically there throughout the time I sat, and then, I realized in amazement, throughout my life. And I discovered breath had different qualities all by itself, without my controlling it. Sometimes it would be deep, at other times shallow. It felt like the measure of the line when I wrote poetry: short lines, staccato breath; long lines, I’m breathing way down in my belly. I saw, too, that my breath also determined how much I could write at one time, it made language physical, it propelled the sentence.”
Louise de Salvo realized how intricately her breath was connected with her writing after she was diagnosed with adult onset asthma:
“…Before I got asthma, my sentences were as long as Virginia Woolf’s; they went on for the better part of a paragraph; they contained lots of dependent clauses, lots of semi-colons.
After I got asthma, I start writing very short sentences. Like this. Then I start fracturing my sentences. Like this. A friend tells me that my new way of writing is driving her so crazy, she can’t read my stuff anymore. I sound like a moron. A sixth-grader. Can’t I, please, go back to writing the way I used to?
For a couple of days, I try. I pull some sentences together; try semi-colons, my by-now-unfamiliar friend. But it’s impossible. My body, my breathing are different. So my writing is different. I’m not the same self I once was. Not the self who can take in enough air to exhale long, deep, complex, sentences. These sentences that chop and sputter their way through space are the only ones I can now write.”
As De Salvo and Goldberg discovered, and as Kerouac attested, the breath has as much influence on the prose sentence as it does on the poetic line. Charlie D’Ambrosio says “we have all this language for discussing the line in poetry, the organization of poetry, the sound of it, the rhythms, the iambs, etc. What do we use in talking about prose? For me, it is the breath, because we talk in prose, get information in prose; we hear it everywhere. And it’s breathing — a sentence, the punctuation, the commas, the semi-colons (the semi-colons being punctuation you usually find in novels, less often in short stories.) It seems to me the prose line is measured in breath. It’s a control of breathing.”
Like D’Ambrosio, the linguist Walter Ong postulates that “punctuation was first of all a system demanded by the exigencies of breathing in oral delivery.” This is a long held belief. In 1616, Ben Jonson, in The English Grammar, explores how written punctuation arises from the spoken breath: “There resteth one generall Affection of the whole, dispersed thorow every member thereof, as the bloud is thorow the body; and consisteth in the Breathing, when we pronounce any Sentence; For, whereas our breath is by nature so short, that we cannot continue without a stay to speake long together; it was thought necessarie, as well as for the speakers ease, as for the plainer deliverance of things spoken, to invent this meanes, whereby men pausing a pretty while, the whole speech might never the worse be understood.”
The Dr. Seuss book crackles and sighs as my dad opens the cover and flips to the first page. I snuggle down under my own covers and wait for the story to start. “Fox” is the first word, and it gusts out, scented with Colgate toothpaste, between the small gap in my dad’s front teeth. I breathe in the sound, the word, the story, breathe in my dad reading it to me. The book is full of rhymes, full of tongue twisters, and I can feel Dr. Seuss slowly leading us both into hysteria, tumbling one crazy word after another into my dad’s mouth, into my ear — an unpunctuated rush of puddles and paddles and poodles and noodles — until we both collapse — laughing, breathless — against the headboard. After my dad leaves a minty good night kiss on my cheek, I pick up the book and read it to myself, Dr. Seuss’ words twisting my tongue, tickling my lungs, making me gasp for air all over again as I wait for a comma, a period, to save me.
Just as the writer’s breath affects her use of punctuation, the writer’s use of punctuation affects the breath of the reader, whether we read in silence or speak the writer’s words out loud. Jane Hirshfield says: “When you memorize poems by other people and put them through your own body and voice, the very musculature of the person who wrote the poem enters your body. Your mouth moves the way that person’s mouth moved when he or she first “said” the poem by writing it — and that’s true whether the poet spoke it or wrote the words in silence. The throat and breath and larynx are always moving a little when words travel through us.”
Natalie Goldberg also notes “…when you take on the voice of a great writer, speak his or her words aloud, you are taking on the voice of inspiration, you are breathing their breath at the moment of their heightened feelings…[A]ll writers ultimately do is pass on their breath.”
