The Breath of Life and Death
When I was 18, I saw my father take his final breath.
We’d been preparing for this moment after he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. My final weeks as a senior in high school were spent almost daily after hours at his bedside, talking, laughing, crying, massaging his putty-like skin, wiping his clammy sweat-stained brow, and feeding him carefully through a plastic straw. I watched as my once robust, hearty, 6’2” father turned into a frail, helpless skeleton before my eyes. On more than one occasion I thought his final strain of breath was unfolding right before me, as I sat peacefully alone reading to him The Great Gatsby.
These heart-stopping moments lasted a few months. Although only given a few weeks to live, he endured incredible pain, suffering, and even hung onto the slightest bit of hope, because he wanted to see me walk across that stage to receive my diploma. He never made it to the auditorium that day, but we brought the video to the hospital to show him. Three days later, we were all gathered around his bedside. His breaths were extra sharp and wheezy, and the deep inhalations were held for more than 10 seconds at a time before the exhalation would release. I held my breath along with him as I could see him slowly leaving his body each time. His face was relaxing from a grey hue of painful perspiration to a glowing powdery white of calm. My grandfather whispered into his ear “It’s time to let go, Roger,” and almost as if he needed the permission, he did just that. The long, deep, wheezy inhalation came, similar to the sound of a train slowing down to a screeching stop on its tracks. And 10 seconds later a soft, pillowy puff of breath exited his body for the last time.
Through my tears, I felt an electric surge of energy zap my spirit in the exact same moment. I looked down and no longer saw my father; I only saw the shell of who my father used to be. I knew in that moment the breath of life itself was not only our connection to source, it was the singular honing device for our soul to expand, communicate, and ultimately reveal itself.
From that moment on I studied the breath like an obsessed, mad scientist. Through Kundalini yoga, Zen Buddhism meditation, shamanism, even prayers at Catholic mass, I was fascinated how every path of spirituality zig-zagged their beautiful steps of enlightenment to one focus: the breath. Amazing how the very thing that sustains life, and is at the very cornerstone of every practice, is the very thing we most often take for granted. Have you ever thought about what it takes for the body to even create one single breath? It starts at the nose, to the windpipe, to the bronchial tubes, to the lungs, to the 300 million tiny balloons called, alveoli to 300 million tiny more capillaries, to the heart, to all the organs—and repeat. That’s just one breath, which happens 12-20 times per minute. Whew. Talk about a zig-zaggin maker of miracles. See, mad scientist stuff.
Tuning into how this awesome internal roller coaster ride is mechanized is one thing—experiencing it from this knowing is another. Close your eyes and take a breath right now, acknowledging all these little tiny gizmos and gadgets clicking their way perfectly into place for you. This simple acknowledgment is the acute awareness of the moment where your soul happily exists and thrives. It is the very tool your soul uses to communicate with source to not only sustain your physical life in this human form right now, but to expand your spiritual existence to the all abundant, all joyful, and all knowing being it already is. By tuning into your breath, you are in essence tuning into your soul’s purpose. And from there, the miracle of life is revealed.
I’ve studied with many teachers, but my greatest teacher of all is my father. He not only taught me the true meaning of “mind over matter” (Remember the personal power of sustaining his life long after he was “meant to?”), in his final breath he actually gave me my first breath of life.