Body, Mind and Breath

Why this topic?

For weeks, I had been making false starts on writing a conference paper.  My scattered thoughts would not coalesce around a topic.  Exasperated, frustrated, I threw myself face down on the den floor.  I grabbed my husband’s leg as he walked by.  “Chas!”  I begged, “What have I been thinking about lately?”

“The breath,” he said, for he had been listening carefully to the words I had been breathing out to him.  The breath gives shape to language and ideas, making it possible for people to communicate, for us to gain philosophically elusive knowledge of other minds.  Spoken language is breath, passed through chambers of various shapes.  Laughter is breath, given out to the world in short bursts.  Surprise is a breath interrupted.

Life, Death, and Breath

I begin with everyday observations.  As a sort of sideline while engaged in the business of life – attending births and deaths, and everything in between – I have made an informal and chaotic study of the rules of the world.  If my honesty disturbs you, I can say the same thing borrowing the jargon of philosopher Edmund Husserl.  “In the phenomenological reduction in which I bracket the scientific standpoint, I return to the pre-theoretical stance of pre-classical Greece, where I am immersed in the life-world.”  Cynicism is a quick snort of breath out the nose.

Twice I have observed the death of bodies I care about, both after prolonged illnesses.  Each time a version of pneumonia, fluid-filled lungs, took over the body’s last hours.  Pneumonia arrived as a sort of angel of death, saying, I will begin the process of releasing you now.  (Releasing what from what, I do not know.)  Each time, as the breath became shallower, the body seemed to die from the feet up.  With less oxygen, and poorer circulation, of course the extremities starve first.  But that scientific knowledge does not quell the uncanniness of watching life withdraw from the body to the rhythm of a thickening breath.  Each time, I sorrowed and I wondered and I held the image in my mind.  Compassion, your sympathy with me, is a long, slow, sighing breath out.

I have given birth, after sharing my breath with a fetus through a tube connected to its belly button (go figure).  I never did see my babies’ first breaths; I was always too busy catching my own.  My second baby almost didn’t breathe.  What would that have been like, death at the moment of birth?  A body fully prepared, a vessel perfectly formed, waiting to receive the gift of breath – yet somehow not kissed, the wind blowing past it instead of into it.  We have only a few short moments, only a short window of opportunity, before the vessel would lie useless and discarded.  Hold your breath, thinking of a birth parent’s sorrow.

The Hebrew Bible borrows from the reality of birth the metaphor of a vessel receiving the gift of breath.  This metaphor forms the centerpiece of the Bible’s second description of the creation of human beings.  (Surely, as many scholars say, the author of the second creation story was a woman!)  Here are the words of Genesis 2:7: “And God formed the man of dirt from the ground, and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life and man became a living being.”  In this story, God formed a man from the most ordinary of materials; from dirt, the unnoticed background to the business of life; from the earth, an unsung source of support.  But the prosaic came to life when God breathed into it.  Pause and take a deep breath, the kind that makes possible a heartfelt “Wow!” of reverence and awe.

Emotion, Intellect, and Breath 

Clearly, breath is connected with the emotions.  We have already played with six different rhythms and shapes of breath connected with six different emotions.  As with the breath, so it is with music.  Singing, chanting, dancing, playing instruments, are all done in rhythm with the breath.  Different rhythms express different emotions.  And different rhythms evoke different emotions. For my musical expressions, if effective, spark your emotional expressions, maybe even your musical ones.  And your own musical activities alter your emotional tone.  Have you not cheered yourself up by making music, or become sorrowful singing along with a mournful crooner?

Perhaps your thoughts and emotions are wandering now, as you make your own associations, or begin to formulate your objections or agreements with my argument.  Take a deep breath and focus your mind.  Prepare for a moment of serious philosophy.

