A close friend of mine recently confided to me a dream she’d had the night before. In that dream, she sat cross-legged facing what looked to be an American Indian, who also sat in the meditation position, wearing a full feathered headdress. This shaman – for that is what my friend thought this Indian to be – breathed deeply and slowly.
Still in the dream, as my friend sat opposite this statuesque figure, she was tense with anxiety about many things – an endless stream of life demands, thoughts and associations rushed through her head. In fact, she was out of breath, like she was swimming underwater and urgently needed to come up for air. But then she would look at the shaman before her, who was breathing so slowly he seemed to take only two or three breaths per minute; to the point that she sensed his heart had become almost a whisper, at the very brink of what was capable of supporting life.
The breath, or the process of breathing, is clearly essential to life. Human beings, animals and plants all rely on respiration to maintain the health and well-being of their organism. In fact, without the rhythmic intake and exhalation of breath, many forms of life on this planet would come swiftly to a halt.
It is perhaps testimony to the will of creation to manifest itself, that breathing is an involuntary process – that is, it requires no conscious or deliberate effort on the part of a living organism. And so in that sense it operates in a similar fashion to other self-regulating bodily functions like heartbeat, digestion, cell regeneration and hair growth, to name a few.
For human beings, however, the automatic nature of the breath is both a blessing and a challenge. While it is essential for ongoing physical life, in the realm of exploring our soul potential, the unconscious nature of breath is a likely stumbling block. Without efforts to breathe consciously, it may ultimately only serve to perpetuate what the Armenian mystic George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1866-1949) called humankind’s “waking sleep”.
In the realm of spirituality, the quality of our breath bears a direct relationship to who we are – to the nature and quality of being. If we find ourselves constantly breathing in a hurried way, in quick, short bursts, it may well be a sign of our disconnectedness, both from the here and now and our soul potential – our true self. Breath and mind are closely related. The rhythm of our breath can reveal much about our mental state – and just as fast, shallow breathing may be associated with racing thoughts and associations, so deep, rhythmic breathing can bring about a still mind and a completely different level of consciousness.
In the early part of the twentieth century, Gurdjieff presented to the Western world a body of ideas and practices – the “work” as it came to be known – designed to restore balance to those willing to embark on a journey of self-discovery. A key concept in this work was the analogy of a man or woman to a large house full of beautiful furniture, with a library and many other rooms; and yet unable to live anywhere but in the basement and kitchen. For Gurdjieff, every individual was made up of three key centres – the intellectual, emotional and physical. But most people manifested themselves through only one of these, at the expense of their all-round development. The task, therefore, was to reactivate and realign the dormant centres of being through group-based activities – movements and dance, music, meditation, physically demanding work including “super efforts” and awareness exercises based on attention and rigorous self-observation.
In 2012 the technology-driven acceleration of our lifestyle, our chronic busyness and time poverty are all factors in our mental over-stimulation; our identification with the incessant rush of our thoughts and associations. Learning to breathe consciously is a step toward restoring this balance to our inner self. This effort required to become aware of one’s breathing involves a shift of attention. While this is an obvious point, the experience of such a shift away from our normal “centre of gravity”, to use another Gurdjieffian term, can be life changing.
In my friend’s dream, calmed by the presence of the shaman, she started to slow down her own breathing, and the anxieties began to subside for increasing periods of time – after which she would fall back into a hurried breath, thinking “I don’t have enough air. I can’t breathe this slowly”. But again, by surrendering to the presence of the shaman, she found herself able to slow down her breathing and free herself from the non-stop flow of her anxious thoughts and images.
Today’s development of cutting edge technologies has not translated into increased leisure time and space. Instead we are working harder and longer than ever before. Without the collective effort to stop, step back and have a good look at what we’re doing and how we’re going about it, a future of accelerating change raises many questions about quality of life for generations to come. We need to first acknowledge what is happening to us, and second, find practical ways to restore balance to our inner life. It is here on the inside, in the realm of pure being, where we can take action to reclaim our birthright to spiritual evolution.
My friend has long felt an affinity with Native Americans and has a strong sense of past life connections with them. She believes her spirit guide contacted her in this dream, to show her it was possible to find a new chemistry in her actual, waking life, a new way of being. His gift to her, through his energy and presence, was a direct experience of her own innate capacity to master her breath and her thinking, and so open herself to a whole new dimension of life.
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