In the past three months, we have been reminded of the power of the breath. The novel coronavirus is experienced differently in each body, but in severe cases, it is an assault on the breath. Coughing, congestion, tightness in the chest, the body not receiving oxygen even when the breath isn’t labored, pictures of people on ventilators, the cry for more ventilators, and the tears shed as nurses and doctors witness countless final breaths.
Then, we heard the cry of George Floyd, “I can’t breathe.” We have seen the video of George’s final breath and witnessed the silence of those in power who heard Floyd’s cry and saw Floyd’s anguish. We have responded in outcry over the assault on his breath.
The collective trauma we have experienced from the fear of the coronavirus and from witnessing the murder of George Floyd has quite literally taken our breath away.
So, let us remember the power of the breath.
In the book of Genesis it says that God created humankind by giving them the breath of life. We live and move and have our being sustained by the breath of God. Jesus in John 20:22 appears to his disciples and breathes on them that they might receive the power of the holy spirit to animate their ministry.
Dr. Frank Rogers who is the codirector of the center for engaged compassion at Claremont School of theology writes, “For many spiritual traditions, breath is intimately connected with the sacred and sustaining life force of the universe. Chi in Taoism, Prana in Hinduism, Lung in Tibetan Buddhism—all refer both to our literal breath and, more profoundly, to the animating life energy of every living thing. In Hebrew (ruach) and Greek (Pneuma) and latin (spiritus), the words for breath are synonymous not only with the human spirit but also with the Divine Spirit. Catching our breath, then, deepens our connection with the sacred source of life, the vital spiritual energy that sustains and restores all living things.” (Practicing Compassion pg. 45)
Human beings naturally understand the power of the breath in everyday life. Just think about anytime we are overwhelmed or angry or filled with anxiety or deeply saddened what do people say to us, “let’s just stop and take a deep breath.” What we know is that the breath grounds us, helps us regain our footing. What we also intuitively know is that in order to take a deep breath, in order to reclaim our center, we must be still. Our scripture for today reminds us that when the earth is shaken and when the cities are in uproar that as people of faith we are to first, “Be Still and Know that I am God.”
What we already understand intuitively about the breath and what our faith teaches us about the breath, neuroscience helps us understand the power of the breath a little better.
In a healthy brain, a threat triggers the mid-brain and this sensory information is directed through the higher brain that decides on a plan of action in response to this threat. But there is another pathway that when the mid-brain senses threat it bypasses the higher brain and quickly activates the lower brain for an immediate response. We call this the fight or flight response. When this happens, the autonomic nervous system floods the body with hormones to speed up the heartrate and breath, to sweat, to send blood, energy and oxygen away from our organs and into our limbs helping us get ready to physically respond to the threat. In a healthy situation, we expend this excessive energy, and the parasympathetic nervous system is activated to bring a sense of calm, to help slow the heartrate and breath, and to bring the blood, O2 and energy back to the core of the body. Now, the higher brain becomes accessible to help us reflect on what just happened. Fight or flight is balanced in the body with rest and recover.
Over the past three months, we have experienced a profound sense of trauma which leaves the brain operating in a different way.
“Trauma is defined as any event that overwhelms our capacity to cope and respond. Trauma leaves us feeling helpless, hopeless, and out of control.” In the first few days of quaranteen, I felt a tightness in my heart and my breath was quick and shallow. I could not read anything for comprehension. It felt like my brain was shut off. I also felt a surge of energy to clean the house, buy all the necessary groceries and cleaning supplies, jump into homeschooling my kids…I was an unstoppable force of activity. In talking with other moms, we experienced a similar surge of activity. But this quickly turned into not knowing what to do. I found myself walking around my house aimlessly. I was finishing my doctoral degree that I had been working on for 3 years, and I noticed my thoughts turning to “who cares anyways. What does this even matter.” One friend said she could not get out of bed or change her clothes or care about eating. This surge of activity quickly turned into feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
Why? It’s because our brains experienced a threat but it wasn’t just a one-time situation that we could fight off and recover, it was months of on-going numbers of cases and deaths rising, it’s the news framing our experience in terms of war against an invisible enemy. Every time we see or hear these things we reexperience the trauma. Neuroscience tells us that once we have experienced a trauma that the brain is wired in a certain way so that anytime we experience something that is remotely similar, we respond as if the initial trauma were happening in the present moment. In this way, we wire our brains to by-pass the higher brain which allows us to step back and assess the situation and immediately we are overwhelmed by the autonomic nervous system for fight or flight.