Traditional yoga philosophy connects the practice of disciplined breathing with the focused intellect.  As B.K.S. Iyengar writes,

the mind can go in many directions in a split section.  But the breath cannot go in many directions at once.  It has only one path: inhalation and exhalation.  Controlling the breath and observing its rhythm bring the consciousness to stillness. (pp. 4-5)

Iyengar points out that the classic yoga text Hatha Yoga Pradipika defines yoga as “stilling the fluctuations of the breath,” while another classic text, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, defines yoga as “stilling the fluctuations of the mind.”  There is no difference between these definitions, says Iyengar.  The two practices “meet at a certain point.”  If you intentionally practice one, you end up practicing the other.  Focused intellectual study goes hand in hand with focused breathing.

According to traditional philosophical stereotypes of the psyche, emotion is playful, easily swayed by external events.  Intellect is disciplined, directed, its focus sustained through a highly developed will.  Both intellect and emotion are reflected in states of the breath: one in quick changes of depth and tempo, the other in a fixed and focused pattern.  Both can be shaped through equally premeditated manipulations of the breath.

Breath and the Essence of Consciousness

Intellect, emotion, and bodily awareness make up a trio that could be seen as a map of human consciousness.  This is not an ad hoc generalization that I make in order to advance my argument.  Rather it is a very old and well-respected theory of consciousness that finds expression in Plato’s map of the psyche as composed of reason (or thought), spirit (emotion), and appetite (sensation).  Some philosophers define essence as the sine qua non, that without which a thing would not be itself.  In the simplest sense, humans cannot exist without the breath.  A human being can exist for weeks without food, for days without water, but only for minutes without breath.  In a more philosophically sophisticated sense, the particular states of all three faculties – thought, emotion, and sensation – the combination of which makes us distinctively human, are brought into being by the breath.  Could I say, then, that breath is the essence of human consciousness?  For centuries, the philosophical debate about human nature has pitted a view of mind as essential against a view of body as essential.  But both depend upon the breath.

In positing breath as essence, I may be confusing what I might call the “fuel” of human consciousness with its essence.  The word fuel suggests to me a machine, perhaps a car, so I shall think analogically for a moment, comparing the parts of a human being with the parts of a car.  The essence of a car is its engine; the engine needs gas to run.  On this analogy, breath would merely be the fuel for human consciousness.  But perhaps my separation of an engine from its fuel is overly simplistic.  For an engine is essentially designed to process fuel.  Its essence is its ability to transform fuel into motion.  On this version of the analogy, a human being appears as a breath processing machine.  Our function is to take in oxygen and transform it into states of consciousness.

We could take this image of a breath processing machine even farther.  Looking from the perspective of deep ecology, perhaps our main function is to support plant life.  We take in raw material (oxygen) and transform it into nutrition for plants (carbon dioxide).  A waste product generated by plants (oxygen) keeps us alive so that we can continue to sustain them.  Our own consciousness is merely a wondrous by product of the process, a gratuitous gift to be savored.

Human Essence and the Essence of Reality

The description of breath as a gift takes me back to the image presented in Genesis 2:7, the second account of the creation of human beings presented in the Hebrew Bible.  There God creates a body and breathes something divine into it, animating human consciousness. (Does this ever happen when you blow on a lump of dirt?  No.)  In the first account of the creation, God creates human beings, male and female, in the image of God.  No details of the technology of this act are given.  If the second account is read as an elaboration on the first, perhaps the breath is the image of God.The book of Genesis is a Hebrew text.  Not surprisingly, Jewish mysticism has made much of this metaphor of God as breath.  According to mainstream Jewish tradition, we know how to spell the name of God, but we do not know how to pronounce it.  The letters are all open aspirants, yod, hey, vav, hey — Y, H, W, H.  These are not consonants, but they are not vowels either. They direct us to open our mouths and breathe, but they do not tell us much about how to shape the breath into determinate sounds. Some Jewish mystics, however, depart from the traditional interpretation of our ignorance.  Nothing is missing from this representation of God’s name, they say.  All the information on how to pronounce it is given.  Take a deep breath in, and a slow breath out.  That is the name of God, they say.

