Learning to Breathe

Breath, the inhale and exhale, marking life itself. From the first breath to the last, the constant inhale and exhale signifies vitality.

Take a moment to experience it. Breathe deeply. Fill your lungs with the fresh, pure oxygen. This inhale represents your very inner, core essence; your very being in life. It signifies who you are.

Now, release it; let it all out. Witness your breath exiting and meshing with your surrounding. This represents your doing in life, your impacting on the outside world and accomplishing. Your inhale is self-preservation, defining your own boundaries of self. Your exhale is your universal imprint on the society and world around you.

All beings and any life force experience this duality of inner and outer; inner parameters and boundaries versus outer affects and imprints. Who it is and what it does. The protection of its inherent boundaries, and its reaching out to the world.

The greater a life force the more evident is its inhale and exhale.

-Chana Weisberg
“In and Out”
Chassidic Thought

I’ve been looking for ways to unload my surplus stress and to reorganize my life around life, rather than around anxiety, depression, and despair. (OK, things aren’t quite that bad, but still…) After “plumping up” over the past few months, I’ve returned to the gym in a (vain) attempt to dump my belly fat and to fit more comfortably in my jeans.

I’m also trying to fit more comfortably inside my skin and my skull and my being.

It’s no secret that I’ve been struggling a bit lately, as evidenced by my family’s Passover Seder as well as other recent events. Although I know that the struggle with mortality and humanity is unavoidable, it’s still difficult to let go and to integrate all of the ugly little bits and pieces of reality into my life, rather than shunning them. I need some way to reminding myself, even at the worst of times, that God has not disappeared down the cosmic rabbit hole and escaped my angst and anguish.

I’m trying to learn how to breathe.

Obviously, I know how to breathe and I’m not talking about some esoteric or mystic breathing technique used during deep meditation. Well, not exactly. I was remembering a quote from a few episodes of Star Trek Voyager, where the character Tuvok (played by Tim Russ) in assisting another member of the crew to meditate. Tuvok would say something like, “Turn your attention to the white light that is your breath..”

I can’t remember the exact quote and my Googling skills have failed me. (but thanks to the helpful commenter (see below) for supplying the correct link and quote) However, I try to imagine my breath as a white light as I breathe in and out during exercise. This image is especially helpful during the last five minutes of an aerobic workout, when I’m trying to reduce my heart rate back to some semblance of normalcy, rather than trying to go from 156 to 70 in a single, sudden stop. I’m actually able to close my eyes and visualize the light as it goes in and out of my mouth and lungs.

With my legs still moving on the machine, I can imagine myself on a trail. It is narrow, with the forest on either side of me. The trail is going up and I can see the crest of the hill ahead of me. There’s a point where the sky meets the ground that is a bright, white light. My breath seems to go to and come from that light. I realize that I’m getting closer to the top and the light is getting brighter. And yet, I’m not able to get too close.

I know that the light is God and that, in those few short moments as I’m encouraging my body to go from working very hard to beginning to calm down, I’m also approaching that calm with my mind, my feelings, and my spirit.

Indeed all creation, say the Kabbalists, is characterized by this to and fro movement, called ratzo v’shuv (running forth and drawing back) or mati v’lo mati (reaching and retreating).

The heart contracts and expands; the lungs exhale and inhale. On a deeper level, the body sleeps, extinguishing its active faculties in order to rejuvenate. The earth enters an interlude of night and winter in order to vivify itself with the necessary energies for its more outward oriented dawn of spring.

The same is true of the flow of vitality from G-d to His creation. This flow also comes in flashes of running forth and drawing back, reaching and retreating.

Furthermore, each breath of life — each protective withholding of boundaries as well as each outer exertion — reflects the Divine balance and flow to creation.


Each breath we take, each beat of our heart, separates us from eternity and yet joins us with the infinite at the same time. God breathed life into the first man and something of that breath exists within all of the living. When we think of ourselves as being “created in the image of God,” we (OK, I) tend to imagine that image as static and unchanging. I can’t really picture what that “image” must look like, but when I’m breathing in and out the light of God’s breath, the Spirit of God and man are dynamically being interchanged, interwoven, and stirred together. I have no way to truly understand God, but in those few minutes, as a strive to approach the top of the trail and to reach the light, I am able to touch something and to share something with God.

And He shares a little something with me.

Come and see! G-d made the world by a breath and by the breath of the mouths of those who study Torah it is preserved.

-Translated and annotated by Rahmiel-Hayyim Drizin
from the Zohar selection in Hok L’Yisrael
Based on Zohar Bereishit 47a

It is common for us to try to understand God and who we are in Him, by studying the Bible as well as other learned texts. We read and we attend classes and we ask knowledgeable teachers our questions and attempt to touch the edge of great mysteries.

It is also common to pray and to reach out with our thoughts and feelings to God, calling across the bridge that stands between the earthly and the Divine in the hopes that we can reach Him and in some way, connect with something that is part of our Creator.

But for all that effort, and none of it is wasted, sharing something with God may be as simple as taking a deep breath, letting it out, and visualizing that light going in and out of us as the breath we share with God. His light fills us every time we take a breath, and He wills every beat of our heart.

We are alive because He is the Living God.

There will come a time, very soon, when we will be shown miracles so great, they will make the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea appear as ordinary as nature itself.

So great, no mind can begin to fathom them;
so powerful, they will transform the very fabric of our world, elevating it in a way that the wonders of the Exodus never did.

For then, our eyes will be opened and granted the power to see the greatest of miracles: Those miracles that occur to us now, beneath our very noses, every day.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Greater Miracles”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Every moment we’re alive, and each time we breathe in and breathe out, is a miracle.

3 thoughts on “Learning to Breathe”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.