The relationship between reader and writer is a deeply intimate one, reciprocal as breath, as Sven Birkerts explores: “Ree-durr — Rye-turr, Ree-durr — Rye-turr…passing along the very spirit breath itself, the long pneumatic hiss on which all meaning rides…Ree-durr — Rye-turr…The eerie, necessary, interchange — a surge of animated air as the one breathes in and the other breathes out.”
Each semi-colon, each period, on the page, tells the reader when and how to breathe. As Pico Iyer writes, “The Gods, they say, give breath and they take it away. But the same could be said — could it not? — of the humble comma.”
When we, as writers, are aware of the breath-wielding power of punctuation, we have more knowledge about how we can touch our readers’ breath. Mary Oliver notes that any line shorter than a pentameter “takes our breath” — “The reader is brought to a more than usual attentiveness by a shorter line, which indicates a situation in some way out of the ordinary. Tetrameter can release a felt agitation or restlessness, or gaiety, more easily and “naturally” than pentameter, and so on.”
A line longer than five feet, on the other hand, Oliver writes, “suggests a greater-than-human power. It can seem by its simple endurance — beyond ordinary lung capacity — grandiose, prophetic. It can also indicate abundance, richness, a sense of joy. Underlying whatever freight of language (statement) it carries, it emits a sense of an unstoppable machine.”
Charles D’Ambrosio agrees: “Think about religious practices that involve the control, the studied control of breathing. Think about Yoga. By controlling breath, you’re trying to achieve some state. Well, a writer is trying to provoke a state in someone else through that handle on breathing.”
He goes on to say “It’s very intimate, and there’s an enormous responsibility. With long sentences, you’re pushing someone, you’re taxing them; you’re asking them to give over their rhythm for your rhythm, their breathing for your breathing. You have to know that you have the potential to get that close.”
The ultrasound technician squeezes clear goo onto my belly, then presses the rubber paddle down against my solar plexus. I watch the inside of my body swirl and pulse in grainy black and white on the screen. It looks like outer space, full of gauzy constellations, but it is not. It is inner space. My own undulating galaxy. I look for the planet of my spleen, the organ that may be enlarged, the reason for this ultrasound, but I can’t discern it in all this stardust throb.
“Hold your breath,” the technician tells me.
I inhale, let the breath expand my ribs. She pushes a few buttons on the machine, presses the rubber paddle deeper into my skin.
“You can breathe,” she says, easing the paddle up.
I let the air rush back out of my lungs, then ask “Do I have to hold my breath so everything will stay still?”
“That’s part of it.” She inserts a new film below the screen. “But it also expands your organs, lengthens them, makes them easier to see.”
She turns me onto my side.
“Hold your breath,” she says again, then points to the monitor. “Here,” she says. “This is your gallbladder. See how it flattens out when you inhale?”
I watch a black hole on the screen stretch into a river. I am amazed by how my whole body responds to breath, how every organ is affected by the rhythm of my lungs. What stories lie inside all these comets, these nebulae? How do the stories change with each breath I take, each breath I hold?
Although she is not supposed to say anything, the technician lets me know my spleen is not enlarged. I am relieved — one less reason to hold my breath in fear.
When we are in the thick of the creative flow, we often hold our breath. This is different from chronic breath-holding that blocks the breath, inhibits it, resists fully embodied experience. “To breathe little is to feel little,” writes Alexander Lowen in The Betrayal of the Body. As writers, this kind of breath-holding is dangerous; we need to breathe large, to invite large feelings into our bodies, if we want our work to be authentic, to have any lasting emotional resonance. John Lee, author of Writing from the Body agrees, “To begin writing with the full power of our body’s knowledge, we must welcome our life, our breath, and our emotions completely. We have only to begin breathing fully to show Life that we are serious about embracing her.”
When we restrict our breath in our daily lives, it greatly restricts the scope of our creative expression. Lee explains “The message written by the tight chest, the stilted body, carries no duende, no darkness, no belly stretched wide by the breath. Such writing is a mere whistle. It rises up like a ghost, substanceless, with a mask for a face, and we do not believe it.”
The kind of breath-holding we experience while writing is a different sort — it marks an opening into rather than a closing off — it signals an entrance into the altered creative state, an entrance into awe.
James Hillman points out that the gasp — the quick intake, the holding, of breath — is our primary aesthetic response. I posit that it may be our primary creative response as well. Our writing often takes our breath away from the very moment of inspiration. “[Writing] captured me…,” writes Helene Cixous. “From some bodily region. I don’t know where. ‘Writing’ seized me, gripped me, around the diaphragm, between the stomach and the chest, a blast dilated my lungs and I stopped breathing.”