The root of the word “YHWH” means “being.”  Without knowing the Hebrew vowels that guide pronunciation, we do not know which tense of “being” is represented.  So we assume that the name encompasses past, present, and future being simultaneously.  The name of God is Pure Being.  Choose your metaphor for giving this definition of God a more concrete application: everything that exists was created by God; everything that exists is a manifestation of God; everything that exists is a face of God.  The mystical Hebrew understanding of God offers the most extreme vision of monotheism: a thoroughgoing pantheism.  In yoga philosophy, breath is called “prana,” the life-force that animates all beings.  If I wed Hebrew mysticism with yogic practice, it turns out that God is the play of organic chemicals exchanged in the breath, and perhaps through other processes as well.

This image of God offered by a mystical monotheism is eerily similar to the image of a Godless universe presented by Hellenistic philosopher Lucretius.  For Lucretius, the universe is an endless play of atoms, taking different forms.  For Jewish mystics, and Hindu mystics who practice yoga, God is also an endless play of atoms, taking different forms.  Here the most extreme image of a God-permeated universe is identical with the most extreme image of a Godless universe.  The debate about whether human beings are essentially mind or essentially body – the idealism/materialism debate – disappears, absorbed into the breath, if you will.  The metaphysics of both coincide.  Perhaps the question at the heart of the idealism-materialism debate, or at the heart of the mind-body problem is not really a metaphysical one.  Perhaps the question raises an issue in what we might, for lack of a better word in the philosophical vocabulary, call “ethics.”  With what emotional attitude and behavioral choices shall we respond to reality?  Shall we treat human beings as sacred reflections of an awesome divinity, or as complex objects that help us achieve our material objectives?

Mysticism and Knowledge

I began with a discussion about the essence of human consciousness, and wandered off into a discussion about the essential nature of reality.  This wandering, although pleasurable, makes the analytic part of my mind uncomfortable.  For I may have said nothing enlightening at all about the essence of human consciousness by concluding that it is essentially the same as everything else.  Or perhaps I have said something significant about the essential connectedness between human consciousness and the world, a connection forged at least partly through the breath.  When I first read this essay to a small group of colleagues and fellow-travelers, I was not shy about my uncertainty.  I asked them to help me understand what, if anything, I had accomplished philosophically.  At first glance, their responses did not help me at all, but as I reflected upon them later, I gained some insight.

Bill Gay, a phenomenologist and peace activist, immediately made connections between my words and his experiences.  Hiking down to the floor of the Grand Canyon, he said, was an experience of altered consciousness.  The air passing through his lungs changed drastically in composition from many feet above sea level to many feet below sea level; perhaps that was responsible for the experience.  I replied by describing my experience up on the windy tundra, 10,000 feet above sea level.  There meditation is effortless — the world seems to reach out and meditate you.  Perhaps as the thin air fills your lungs, the atmosphere there literally does reach into you and change your consciousness.  Bill added the fact that monasteries, centers for meditative retreat, are often built on mountaintops.

Marvin Croy, a specialist in logic and information technology, asked about the implications of my view for machine consciousness.  He referred back to my analogy between human consciousness and a car.  As an engine transforms gasoline and electrical sparks into motion, it relies on the mixing of gasoline with air.  Can we then say, Marvin asked with some excitement, that machines breathe?  And thus that they share a feature of human consciousness?

Dick Toenjes, an ethicist with a strong background in scholastic Catholic philosophy, was concerned that I had jumped too quickly to the conclusion that breath is the essence of human consciousness.  How would I argue against an alternative hypothesis?  Why not say, for example, that food is the essence of human consciousness?  After all, we cannot live without it.  I told Dick that I respected his question, and that I did not have a completely satisfactory answer for it.  After all, food intake does change our consciousness, although not always as quickly as breathing does; and we cannot live without food, although we can live longer without eating than without breathing.  Perhaps, I said, I am simply falling back on a long tradition in philosophy and theology of identifying breath with life.