Enter into this ongoing trauma, George Floyd’s words, “I can’t breathe.”
Another response that the body has to trauma is freeze. I know that as the information was coming in about George Floyd’s murder, I felt frozen, paralyzed. I spent time in bed crying as I watched the video of his murder. I cried as I saw police hitting protestors with their batons and spraying protestors with tear gas. I held the covers up over my body only exposing my eyes as I witnessed traumatized people express deep wounds and a profound sense of loss.
Our faith now supported by neuroscience offers us a way to heal. Our faith now supported by neuroscience offers us a way to access our creativity for how to navigate a way where there seems to be no way. (Isaiah 43:19)
Be Still (The power of the Breath) and Know (gain wisdom & understanding).
The power of bringing our attention to our breath is that it activates the Parasympathetic nervous system shifting us away from fight or flight and into a sense of rest and recover. This is the bodies natural response to bring everything back to a sense of shalom, but we also have the power to activate a sense of recovery. Our Scripture says Be Still. That is where we find the power of the breath. When the brain is asked to focus on the breath, this singular job, quiets the chatter of the mind. When the mind is still, the body is flooded with hormones that say, “we are ready for rest and recovery.” When the body feels a sense of rest and recovery is sends messages back to the brain that I am at rest. This feedback loop from brain to body and body to brain allows us to rewire the brain from the traumatic event. Our Scripture says Be Still and Know. Yes, our beautiful bodies are designed for healing-and with neuroplasticity we know that we have the opportunity to heal the mind and heal the body from trauma.
The breath is a tool that connects me to the relationship between my mind, body and spirit and it is a gift that reminds me of my relationship with the Divine…to an awareness of the presence of God here and now. When I am sitting with my full attention on the inhale and exhale, I am fully connected to this present moment instead of ruminating on the past or anxiously planning for the future. The breath reminds me that God is with me now in this present moment providing all that I need. The breath reminds me of the miracle of life-that I am alive in this moment and that I have the opportunity to bring the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven in this moment. The power of the breath heals and animates life.
Our faith tradition also illuminates our next steps. When we are grounded in the loving presence of God and have cared for our own suffering, we are able to see the suffering of other people through eyes of compassion and have access to the part of the brain that gives us the ability to discern how to act in a way that values life.
It is recorded in Matthew 9 that Jesus went around healing and teaching. The scriptures say that Jesus saw the crowds through eyes of compassion recognizing that people were wandering around like sheep without a shepherd. Then, he turned to his disciples and he turns to us today saying, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
I have read many posts on social media where people were crying out for someone to stand up and lead us into a new future. I found this question resonated with the feeling I had of being like a sheep without a shepherd. As I took a breath and gained understanding around why this question spoke to me, I realized that I was looking for an inoculation for the pain I was feeling; I was looking for an easy pill to take to give me a sense of safety and peace. I was looking for the quick fix, someone else take charge, so that I don’t have to do the messy work of understanding my culpability in the systems that oppress people of color.
You know who is called to humbly lead the way? I am called to humbly lead the way. You know who will humbly lead the way? You will humbly lead the way. It won’t be perfect and you and I will do and say things that need correction, but in humility we will lead.
I participated in Part 1 of a series on Dismantling Racism with the Disciples of Christ. At the end of this session, Rev. Virzola Law sent us out with these words, “Show up and pay attention. Then, take that next right step.”