It is not surprising that as we tunnel into our subconscious, as we enter the deep currents of our stories, our breath changes accordingly. Joy Manne writes “The way the words of a language are combined to make meaningful utterances is its syntax. Breath is a language with its own syntax and structure…A change in our rhythm of breathing induces a change in our state of consciousness…Breath is a psychological language. It is the language that describes our state of consciousness. If dreams are the royal road to the unconscious, breath is the royal expressway.”
For poet Maurya Simon, the breath is indeed an entrance to, as well as an exit ramp from, the depths of her creative process: “I think that what I do that is right when I’m getting in, and right when I’m getting out, is to take a deep breath. Maybe my breath does alter. It sounds very similar to a meditation practice. And there are some ways I compose myself in terms of breath. It centers my body, it anchors my body, it positions my body in a different way in space and time. I probably do that right when I’m going to get out too. Straightening, and taking a deep breath, and getting ready to remove myself from that place, physically and spiritually.”
This ritual of breathing before and after writing implies a suspension of breath during the actual work. Annie Dillard writes of this process, and its importance, in The Writing Life: “Right now, you are flying. Right now, your job is to hold your breath.”
Jonathan Kellerman details his own experience: “Occasionally when I’ve had a very strenuous day of writing, I’m almost short of breath…I must have been tensing up and I have to consciously relax my breathing. It takes a couple of seconds. It’s just that feeling of coming out of the hypnoidal state, of leaving one world and entering another.” Indeed a 1953 study, in which patients with tuberculosis were given experimental immobilizing lung-chamber therapy to allow their lungs to rest, found that “a certain number of these patients, and particularly those who could reach the most complete state of respiratory rest, automatically went to some degree into a kind of hypnogogic or hypnoidal state.”
The effects of holding the breath on mind and body are well documented in both scientific and spiritual literature. Neurologist James H. Austin, in his book Zen and the Brain, discovered that “amplitudes of EEG theta waves (associated with deep relaxation) increase while people hold their breath” (qtd in Yam). Candace Pert, a neurobiologist known for her work with peptides — “molecules of emotions” which she considers the defining link between mind and body — notes that changes in breathing will change the type of peptides that are released from the brain stem. She writes “By bringing this process into consciousness and doing something to alter it — either holding your breath or breathing extra fast — you cause the peptides to diffuse rapidly throughout the cerebrospinal fluid” bringing mind and body into a fluid balance.
Conscious holding of the breath has long been a method used by mystics to enter an altered state of consciousness. Bjorn Christiansen, in Thus Speaks the Body: Attempts Toward a Personology from the Point of View of Respiration and Postures, writes: “Dealing with the relationship between respiratory arrest and changes in self-image and ego-identity, one is of course immediately reminded of the Yogis self-induced trance following specific breathing exercises. ‘…a kind of reverie…inevitably becomes real when relaxation follows upon pranayamic breathing.’ Behanan (1937) states, ‘Literally, pranayama means a cessation or pause in the movement of breath, i.e. prana meaning breath and ayama pause.’”
When our writing takes our breath away, we enter a sustended pranayama, a vibrant, fertile, pause. In her poem “Why I Dance”, Peggy Hong writes “After the exhale and before the inhale is where/the answer lies. I wait here and listen.” We often inhabit this pause as we write. We do not block the flow, the rhythm, of our breath; we pull it in, suspend it, dive deep into ourselves for an answer before we breathe out again. “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath” writes F. Scott Fitzgerald. Even John Lee, who emphasizes the importance of full, open, breathing, agrees “To find our truth, we must be willing to go under: to dive deep into ourselves and come up gasping, clutching something precious in our fist.”
I close the door behind me in the sensory deprivation tank and lower myself into the shallow salt water, warm as blood. I lean back; my hair fans behind me like a mermaid; the saline holds my naked body in its buoyant embrace. I am weightless, suspended in darkness. My eyes disappear into the absence of light, but my other senses are not deprived. I smell salt, can taste it against my palate. My skin is alive, caressed by the gentle rocking of the lush water. My ears receive each throb of my heart, each inhale and exhale of lung. The whole tank soon becomes a chamber of breath. I feel myself riding my breath, my body rising and falling like waves. At some point, my edges seem to dissolve and I become all breath. No skin, no bones, no “me” — all that is left is rhythm, the whole world expanding and contracting in sweet soft shushes. “The universe,” Gary Snyder reminds us, “…is a vast breathing body” (118). It is a feeling I recognize — the same selfless, rhythmic, spaciousness I sometimes enter when a poem decides to breathe itself through me.
