I’ve been a subscriber to Jim Taylor’s email list for, well, my Gmail archive has ones back to 2009, so sometime around then. He has two periodic eBlasts: Soft Edges for more contemplative reflections, and Hard Edges for more radical, rough-around-the-edges ideas. You can subscribe to his email list by sending an email request here.
I want to riff off his article from March 25th, 2015. Here’s half of his reflection:
Just a Breath Away
By Jim Taylor
“Every time you take a breath,” Bob Sandford began his talk, “you inhale the breath of every creature that has ever lived upon this planet.”
Sandford doesn’t make unsupported assertions. He has been, among other roles, the chair of the Canadian Partnership Initiative in support of the United Nations Water for Life Decade. He knows what he talks about.
But I didn’t hear what Bob said next. My mind was too busy trying to digest the import of his opening sentence. Because it’s true. The atmosphere we breathe is the product of millions of previous creatures breathing. We don’t know precisely what mix of gases first cloaked the planet. We do know that the first algae absorbed carbon dioxide from that mix of gases and converted it — by photosynthesis — into oxygen. And as the concentration of oxygen rose towards toxic levels, animals began using the plants’ waste, and converted oxygen back into carbon dioxide.
Our present atmosphere is a fine balance that serves both plants and animals. Too little oxygen, we die. Too much oxygen, we combust.
But Sandford’s insight also has huge implications. Because it follows that every exhalation of mine will affect the atmosphere breathed by every living thing that follows me. Whether that exhalation comes from my own lungs. Or from the exhaust pipe of my car. Or from the chimney of the factory that produces my car, my cell phone, my refrigerator….
I see myself almost as a transparent membrane between the past and the future — inhaling the past, exhaling the future. Past and future butt together, separated only by the thickness of a single breath. Life is a huge responsibility.
Breath Prayers for Justice
I really resonated with this part of his reflection, especially from an activist perspective. As hackers of theological systems, as advocates for change within ecclesial systems, we know what we want to take out. We know what we want to put in. But how often do we think of ourselves as agents of change that breathe in the present and breathe out the future that we want?
I wrote last year about how one of my church members turned the concept of breath prayers on its head for me. Here’s the hinge point:
Many of the forms of breath prayers I’ve seen and been taught revolve around breathing out bad personal failings and breathing in good things:
(Breathe out) Breathe out worry, (Breathe in) breathe in stillness.
(Breathe out) Take my anxiety, (Breathe in) grant me peace.
Then at the end of the lesson, something happened that might be some teacher’s worst fear but was my great joy: my Sunday school participant then turned my teaching on its head!
She said that in the Buddhist tradition (that she had experience in), Buddhists use their breath prayers as a form of seeking social justice. Instead of breathing out bad tendencies and breathing in good things, they would breathe in the sins of the world and breathe out corrections. In this way, their very prayers became vehicles for transformation as they believed they took in dangerous concepts and transformed them in their very bodies and breath.
(Breathe in) Injustice and suffering, (Breathe out) be now a beloved community
(Breathe in) Fear and anxiety, (Breathe out) become peace and stillness.
I find this to be a helpful spiritual component to aid one’s advocacy in both the church and world. Every breath we take we can imagine we are taking in the way the world is–and every breath out can be the world as it can be, transformed in our very vessel.
What are you breathing out?
If we breathe in hatred but breathe out acrimony to the other, we haven’t transformed much.
If we breathe in homophobia but breathe out racism, we haven’t transformed much.
If we breathe in distorted facts but breathe out unsupported propaganda, we haven’t transformed much,
It matters what we breathe out–it matters what we live out. It may be a drop in the ocean, but unless we live out the values that we want, our ends won’t justify the means, and we haven’t changed the climate of the room.
My prayer for you in your advocacy, hacking, advocating, educating, and tinkering is that you see yourself as a filter with the power to change the very air around you. That you can breathe in millennia of all that has come before us, and breathe out a new reality. Then, by your breath, by your actions, by your very life, you are building a future filled with hope.