What if it turned out that most of the world’s problems could be traced to one simple, easily correctable deficit: impaired oxygenation. That much of the greed, wars, violence, health and financial crises, and assorted other human suffering was simply the inescapable result of insufficiently oxygenated brain tissue. Stick with me on this for a bit.
Fundamentally, you, me and all of us are going to die from the same single cause: lack of oxygen to the brain. Every death is ultimately the result of oxygen deprivation. If I get shot through the heart, my heart stops pumping freshly oxygenated blood to the brain and my brain stops working soon afterward. If I get lung cancer, rapidly replicating cells form tumors in my lungs. These tumors crowd out healthy tissue until my lungs are no longer able to supply oxygenated blood to my heart to transfer to my brain. Death results. If I smash my car into a bridge abutment with no airbags or seat belt, my head goes through the windshield and my brain smashes into the bridge concrete. Oxygen is suddenly deprived of a brain to travel to. My life comes to an end.
The Breathing Benefits of Sleep
So, oxygen is the gas of life. One of the many benefits of sleep is that we get to breathe in a regular, uninterrupted fashion for an extended period of time, systematically refueling the brain. My guess is that restful sleep has a positive effect on the generation and connectivity of neurons as well. Interestingly, as might be predicted, once their disorder was corrected, research on kids with sleep-disordered breathing showed marked improvement by way of reduced hyperactivity, increased attention spans and less daytime sleepiness. Getting better sleep seems to have positively affected their brains.
So, how well we’re able to breathe at night affects our functioning during the day. Is it too far a stretch to imagine that how we breathe during the day might also profoundly affect us during the day as well?
A Little Death in Every Breath
Suppose we die a kind of mini-death every time we involuntarily or unconsciously hold back an out-breath? Tai Chi Master William C. C. Chen believes that many of the activities of modern life work to constantly interrupt our natural breathing patterns. A random thought, a ringing cell phone, a honking car horn – all can cut an out-breath short, making us inhale before we’ve completely exhaled (I once had someone insult me by calling me a “shallow, mouth-breather!”).
Neurologist Bob Scaer argues that it’s the “Freeze Response” during which we hold our breath and immobilize our body, which results in retained traumatic memories ending up as collections of encapsulated neurons that he calls dissociation capsules. Such collections of neurons appear to go offline, temporarily lost to the network, significantly reducing processing power (Interestingly, L. Ron Hubbard, the creator of Scientology, identified these retained painful memories as engrams and, using an early biofeedback potentiometer he called the e-meter, actually found a way to activate and integrate the neurons holding these memories back into the network. I think this accounted for a lot of Scientology’s early popularity … the process of recalling memories and being able to give voice to them appears to be a process that successfully discharges the emotional reactivity of traumatic memories. Which is what Scientology did for people like Tom Cruise, Jerry Seinfeld, Van Morrison, Juliette Lewis, Sharon Stone and John Travolta. And because the brain is an associative organ, it’s easy to mistakenly associate and attribute healing processes and integrative experiences with the organization that orchestrated them. But, I digress).
Breath and Spirit
I don’t think it’s an accident that any number of spiritual traditions, martial arts and contemplative practices find various ways to practice and incorporate conscious attention to breathing. It is this attentive practice that allows us to add sustained, consistent day-breathing to the restorative night-breathing we do as a matter of course. My hypothesis would be that adding this resource, underwrites neural enrichment, facilitating more and more neural growth and connectivity. That resulting growth and connectivity would result in greater ease in managing daily stress, provide increased ability to move toward things that customarily make us anxious, and expand the neural base that we normally engage the world from.
Gaming the Breath
So what’s the takeaway? Essentially we can make a game with our kids out of paying closer attention to our breathing. We can begin to notice what kinds of interactions and experiences bring our breath up short; what kinds of thoughts bring the breath to a full stop; what the requirements are for being able to breathe fully in and fully out without restriction for five, ten, twenty breaths in a row. My hunch is it will affect us subtly at first, but with practice, over time, breath-remembering will begin to pay big dividends for heart, mind, body and brain. Could attaining lasting peace and ongoing prosperity really be that simple?