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breathing as one

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Yesterday afternoon a patient who’d been at hospice for almost ten weeks—well beyond the more common length of time averaging less than a week—took his last breath. We’d sat together two days earlier, before my days-off. By now he’d finally found sleep through a combination of end-of-life exhaustion and pain-controlling medication. I remember sitting close to him in his non-responsive state, holding one of his gnarled hands and stroking his unkempt hair … whispering to assure him of my love in that moment and thanking him for a life bravely lived.

His brother sat across from us, sipping from a mug of tea, taking advantage of a break to walk around, stretch, and view the tableau from a small distance. Tears rolled from my eyes onto the patient’s mechanics of breathhands: not of sadness exactly, simply tears. My heart felt light and, as best as I can articulate, non-existent (or not separate from his). Those where not my tears, they were his also, and his mother’s and brother’s who had taken turns at the bedside for weeks. As my breathing naturally aligned to his, boundaries dissolved and we were breathing as one. That one of us might die before the other did not occur to me; besides, it was not a certainty.

Many meditative practices are grounded in observing breath—how could they not as it serves as a constant reminder of living and being born (inhale) and dying and letting go (exhale). As one Sufi master puts it:

With each cycle of the breath we make a conscious connection with the inner world. … As we breathe out, the energy of life (prana in Sanskrit) flows from the inner plane into manifestation. With each in-breath this energy returns to its place of origin. The work of the wayfarer is to bridge the two worlds, to connect the inner and the outer planes. … With each cycle of the breath we consciously participate with the flow of creation, with the primal dynamic of all life as it comes from the source into the outer world of form, and then returns to its origin. (Vaughan-Lee, 2000)

In copying these lines a new view of breathing opens before me. Till now I’d thought that everything starts with the in-breath (from outside to the inside), but the mystics put it the other way ‘round. Don’t we say that at time of death someone “takes a last breath”? Perhaps they do so to return to their origin.

source: Vaughan-Lee, L. (2000). Love is a fire: the sufi’s mystical journey home. Inverness, CA: The Golden Sufi Center, p. 172.

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