Taking a Breath in the Midst of COVID-19 by Gail Stearns, Dean of the Wallace All Faiths Chapel
May 8, 2020
“Just breathe.” That used to be solid advice for so many things. It works to alleviate anxiety or pre-performance jitters. Breath training is key for a woman near to giving birth, or a person living with chronic pain. Singers and actors know the power of deep breathing for performances. Yet suddenly, taking a breath can mean catching a potentially deadly virus.
Breath has long been synchronous with life itself. It is a foundation of our interconnectedness with the earth and all of humanity – with every breath we exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide with the trees and greenery of the earth. Many creation stories depict humans as breathed into life. In the Hebrew story of the creation of the first human, God breathes into the human’s nostrils “nephesh,” the breath of life. The breath of life is also manifested in the term “ruah,” meaning spirit, or air as breath or wind. The Hebrew term ‘adam is drawn from ‘adama, the earth, meaning “earth creature.” Hence, early Hebrew people understood every human as birthed from the earth, and given life, spirit and breath through the Breath of the Creator. In the Qur’an, it is stated that God “breathed from His Spirit” into humans, meaning God cast a reflection of God’s divine characteristics on humanity, to be received humbly.
But today, breath takes on a new meaning – it is the primary way we pass the coronavirus on to one another. The CDC reports that COVID-19 can spread from one person to another through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes or simply speaks.
Life will change, at least for a while. Think of how often we come close to another to sense the brush of their breath – simply moving in to give a hug or a close handshake. It’s hard to imagine going to a family reunion and not hugging one another. In fact, I cannot imagine quite a few events at Chapman University without warm hugs or sincere handshakes. We’ll get back there in time. In the meantime, taking a breath is still foundational.
Difficulty breathing, a symptom of COVID-19, brings new appreciation for the luxury of breathing freely. And our breath continues to be key to centering ourselves. An Instagram meme states, “Do not be afraid of slow moments.” Go ahead and slow down a moment – take a conscious breath! Here is the first suggestion in a “Ten Tips” for calm and compassion blog from the Fish Interfaith Center.
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe some more.
Take time in your day—at any moment—to take 10, slow, deep breaths. Doing so will regulate your body’s “stress-response” system and boost your “relaxation-response” system in order for you to feel more centered.
It really works. Try it when you are feeling nervous or anxiety creeps in. Or when faced with a situation or person that makes you feel uncomfortable or irritable, briefly turn 20 or even 70 percent of your attention inward, and count those 10, deep breaths. It’s a quiet way of taking a step back and shifting your reaction to your surroundings. You can combine awareness of breath with other activities. Be mindful of your breathing while simultaneously looking around at trees or at works of art on the wall, as if seeing them for the first time. Synchronize your breathing with each step while walking, to ground yourself.
Conscious breathing can even replace those hugs or handshakes when you greet a friend or say goodbye, from 6’ away or over your computer screen. Sikh friends often greet me by holding their hands, palms together, fingers up (think of the “prayer” emoji). They tell me it is a simple way to say with a gesture, “I greet you. I bow to you.”
Look into a person’s eyes or just sense their presence on that screen or at a distance, and simply pause. If you are comfortable doing so, hold your hands with palms together or put your hand on your heart. Pause just long enough to take a deep breath. This simple gesture is surprisingly meaningful. It may even become a permanent way more of us greet and show respect to one another in the long run, as we move into this new normal.