They were the same boys and girls we see every day, walking between the ball fields on the way to school. Only we couldn’t make them out earlier this week. Not from under their scarves and caps and swollen jackets. Most of the kids walked more briskly than usual; the air had a bite. But a handful I noticed walked more slowly. Pulling their scarves down they giggled at the sight of their breath. They puffed like train engines, slowing to watch their breath float for a moment before disappearing. I couldn’t help but join them, marveling at the exchange we make several times a minute but never see. Wondering at how intricately related we are, the old philosophical question of where everything else ends and we begin.
I had a professor who had asked that. An old empiricist, whose eyes glimmered as he pondered inhalation and exhalation, the exchange of O2 and CO2 at the molecular level, the tissues and transfers that blurred the lines between self and world until it wasn’t at all clear which was which, only that they were interdependent. We dallied in the cold until we were almost late when one boy walked over to a bush and breathed into it. White clouds of breath covered brittle green leaves. “I’m giving it my breath,” he said, and then dashed through the school doors before the final morning bell. I stood for a moment, smiling at the sentiment. Who needs a burning bush, I thought, when you have a breathing one? Who needs a miracle far away, when there is one here and now, made visible by the cold to every boy or girl with eyes to see?
The old Hebrews had a slightly mystical word for it: ruah. It was a guttural word and in divinity school we were trained to say it that way. It was funny, but you couldn’t say the word for breath or spirit in an airy way; you had to say it with the force of your diaphragm and the back of your throat. So that your body knew you were saying it. It was the breath that made us human, said the old creation stories. From the very beginning, when God created the earth and sky and sea and then all the beings in them. God was said to have shaped people out of earth, out of dirt, and then brought them to life with breath. It was God’s own breath that was passed. The Mystery itself gave it to us. “So God fashioned an earth creature,” says our Inclusive Bible. “And breathed into its nostrils the breath of life.” Out of all the elements of the Hebrew creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2, this strikes me as the most poetic and beautiful, the one feature that blends the mystical and the scientific. Our breath brings us to life. Our breath makes us human. Our breath is a gift from the Mystery itself. Otherwise, we would just be dirt. But instead here we are. As I live and breathe, they say.
I suppose there was another reason I was struck by the kids watching their breath. The book on my nightstand was written by a young neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with cancer at the very end of his residency. Just as his life was about to begin, he learned that it would be coming to an abrupt end. The surgeon’s name was Paul Kalanithi and he titled the book When Breath Becomes Air. I won’t spoil it for you, but it reads as a deep meditation on the meaning and value of life and also as a call to wakefulness. Kalanithi looked back to see that the life he had been living was the only life he was going to get. There wouldn’t be the long future as an attending at a teaching hospital, the marriage and family and old age that he had imagined. Just the single breaths, one after the other until they stopped. In an early passage in the book, he wrote rather hauntingly of breath when deciding whether to continue studying literature or turn to medicine:
I spent a year in classrooms. . .where I found myself increasingly often arguing that direct experience of life-and-death questions was essential to generating substantial moral opinions about them. Words began to feel as weightless as the breath that carried them. Stepping back, I realized that I was only confirming what I already knew: I wanted that direct experience.
And there is the summons. Words were weightless when compared to direct experience; best to forgo the speculative and dive into the sensual world, embodied and felt. Interestingly enough, all Kalanithi could leave us were words, his breath transcribed onto a page. But his words evoke tangible things, especially in relation to the hospital, where so many of us have been jarred into physical awareness, pulled from our minds into the heart pounding, short breathing anxiety of cloth gowns and cold rooms. I wanted that direct experience, Kalanithi said. And he found it, as both doctor and patient.
