Sometimes, when the mind is vulnerable and the body is weak, breathing comes to the forefront of my concerns. I concentrate on breathing, on the ‘in-out’—the most vital, base instinct of mankind; a need more natural even than eating, unavoidably defining both our first and last moments: the ‘sign’ of life. To concentrate on breathing is a curious exercise. It involves a reconsideration of the most taken-for-granted bodily process, dragging something to the surface that is never usually noticed. Breathing is always with us. It is always in the background. It makes complete silence impossible and means that (in theory) we are always multi-tasking, always breathing whilst doing something else. To experiment with breath is to directly engage with the border between the conscious and unconscious, to play around on its frontier and test its barriers, wrenching something out of the unconscious and forcing it to become a conscious action. What is interesting, though, is that once you concentrate on the process, it is incredibly difficult to stop, to transform it back into an instinctive action of the unconscious. It becomes an obsession. Somewhere inside one’s head is the thought: now I am in control of my breathing, what happens if I don’t breathe? What happens if I stop? Is that even possible? Paranoia comes in to play here, something that can easily consume, become all that is thought about, all is done.
The only way to get rid of the fixation—to flee its grasp, is to give yourself to something, anything else, to hoodwink yourself into concentrating or focusing on another task, and therefore to forget about breathing and allow it to slip back into an unconscious, physical process, rather than a conscious, mental one. It is, apparently, impossible to hold your breath for too long. At some point (even if underwater), your bodily, instinctual reactions will override the powers of mental control and you will draw breath – the unconscious winning its battle over the conscious, the body defeating the mind.
According to experts, one of the best ways to escape the constrictive hold of a paranoiac breathing episode is to play a musical instrument (not a wind instrument, obviously,) something like the piano where both the mental and the physical are forced to concentrate on other actions, reading and understanding the notes while fingers simultaneously tinkle away on the keys.
Breathing, it seems, is not something our conscious brain should normally be involved with, as we have little fixed idea how often we personally need to breathe, and usually the body’s natural processes take care of it for us. But there is something powerful about the action of your mind taking control; immediately spreading worry, doubt and insecurity on what normally should be the most natural of actions. It reminds one of life’s ongoing vulnerability and that, although you might think you are in control, this is merely an illusion and mind does not necessarily win over matter.
The paranoiac side of breathing is balanced by its therapeutic side: two sides of the same coin; as in the practice of meditation, the action itself comes directly to the forefront with control and concentration needed to induce the particular state. The gateway to meditation is accessed by focusing purely on the act of breathing, ridding the mind of any excess
concerns and allowing one’s mental space to be entirely filled with this single, physical act. The process, in which breathing is the solo, active ingredient, is one of cleansing and reparation. Overripe anxieties and thoughts gone rotten are dislodged and flushed away by breathing, like a gentle, airy massage for the brain’s tired old neurons and synapses. In this way, breathing can be both the cause and object of paranoia, but also its remedy.
On a cold day our breathing process becomes augmented, with breath taking on a tangible, physical appearance of its own, one of a seasonal drop in temperature’s most dramatic signs. How many hours when younger were spent eagerly expending air onto a pane of glass in order to enact the process of condensation, creating a miniature damp canvas while hurriedly taking out a podgy digit to draw a little cartoon face or inscribe a quick hello. Then in the playground, after being dropped off for school on some frosty morning, we would pretend it was smoke that was being expelled from our mouths and feel cheekily sophisticated, as if nature had given us a premature present that we were not yet old enough to be allowed. Both of these youthful cases, however, display at the most fundamental level the human marvelling at the physicality of its own existence, astonished at the wintry transfiguration of what its own body is able to produce, with breath morphing from something unseen and unconscious to something malleable and visible, something that can now be seen, used, and played with.
Another thing that has an impact on breathing is smoking tobacco, and its impact is a curious one: it visibly both augments breathing, behaving like a type of prosthetic extension of mouth and air passage, but also scientifically impedes the ability to breathe, worsening any asthma and making it that much harder to walk up the stairs. I have always thought of smoking as a coded sign of adulthood and experience (hence the childhood willingness to pretend to smoke with cold breath or to play around with those fairly disgusting candied cigarettes): man suddenly becoming in control of his own personal, portable fire, which to children will always appear inevitably authoritative and impressive. The action of smoking also, however, is the transformation of man into machine, our physical body taking on the aesthetic of the nineteenth century industrial age, human becoming blast furnace, burning his coals and blowing off steam, mimicking the technology that he gave birth to. The cigarette poses as a fuel for the man-machine, not like a lump of coal that will produce electrical power, but as a fuel that will lead to nothing, or worse than nothing, to decay and disease: an anti-fuel. Smoking is, instead, all illusion: an illusion of fuel, an illusion of production, an illusion of purpose, all tied together by a nicotine addiction.
Smoking is breathing’s darker cousin, bringing to light in hyperbolic fashion all of the conflicting aspects within the life-force itself: its status as fuel, its therapeutic promise, its relationships with both control and paranoia, and also its dual ties to the unconscious and conscious mind. Perhaps the reason smoking is so universally addictive (more so, apparently, than heroin) is that it builds on and exacerbates an already-existing, more deeper-seated addiction: the addiction to breathing itself. Although this may appear as a peculiar characterisation of what is mankind’s most regular bodily process, it is in those moments when breathing surfaces to become a function of conscious control, and the emotions that ensue, that we realise this definition may not sound so ridiculous after all.