As I write this, we are five days from the election. Oy! This political season has been the worst in memory. Everywhere I go people tell me how anxious and upset they are about the campaign, and the truth is, I feel the same way. We all want it to be over. But let’s face it: The divisions this election cycle has laid bare won’t go away after November 8th. What do we do?
Many years ago I was talking with Rabbi Robinson, may his memory be for a blessing, about how he handles conflict or difficult situations, and he told me a story. He was protesting the Vietnam War with the famous Buddhist teacher and activist, Thich Nhat Hanh. It was an intense scene – people in their face yelling and screaming, yet Thich Nhat Hanh stayed calm throughout the ordeal, never responding in kind, never even showing signs of stress. Afterward, Rabbi Michael asked him, “How do you stay so centered and calm under such stress?” Thich Nhat Hanh paused for a moment, smiled, and said, “I breathe.”
Breathing in itself is not likely to solve the myriad problems we will face after Nov. 8th, but it just might be a way we can move more healthily through the post-election tension we are going to encounter. So let me share some Jewish teachings about the breath…
We read in Bereshit (Genesis) that God creates Adam by blowing the “breath of life” (nishmat hayim) into his nostrils. The Psalmist writes, Kol han’shamah, tehilyah, “With every breath (we take) (we) praise God.” So what about “the breath”? On the most basic level, breath is life. Take a breath and hold it… As your face reddens and your heart quickens, you quickly realize that without your breath you cannot exist; an awareness of our breath makes the moment-by-moment nature of our existence strikingly real. Simultaneous to our awareness of the miracle of breathing is awareness of the life force – (nishmat hayyim), and the source of that force, God. God is the source of our breath…God is the spring from which the nishmat hayyim flows. At this second level of awareness, the distinction of “breath,” “soul,” and “God” blurs. We recognize through our breath our place as betzelem elohim, creatures fashioned in the image of the Divine. So beyond physical necessity, there is a greater purpose to our breathing.
The breath is also physiologically calming, especially when we breathe into our belly. When we are angry or upset we often go into a “fight or flight” response which is useful if you are going into battle but not very helpful as a response to the daily news! Focusing on our breath can help bring us back from this stressful edge and to a healthier and more balanced state of being.
Irritated by the negative messages of the campaign? Breathe. Upset and frightened by the ugly underbelly of American life exposed by the election? Breathe. Breathe, and with each breath remember that this low mark in our nation’s history is not a true reflection of who we are or who we can be. All that lives breathes, and in each breath there is hope that instead of bigotry and vitriol, the image of divinity will someday pervade Creation.