by Sebastian Normandin
So this is the thing. I’ve been breathing a long time but, driven by the objective of writing a book, only recently started deliberately thinking about it. We commonly view breathing as a pedestrian automatism, but I try to imagine how this simple physiological function was once perceived as miraculous. Always that fine but-oh-so-definitive line between breathing and not. Not surprising that breath and breathing are associated with the very essence of life in almost all ancient mystical beliefs and medical systems. I would go further and say that it is through breath that the mystical and the medical become intertwined.
Why am I interested in this? I’m a historian and philosopher of medicine conversant with concepts connected to breath, like pneuma, prana, qi, ruach, etc. and I’ve been reading about fringe, esoteric and occult traditions, from anthroposophy to Zoroastrianism, for twenty years. And yet there’s always been a gap between theory and practice in my quest to understand breath. This has recently changed.
The story of it changing is a bit weird, in the Weird Tales sense. Like a character out of a Lovecraftian tale of secret and forbidden lore, while walking around London not long ago, I found myself in front of an esoteric bookshop on a quiet side street. Inside, I discovered a plethora of printed wisdoms; books on a whole range of juicy occult topics. But even more interesting was an ad on a notice board for a seminar on something called the Middle Pillar Ritual. I stood there, a pillar myself, transfixed, wavering about whether to sign up, always wary of New Age fluff. In the end, I took a chance.
I had visions in the days before of bizarre rites and ceremonies involving all kinds of costumes, props and paraphernalia. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Learning this “ritual” was not only fascinating, but also remarkably simple. Breathing, as a precursor to vocalizations and visualization, was a central component. The closest comparison I can come up with is an acting class. Intellectually, this parallel is no fluke. The famed occultist G.I. Gurdjieff, for example, came to his mystical ideas by way of his interest in performance – music and dance. This link between theatrics and the esoteric always seemed important to me, as both involve ritual, but it’s only in thinking of it in terms of breath that the relationship has become clear.
The Middle Pillar is a basic “magic” ritual. Carrying the performance analogy forward, it’s an easy role to play. Derived from Qabalah with a modern spin by way of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Middle Pillar was first described in print by Israel Regardie in 1938. By doing this, Regardie invited the ire of his fellow Golden Dawn members, who were scandalized that he had made their secret, sacred ritual public. Regardie ushered a breath of fresh air into the occult world. This was in contrast to his more famous contemporary Aleister Crowley. The two were once friends – Regardie was Crowley’s secretary for a brief period in Paris – but they had a falling out. Once labeled by the press as the “wickedest man in the world,” Crowley coveted his reputation, playing up aspects of his purportedly dark, sinister and mysterious persona. Regardie had a much less occluded and ominous orientation. But the two agreed when it came to the importance of breathing; in his Magick (Book 4) (1912), Crowley outlined a pranayama method of breathing as a foundation of occult practice.
Regardie, who moved towards Jungian psychology and even a kind of medical understanding of his practices after his time with the Golden Dawn, was also aiming at a real revelation through his populist approach. He was reminding occultists that much of the symbolic, conceptual, and theoretical aspect of their practices is just window-dressing. At base, they are all really fairly simple; the Middle Pillar, for example, is a straightforward process when stripped down, a combination of breathing, visualization and incantation (chanting). Much of occult ritual and ceremony has been mystified, but practice is what is key. When we abandon rational Western tropes and Cartesian categories and see these disciplines in the sense of their commonalities – see them as an elegant unity – then we begin to have a deeper sense of universality. However much one tries to distinguish these paths and their philosophies, they are all, by virtue of practice, one.
Breath brings this unity into focus. Too much reading, intellectualizing and thinking can take away from the often forgotten fact of life – that it is lived, experienced, inhabited. These occult rituals, like the traditions of the East, are all about presence and mindfulness. About being, moment to moment. Theory and contemplation are fine, but they can really only add details to the doing. It is in the doing – in the slow encrustations of habit that become a part of us, making us who we are – that we come to know. And the most fundamental act of doing in these practices involves breath. The word yoga, for example, means nothing more than “union”, which further implies linking, harnessing (as with a beast of burden) and, by extension, performance. And this performance starts with breath. True gnosis comes from habit – it’s a real process requiring time, effort, and energy to grow and find “enlightenment”.
It has occurred to me many times as I tried to understand the idea of breath – its theoretical, symbolic and cultural meanings – that I was working at cross purposes. In esoteric traditions and occult practices breathing is a way to get out of one’s head and, as such, abandon any struggle to understand. Breath, in all these niches, is a basic key to getting away from it all – meaning included, if you would believe the Buddhists. Put another way, in the deeply immersive practices of breath, non-meaning becomes ultimately meaningful.
