Healing: III. Breath
We never breathe alone.
Kitty tells me that she and an old friend have a custom of sorts. When one realizes she hasn’t heard from the other in a while, she dashes off a message, just two words and a punctuation mark: Still breathing? Despite its interrogative form, this strikes me less as a question (Um, are you alive?) than as an imperative (Hey, you! Keep Breathing). In either case, a single Yes suffices by way of answer. The bare fact of contact sustains us, fills us up. Friendship, real friendship, is always an affirmation, even when our friends challenge us. Friends, real friends, remind us of the things we should already know, the things we should do without thinking. You must inhale, our friends tell us. You must release. Go slow.
Breathe now: The evening after my procedure, a medical technician brought a device into my room that vaguely resembled a translucent electric kettle, one free of cords and circuitry. The night nurse called it an incentive spirometer, a name that made it sound like a device for dispensing treats to clever lab rats. It was, she told me, designed to test and improve my lung strength. Drawing air slowly out of an attached tube makes a blue plunger climb the main cylinder. Along the way, it passes markings placed at intervals of two hundred and fifty milliliters, guidelines that offer a rough metric of lung capacity. Inhaling now, I watch as it steadily ascends – three thousand, three thousand five hundred. It stops just short of the top, makes its way back down. Still breathing? I am.
Physiologically speaking, pulling air out of an incentive spirometer roughly mimics the effects of yawning, flooding hungry lungs with fresh air. Anesthesia, the nurse told me, weakens the responsiveness of our muscles. Because respiration is, in some sense, a muscular activity, surgery’s artificial sleep can leave us yawning fruitlessly long after we wake, struggling to pull in molecules we are too weak to hold. Surgery enfeebles us in other ways too: The morning after mine, my legs felt rubbery and my arms unusually flimsy. I wanted to drop into an immediate set of pushups, to do jumping jacks by my hospital bed. Alas, my discharge papers forbade any strenuous activity for two weeks. If I wanted to test my muscles, the incentive spirometer was all I had.
I have known other incentives, other devices. When I first discovered my diabetes, Jess would sometimes propose an insulin making contest. The deck was stacked in his favor: He always won. On other evenings, we would play “the blood sugar game,” using my glucometer to see whose plasma was sweetest. Still breathing? I am, but my pancreas isn’t doing so well. After my release from the hospital last week, everyone joined in. Catherine and my mother both took turns with the spirometer, my housemates too. It was Corey, though, who showed us all up. On his first and only attempt, he casually pulled the plunger past four thousand until it collided with the column’s plastic roof and stopped. Singer’s lungs, he told us. Irritated by his triumph, I matched him later in the afternoon. It was much easier than making insulin.
Breath occupies a peculiar space in the ways we imagine embodiment. This overlap is most clearly evident in the Sanskrit word for soul, atman, a term that derives from a root meaning breath. As we aerate our bodies, this co-construction suggests, we also constitute and reconstitute our very essence. Surprisingly, this implicit yolking of corporeality to ensoulment through the ephemeral often gives way to rigidly dualistic philosophical systems. Breath, which should intertwine matter and spirit, instead marks the dividing line between the one and the other in such conceptions. For the dualist, breath is like the frame, which belongs to both the art work and the world, alone in the transit between our physical shells and our incorporeal selves.
It is, however, more frequently the case that meditation on breath provides an occasion for considering the values and valences of the body itself. Theravada Buddhism, for example, propounds a doctrine of anatta or “no-self.” Here, the path to enlightenment involves the gradual relaxation of our conviction that we are anything more than a self-reflexive bundle of sensory operations. This goal is metaphorized by the word that names it: Enlightenment is a kind of breathlessness. In this sense, dispelling the illusion of the soul also stills the pulsations of the body. One could point to other cases, from the auto-asphyxiatory path toward Jainist sainthood to the respiratory reunion proposed by Patañjali’s fourth century Yoga Sutras. These systems are all distinct in both their ideals and their goals, but they share a conviction that breath is a glue – to desire, to karma, sometimes to the world itself. Passing my spirometer to my friends and my family as if it were a cumbersome, empty bong, I understand the stickiness of breath a little better.
Life after surgery means walking a special kind of middle path. While I was asleep something was literally taken from my body, but when I woke, my body itself was not wholly my own. My limbs are softer than I remember them being, my stride a little less assured. What would I rather be doing now? Biking in the afternoon sun, counting off pull-ups in a door frame. In activity, I will find my way back to my body. I will jog again soon enough, but for now I simply breathe. I breathe and my breath fills me up. It fills me up and reminds me that this body is all that I am. I am not broken, but I am weak – weaker than I have been, weaker than I know myself to be. I will be stronger soon, stronger because you breathe with me.