At this point in the discussion, Judith Presler, a scholar of ancient philosophy, reinforced my appeal to tradition.  She recalled my reference to Plato’s theory of the psyche, informing us that the Attic Greek word “psyche” translates literally as “breath.”  So, for Plato, reason, emotion, and sensation are all aspects of the breath.  Plato’s word, of course, is always the first and last word in philosophy, so discussion ended here.

Bill’s, Marvin’s, and Judith’s responses seem to have moved along one track, and Dick’s response seems to have moved along another track.  The two tracks are parallel, and can run without touching one another.  Bill, Marvin, and Judith did not need the logical clarity Dick sought in order to take hold of my conclusion and extend its reach.  Dick did not need an experiential grasp of my theory in order to question it logically.  Each track lays down a different road to knowledge, perhaps even aims towards a different definition of knowledge.

Normally, we think we know something when we get it right.  Truth is the agreement of knowledge with its object, we say.  Knowing is the result of processing information from the external world and connecting it logically with other, reliable information from the external world.  We trust that a person knows something when they can point to their concrete evidence, and lay out its connections to their conclusion.  This is a classic philosophical theory of knowledge.  The most famous philosophers of the early modern era, Descartes and Leibniz, clearly wrote that experience plus logic, if both are applied correctly, yield knowledge.

This conception of knowledge seemed to animate Dick’s question about food as essence.  Dick did not doubt the accuracy of my reports on my personal experiences.  He did not question whether I had represented my sources correctly.  His only concern was that I had not adequately articulated the logical connections between my experiences and my conclusion.  By his standards, I had leapt far too quickly from the premises “breath is indispensable to human life” and “breath affects our consciousness” to the conclusion “breath is the essence of human consciousness.”  And he is right.  From a traditional philosophical perspective, I have not adequately demonstrated knowledge of my thesis.

Bill, Marvin, and Judith, however, did not care if I had demonstrated a proper logical connection between my experiences and my thesis.  Instead, they saw other kinds of connections.  They grasped whatever strands looked interesting to them, wove their own thoughts around them, and emerged with their own ideas seeming larger and more far-reaching.  To borrow words again from Husserl, less pejoratively this time, perhaps they sought “fulfillment” rather than knowledge.

In his own work, Husserl is careful to explain that he is studying consciousness, not knowledge.  So when he tries to understand the way we think, he does not look for connections between the contents of consciousness and the external world.  He does not bring a preconceived notion of how logical connections between the various contents of consciousness must be structured.  Instead he studies the many different ways that our conscious experiences connect with one another.  He calls these connections “fulfillments.”  For example, a memory that pops up when one wonders about the past can seem to fulfill a vague notion; a sensation that evokes a dream can seem to fulfill the dream; an experience of the external world can seem to fulfill a theory.

I understand the word “fulfillment” literally — making the contents of our consciousness fuller, filling experiences with other experiences.  All four of my colleagues were pursuing different ways of “fulfilling” their own consciousness with my thoughts about the breath.  Bill fulfilled his memory of hiking the Grand Canyon, adding to the experience of changed consciousness a theory about its physiological cause.  Marvin fulfilled his theories about machine consciousness, adding another analogy to the many he sees between human and computer information processing.  Judith fulfilled her interpretation of Plato, gaining additional support that her nuanced translation was correct.  Dick may have been moved to wonder about the role of the body in human consciousness, but he did not add the dimension of breath to any of his memories or theories.  Perhaps I could say he fulfilled his views about logical process, particularly when I acknowledged that he had applied them correctly in assessing my lack of a good argument.