We come into this world armed with a consciousness built, it seems, to ask questions and seek answers about its own existence. This is both blessing and curse. Without deeper awareness of self we’d be mean beasts but, at the same time, there is no more paralyzing position than a mind caught in a circular consideration of its potential, purpose and origin. This conflicted soul, for lack of a better term, can be a driving force of disharmony and anxiety. So much self-help talk centers on the stresses of a modern life, but what about the stresses from within? This is where mastery of breath becomes key and awareness and presence allow us to overcome the cyclical automatisms of a life lived in wakeful sleep.
Breath takes us beyond all the mental gymnastics. When we turn our conscious minds to the simple act of breathing, the in-and-out, we can slow the spinning wheels of thought and just come to be. There’s no more comforting state of being yet for many it remains elusive. Perhaps this explains the occluded elitism integral to the history of the esoteric. Maybe it has always been couched in code and secrecy because it promises so much through so little. Because, fully understood and competently practiced, this knowledge is a greater threat to hierarchies and social orders than any sloganeer, propagandist or revolutionary. It is the truest form of revolt.
The Middle Pillar and my breathing practice remind me of this existential essence of the esoteric. Sartre said “existence precedes essence.” I would add that the essence of existence is breath. In our consciousness of breath, we move towards the core existential themes of individuality and authenticity. I find myself newly curious to explore a realm we all possess – a deep and peaceful interiority we unconsciously suppress in favor of a habit of resigned endurance. Stoic virtue aside, who wants to just endure? I know I’ve done that for too long and I don’t want to anymore. I’m stepping onto the path armed with a deep body of knowledge but moving forward may be more a question of forgetting than knowing.
My immersion in the practices of breath and presence is a necessary nod to sanity and a turning away from the maddening modern mind, but I also appreciate this change intellectually. My personal perspective on this brings me to the question of health: it brings health into wider focus and prompts me to ask “What is health?” and “What does it mean to be healthy?” Thinking about breath and health reminds me that simple physiological evaluations never give a full picture of wellness. Keeping the machine well-oiled is important, but more important is escaping the mechanical mode altogether. Breathing is a key to this. It’s a practice that evokes the idea of a whole healthy way of being, what Hippocrates called a diaita (hence our modern word diet). But Hippocrates had in mind so much more than what one eats. His diet was a complex awareness of all the factors – physiological, psychological, social and spiritual – that went into good health. This holistic sense has been excluded from modern medicine for too long. In a beautiful symmetry, breath unifies us and yet at the same time allows us all a strong individual presence. It makes us whole, greater than the sum of our parts. Breath binds us to each other but it can also release us from the bonds of the past and the wariness of the future bringing us fully into the present.
I wonder if breath and its mastery is also a secret to success. Isn’t it key to the charismatic competence of the celebrity? Most actors and singers have some training in breath that helps them perform – to forget all the constraints of doubt, judgment, and expectation that can be so paralyzing. We try to think of “taking a deep breath” before speaking to an audience or dealing with a conflict situation.
There’s a growing awareness of the importance of breath and mindfulness in health and wellness making its way into mainstream medicine and into the mainstream generally. Practices that were once obscure and peripheral, like yoga and Qigong, are now widely popular. Medical practitioners and researchers are starting to recognize and acknowledge the specific health benefits of these activities and the value of an overall awareness of mindfulness and breath. Breathing is now sexy. But it was always there, sometimes marginal and sometimes central, yet hiding in plain sight.
This resurgence could have a downside. Popular culture and consumerism can be a dark mutagenic force, turning things with an inherent and abstract value into “products”. The New Age movement, rooted in values that seek to transcend the material in a search for spiritual significance, has bogged down in a muck of crass materialism. There are already signs that what should be a simple and deeply personal practice – yoga – has become a “lifestyle choice.” The thought that breathing and mindfulness could fall under similar influences is actually horrifying. I hope that putting breath into a rich historical narrative will help combat this trend. But this theoretical ambition is, I am only too aware, also making things unnecessarily complicated.
It should be simple. You don’t need to find a guru, take classes, or shop for accessories. Conscious breathing with the goal of mindfulness is possible anywhere – on the floor of your room, sitting at your desk, on a park bench or even, according to one well-known commentator, Thich Nhat Hanh, while washing dishes. If you get good enough at it, it can even become a permanent state. I doubt this requires being a monk and living a fully monastic life. So many people think these practices require guidance and initiation and involve complex understandings. They don’t. All you need to do is try them out.
About the Author:
Sebastian Normandin is a Visiting Instructor in Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University. His research focuses on the history and philosophy of medicine and biology in the nineteenth and twentieth century, vitalism and alternative medicine. He also remains ever fascinated by the concept of pseudoscience and the scientific fringe. His forthcoming book, with co-editor Charles T. Wolfe, Vitalism and the Scientific Image in Post-Enlightenment Life Science, 1800-2010 will be published by Springer in 2013. You can follow him on Twitter @weirdhistorian.