To invite spiritus back into our writing, to open ourselves to the holy wind of inspiration, we must let go of our egos, let the vowel “I” seep back out of its brittle written shell. As F.M. Alexander writes, “I see at last that if I don’t breathe, I breathe.”
Our breath reminds us that we are connected to the landscape, the atmosphere, connected to each other. It reminds us that even though we each have our own unique voice, even though we each have rich inner lives, we are not separate from each other, from that which surrounds us. We breathe in millions of air molecules a day that have passed through endless lungs and leaves. “At this moment,” writes Diane Ackerman, “you are breathing some of the same molecules once breathed by Leonardo da Vinci, William Shakespeare, Anne Bradstreet, or Colette.” We add ourselves to this splendid mix when we breathe back out, all of us part of the same pulsing, breathing, tide. No one’s breath is more important than any one else’s. We are all bonded by the invisible, life giving, wind. Our voices swirl in chorus on its currents.
In her poem “Fire,” Joy Harjo writes
a woman can’t survive
by her own breath
look at me
i am not a separate woman
i am a continuance
of blue sky
i am the throat
of the sandia mountains
a night wind woman
with every breath
When we acknowledge this connection, we clear the path for some amazing writing to burn through us. “It is not I who speaks but the wind,” Marge Piercy reminds us. “Wind blows through me./Long after me, is the wind.”
Every night before I go to sleep, I listen to my son and daughter breathe. Their breath is my lullaby — I can’t fall asleep without hearing it. I am inestimably soothed by the couplets of their lungs. I remember when they were each babies, sometimes I couldn’t tell whether or not they were breathing. I would put the flat of my palm against their small backs until I could feel the subtle rise and fall. My touch often woke them, their squall of shock sweet to my ears. I was always so happy to know their lungs were full of good fierce breath.
Now they breathe loudly as they sleep — they honk and snort, and sometimes sigh. I follow each throaty sound with great pleasure, breathe it deeply into my own lungs. I think of the ancient Keres blessing, translated by Paula Gunn Allen:
I add my breath to your breath
That our days may be long on the Earth
That the days of our people may be long
That we may be one people
The breath connects, blesses, all of us. It is my favorite song in the world, this breath, this song we all sing — Inhale: I am. Exhale: Alive. It is the only song we really know, the only song we really write, the song our bodies keep belting out into the darkness, over and over, again and again: I am. Alive. I am. Alive. We are. Alive. We are. Alive.
Our living breath is made all the more precious by our awareness of our own mortality. Breath frames our time on this earth — we take in our first breath right after we are born, we give out our last breath right before we die. In between these two breaths, our lives are governed by the dance of inhale and exhale, a rhythm that we know will one day expire, literally breathe itself out and away. Robert Hass reports “I was doing a radio call-in show up on the Oregon coast, and all sorts of people called in to recite poems they’d written at one time or another in their lives. One old man called in with a poem that heentitled “Thinking About Cole Porter on Wake Island” — the only poem he’d written in his life he wrote when he was a Marine in the Second World War. And this prompted a guy from the local state prison to call and say: ‘I’ll tell you what poetry is. If you say anything and know it’s your breath and that you have this one life and this is the only time this breath is ever going to pass through your body in just this way, I don’t care if it’s a laundry list you read, it’s poetry.’ And I thought, that’s pretty good: poetry is mortal breath that knows it’s mortal.”
This breath that fills our bodies, this breath that fills our alphabet, our grammar, our creative process, this breath that connects us, operates against a backdrop of its own silence. Silence that rises like yeast in the pause between each inhale and exhale, silence that hums itself out towards infinity. Silence that will one day claim us as its own. It’s no wonder we wish to turn our living breath into luminous swirls of language; it’s no wonder we wish to color our breath, draw it on the page, while we still have breath to draw.
“Against the silence,” writes Bob Shocochis, “we move, we create. We breathe. Exhale.”