In retrospect, I was not offering an argument, really, but an opportunity for fulfillment.  Your reflection on the breath itself, your willingness to observe its role in your own consciousness, are indispensable to the successful fulfillment of my ideas.  Your ability to plant in your imagination the seeds of the metaphor of breath as divine spirit, and your willingness to watch it bear fruit, are the kinds of participation that bring about the fulfillment of my ideas.  No wonder I call my presentation a mystical one rather than a philosophical one.  Mystics often say their understanding defies conventional knowledge, that it cannot be grasped using the usual categories of logic.  They communicate mystical experience through metaphor.  They speak of the willingness to change one’s consciousness.  In terms of knowledge, I believe they are speaking of fulfillment, of watching ideas blossom within other lived experiences, of breathing life into metaphors — so to speak.


Churchland, Paul. Matter and Consciousness.  Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1988.

Husserl, Edmund.  Ideas.  A General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology.  Trans. W. R. Boyce Gibson.  London: Allen and Unwin, 1931.

Husserl, Edmund.  Logical Investigations, 2 vols.  Trans. J. N. Findlay.  New York: Humanities Press, 1970.

Iyengar, B.K.S.. The Tree of Yoga. Boston: Shambhala Press, 1989.

Isherwood, Christopher and Swami Prabhavananda, How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali. Hollywood, Calif.: Vedanta Press, 1953.

Jaggar, Alison M.  “Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology.”Women, Knowledge, and Reality. Ed. Ann Garry and Marilyn Pearsall.  Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989.

Lloyd, Genevieve. The Man of Reason. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Lucretius, On the Nature of Things.  Trans. Anthony Esolen.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Marcel, Gabriel.  The Mystery of Being.  Chicago: Regnery, 1951.

Moran, Dermot.  Introduction to Phenomenology.  New York: Routledge, 2000.

Plato, Republic. Trans. Allan Bloom. Basic Books, 1991.

Plato, Phaedo. Trans. G.M. Grube.  Hackett, 1977.

Prager, Marcia.  The Path of Blessing. New York: Bell Tower, 1998.

Scherman, Rabbi Nosson. The Chumash.   New York: Mesorah, 1994.

— Laura Duhan Kaplan, 2000

Published in Philosophy and Everyday Life (Seven Bridges Press 2002)

Photo: Laura Duhan Kaplan on the tundra above Glacier Lake, Cathedral Provincial Park, by Charles Kaplan 2008

  1. Breath and Soul

    I have often thought about the similarity between breath and soul. I know the mystics speak of Nefesh, Ruach,Neshamah, Chaya and Yechida. Not being a mystic, I think in more earthling realms.

    Both the breath and the soul reside within the body for a short period of time. Although a breath may remain for a somewhat shorter time, in the time of the Universe this difference is infinitesimally small as to not be of significanct. Neither the breath nor the soul is visible. However, on a cold winter’s day the droplet’s that ride on the breath are seen. So it is with the soul. The soul is transmitted from parent to child taking on different aspects, for sure, but there is a continuum of the soul from one to the other. I believe that only the refined good aspects of the soul are transmitted to those with whom it is in contact.

    When a baby is born, the babe is encouraged to take a deep breath, usually by a swat on the bottom. At that moment the infant is viable. He is alive. At that very moment the soul enters. Each breath is transformed from then on. As we breathe in through our nose, we can feel the cool air entering our body. As we breathe out through our mouth the breath is now warm. Try it.

    The soul is also transformed during its stay in the human form. In many cases, the soul, too, may come in with only cool potential, but given the proper environment some external, but also internal, it through the manipulation of thought, warms in its essence.

    Where does the breath go? Where does the soul go? Having left the body the breath and the soul return to the Great Reservoir of Ein Sof. They await the next cycle of inhalation and installation.

    Just as the babe’s first action is a deep inhalation, the last action we take is a final exhalation, completing the cycle. Receiving and discharging the breath of God with a lifetime in between.

    Parts of the breath may linger as the oxygen which has come in on the breath remains for a while in the cells. The kabbalists tell us that the soul also remains for seven days. Perhaps, the breath and the soul linger together for yet a bit more until it is time for them to move on.

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