Jill S. Schneiderman’s Earth Dharma column explores the linking between breathing meditation and human physiology.
In his book A Path With Heart, Jack Kornfield asserted that great spiritual traditions “are used as means to ripen us, to bring us face to face with our life, and to help us to see in a new way by developing a stillness of mind and a strength of heart.” Having just returned from a seven-day mindfulness retreat with the two dozen or so other contemplatives in my Institute for Jewish Spirituality-sponsored Jewish Mindfulness Teacher Training cohort, Kornfield’s statement resonates for me. Seeing in a new way requires that I continue to cultivate what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement,”—a heart-strengthening feeling of awe and connection.
Amidst the daily activities familiar to all mindfulness practitioners—walk-sit-walk-sit-walk-sit-eat-walk-sit-walk-sit…— retreatants led three prayer services: sharacharit, mincha, maariv and an afternoon teaching. The services were atypical in that they involved only a brief introduction to each prayer, group chanting, and then silence. In the course of the week, each individual offered a teaching on an assigned subject. My assignment, scheduled for Shabbat afternoon, was instructions for breathing.
Now I have to admit, having received the assignment, initially I hoped it would simply go away! I wondered what I, a geoscientist, could offer this experienced group of spiritual practitioners by way of breath instructions. We had already been sitting for days together concentrating on the breath. Donald Rothberg’s humorous quip at a previous retreat kept coming up: breathing through the mouth is like trying to eat spaghetti through the nose! Fortunately, I found a possible answer in a teaching by Rabbi Jeff Roth during an evening dharma talk.
Jeff instructed each of us to “teach our own Torah”—in other words, our own truth—so I resolved to teach mine: the Torah of the Earth System.
At first I was intimidated because for “the people of the book” the Torah itself is the quintessential text, the most worthy object of scrutiny. But since my Torah is the Earth, I feared being perceived as a bit dim. “Dull as a rock” resounded in my head. Fortunately I was able to acknowledge the hindrance of doubt and pressed onward. Using Sylvia Boorstein’s metta phrases in order to soothe myself —may I feel safe, may I feel content, may I feel strong, may I live with ease—I offered to the group my teaching, breath instructions for cultivating radical amazement, breath instructions that emphasize our connections to the Earth as a living system.
We geoscientists think of the Earth as a system of four interacting spheres, approximately from the inside outward: geosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and atmosphere. Humans and other mammals are obviously connected to the atmosphere through our inhalation of oxygen and exhalation of carbon dioxide. Our respiration also connects us to trees because they essentially inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen. And human bodies as a whole contain up to 60 % water. So as embodied beings we are intimately interconnected with atmosphere, biosphere, and hydropshere. What may be less obvious is that we are linked closely with the geosphere. Our teeth and bones, parts of living beings that readily fossilize, are composed of hydroxyapatite, a carbonate mineral made of the elements calcium, phosphorus, oxygen, and hydrogen. The very air we breathe and the water we drink has been incorporated into our skeletal framework and gets preserved in the fossil record!
I find it remarkable that isotope geochemists can analyze the ratio of heavy and light oxygen isotopes (O-18 and O-16) in the bones and teeth of fossilized organisms and identify the environments in which they lived. Since teeth and bone form in a relatively narrow window of time, the oxygen isotope composition inherited from drinking water taken into the body of a living being gets locked into the hydroxyapatite. Using the distinctive oxygen isotopic signatures of water in different environments, some investigators have been able to determine the habitats and migration patterns of extinct organisms. What is the oxygen isotopic signature of my bones? What is the past history of the oxygen that in part forms the skeleton that makes up the body that I inhabit?
So with my cohort we sat: breathing in may I feel connected to the atmosphere; breathing out may I feel connected to the hydrosphere; breathing in may I feel connected to the geosphere; breathing out may I feel connected to all beings of the biosphere. Stilling our minds with this breathing practice, together we undertook the project of cultivating radical amazement.