The naturalist theologian Henry Nelson Wieman wrote of the value of the summons, seeing our breath and its impermanence as a teacher of wisdom. We deal with the experience of our finitude, he said, by “treat[ing] the experience as [a] means of deliverance from those preoccupations which hinder the emergence of insights leading to ways of life more rich and comprehensive than those previously attained.” It’s a breathless sentence, I know, but put another way Wieman was calling us to let our mortality change us. Creative transformation was his word for it. And while some might interpret mortality in ways that lead to anxiety or despair or spin it into a narrative of meaninglessness, Wieman invited us to something much deeper. Why not let our mortality open our eyes to wonder and gratitude that we are here at all? Why not live lives that create and add meaning, seizing the moment that is ours and living life to the fullest for ourselves and others? Why not see that the questions we are afraid of are sometimes simply the doorways to our liberation? Mortality need not be a curse. If we focus on our breath it may be a blessing. A simple wonder that grounds us in the here and now, standing like children blowing warm air onto frozen leaves.
Perhaps the link between Kalanithi’s call to direct experience and Wieman’s invitation to lay aside our anxieties are the old spiritual practices of meditation and contemplation that focus on breathing. These practices can be found in every tradition, but nowhere are they more central than in Buddhism, particularly the Zen practice of zazen sitting. The Catholic monk and Buddhist priest Ruben Habito, who has spent his life in both traditions, writes of the way intentional breathing changes us over time. Through quiet ritual, we sit on a bench or cushion, adopt a wakeful posture, and begin breathing deeply in through our noses and out through our mouths. No words are required. No sacred texts or creation stories. Just the felt experience of breath and the ways it connects the inner and the outer. Rather than the unconscious breathing that we are always doing, a conscious focus on our breathing brings us back to center, grounding and settling us. “The fact is,” Habito writes, “most of us have actually forgotten how to breathe and have thus lost touch with the core of our own selves.” Recovering “the art of breathing naturally,” we can “be at home and at peace.”
It’s a paradox of a kind. Voluntarily pausing to consider the involuntary. Reflecting on impermanence as way of grounding ourselves. Sitting aside as a way of connecting. Habito speaks of it with a smile:
. . .focusing one’s whole being in the here and now with every breath is not shutting oneself off from the rest of the world but plunging oneself at the heart of the world by attuning oneself to the vital core where things are happening. . .As one focuses on the here and now by following the breath, one “tunes in one’s receiver,” as it were, to realize one’s connectedness with everything else that is vivified by the same breath.
This feeling of deep interconnection leads to the creative transformation that Wieman was talking about. Or the shining direct experience of Kalanithi. Or the poetic mysticism of the Hebrews. Or the giggling affirmation of elementary school kids. All breath is connected. If we can see it.
With this in mind, we might just ask a final question about the spirituality of our breath and its use. If breath is a sacred thing, and I believe that it is, then we might ask what we do with it. None of us knows how many breaths we will have, but we do know that we can choose how we spend them. Will we use our breaths in ways that are wasteful, adding to the atmosphere of idle speech, gossip, and careless or hurtful commentary? Will we use our breaths in ways that are helpful, blessing the world with words of caring and kindness, checking on friends, saying prayers, asking sincere questions, and naming our loves? Will we use our breaths in ways that are liberating, telling the truth, speaking with clarity, and raising voices of justice and inclusion for all? Will we use our breaths in ways that are vulnerable, speaking of our own struggles and needs without posturing or pretending? Will we use our breaths in ways that are healthy, running, swimming, stretching, doing yoga, embracing the beautiful bodies we have been given? Or will we use our breaths in other ways, ways that add whimsy, poetry, and wonder into a world that would be the better for it?
They’re all good questions, questions that we might take up in the morning as we begin the day. Any morning and any day will do, but winter days have a special quality. The ones when we can see our breath, if only for a moment. The ones when we can dally in the cold until we are almost late, walking over to a bush to breathe into it. White clouds of breath covering brittle green leaves. “I’m giving it my breath,” we say.
Would that it were so, friends. May it be so with us.
 Gen. 2.7, The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation (New York: Sheed and Ward, 2009).
 Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air (New York: Random House, 2016), 43.
 Henry Nelson Wieman, Man’s Ultimate Commitment (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1958), 56.
 Ruben Habito, Zen Spirituality for a Wounded Earth (Dallas: Maria Kannon Zen Center Publications, 2001), 43.
 Ibid., 54.