Taylor: Breathe in, Breathe out

Breathing an unconscious act that sustains us all.

My telephone was the victim of a hit-and-run accident about a week ago.

A pair of moving trucks came down the lane that runs beside our house. I happened to be looking out the window, just in time to see an upper corner of the leading truck hook the lines that run between a pole and our house.

The lines snapped.

The driver knew it had happened. He got out of his cab, came back, and held the dangling lines aside so the second truck could get through. Then he climbed back into his cab.

By that time I was out on our front step, yelling at him.

“Call the phone company,” he yelled back. And drove off.

Call the phone company? When you’ve just ripped out my phone line?

I was still livid, half an hour later, when I went to my weekly recorder class. And I found I could not play the recorder. My efforts sounded like a piglet with intestinal cramps.

The woodwind instruments require carefully controlled breathing. As long as I was raging, I couldn’t modulate my breathing to produce disciplined notes. You can’t make music when you’re out of control.

Now it’s possible that an angry drummer could beat the hell out of his drums. That a pissed-off pianist might pound her keyboard mercilessly. Or that a furious trumpeter could shatter chandeliers. It might be therapeutic. But I doubt if it’s music.

Similarly, I doubt if a sculptor would risk ruining a block of marble by attacking it too vigorously with his chisel.

Yes, we can certainly speak and act while angry. And we often do. But we often regret it later.

Because anger turns inward. It excludes other emotions. You can’t be loving and angry at the same time. You can’t be boiling and calm.

Years ago, I wrote about anger as one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Those sins all have a paradoxical element. They’re also virtues—in the right place and time.

Anger, for example, leads to violence, impulsive behaviour, broken relationships. But without anger we would have no justice movements. Anger motivated the civil rights and anti-war movements in the U.S. It launched the American and French revolutions. It provided the impetus for Gandhi’s Salt Marches in India, for the opposition to apartheid in South Africa. Anger fuelled feminists and suffragettes.

Anger says—like Peter Finch’s famous rant in the movie Network—“I’m not gonna take it anymore!”

But first you have to bring that blaze under control.

For good reason, most meditation practices (possibly excluding self-hypnosis) focus on breathing. Breathing is the most basic act of life. The Bible considered it the evidence of life. In both Greek and Hebrew, the word for “breath” also means “spirit.”

If we are alive, we breathe. But breathing is also likely our least conscious act. We weren’t conscious of our first breath; we probably won’t be of our last. Most of the time, we’re not even aware of our breathing; we just do it.

Until something upsets us. Like a driver who lacks the common courtesy to come to the door and say, “sorry.”