Are you in a courtroom? an office? On the street? At your kid’s sports practice? In a classroom? Here is a meditation that can be folded into an active day, or used during time set aside for meditation.
Observe the people around you and imagine how they might be breathing, how their breath sounds and feels to them right now. For each breath you take, rest your eyes on a different person, and imagine you are taking a breath with them. Notice how the air smells and feels, be present to the sounds that accompany the breath.
Gradually move outward in your thoughts to imagine people who are outside of where you are. If you are sitting alone, you would start this meditation at this stage. There may be a park nearby. There could be parents, nannies, and children on the playground. Imagine a young child who is being pushed on the baby swing and register the exhilarating excitement and laughter in that breath. You know that at this moment, somewhere, there must be an excited young child being pushed on a swing.
You could imagine that some parent is bored or anxious sitting on the park bench not paying much attention to the children, thumbing through something on their cell phone – you can’t see it but undoubtedly someone is doing that somewhere, right? Take a breath with them. Imagine the drivers going past, the elderly at the nursing home down the street, the paramedics who whizz by in the ambulance and their struggling patient.
Go out further. Go to people working on farms, in the mountains, in the city, and by the sea. Imagine what people could be doing there and for each person in each scenario, take a breath with them. Go to the people you worried about on the news today, someone who is starving, someone who is walking away from a war, someone with nowhere to go, someone who is powerful, someone who is fighting, someone who is grieving, someone who is arrested. I am being general, but as you’re doing it, you be specific. Think of real people if you can, or imagine real places. Don’t limit yourself to people that you’re sympathetic to. Breathe with people who upset you, too, and maybe even especially. Accompany anyone you can think of. Imagine what this moment tastes like, smells like, feels like for each one. How it constricts, or how it frees. Where there is love or anger or excitement or fear, what does that feel like in a person’s breath.
I like this meditation for several reasons. I like the awe it inspires as I’m trying to hold all the different things people are doing in this moment, and at the same time am confronted with the impossibility of comprehending it. There is an excitement I feel with the grand beauty of the world and everything happening in it right now. It nurtures connection and empathy with people in all different kinds of situations, and the more I imagine, the more connection. It gives me a way to witness, to accompany, to hold, and to pray for those who are in situations I find frightening, or painful, or sad. If, in this very moment, I can’t do anything else to help someone, at the very least, I can breathe with them.
Below is a poem I wrote once about this meditation.
Take a breath
with each of the children sleeping upstairs.
Take one with each of the neighbors
who are getting ready for work.
She is brushing her teeth.
He is fixing coffee.
Somewhere on this street, someone is coughing.
Take a breath with him.
Somewhere on this block, an exhausted mother
is sitting with her energetic infant, wishing for sleep.
Take a breath with her, and take another
with her grinning, gurgling child.
Somewhere in this city, a man is lifting weights.
Breathe out with him as he pushes out the bar.
A woman is in labor. Breathe with her.
A frail man is fighting an impossible illness
and is close to losing.
Take a small breath.
Take a small breath.
Take a small breath, with each of them
who are barely breathing.
And with each of them who are sleeping.
And with each of them in their cars,
thinking of the things they think
to begin their day.
In the next city is a husband at work.
He’s on the phone. Breathe with him.
Somewhere, at this very moment,
a baby’s lungs fill with air for the very first time.
Take a breath. Look, here is another!
And breathe with the mother,
and breathe with the father,
looking into the new child’s eyes
and wondering who is there.
Somewhere, at this very moment,
Someone is curled up in fear, dreading
the coming day, the next moment.
This one, too, barely breathes.
Someone is praying.
No matter that she is not your religion.
Take a breath with her.
Someone is eating.
No matter that you do not like that food.
Take a breath and savor its aroma.
Now for the hard part.
Someone is being raped and
Someone is doing the raping.
Take a breath with each of them.
They were both the new child, too.
Someone is nervously drinking a cola for breakfast
Breathing out through cold fizz,
carefully ignoring the .38 in his sock
and his plans for later today.
Someone is breathing in tobacco, someone cocaine.
Go ahead, breathe with them.
Don’t pretend that you know nothing
of the gaping hole that this one and that one
don’t know how to fill.
Someone behind bars is almost conscious of your breath
because of how it tastes of a different life.
This one chokes on anger and grief, and tries
to refuse to breathe.
This one exhales a litany of rage.
Join it anyway. Now this breath,
it smells of socks, and this of mold,
this of rotting food, of stale urine, and this of shit.
This smells of hunger, this of bitterness, and this of hate.
If only you could breathe into them with springtime,
earth, cut grass, or molasses cookies.
And here is a grandmother breathing springtime,
earth, cut grass, and molasses cookies.
Sometimes this child walking slowly to school can smell them.
Sometimes the pedophile and the pimp can smell them.
On occasion, the child locked in the hotel room of
onion sweat and cigarette butts can remember them.
Breathe with them.
There is a diver climbing back onto the beach
tasting of salt and fish. His body is tuned
to the roar and whisper of waves.