Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness.
~ Thích Nhất Hạnh
At one time or another, we will all encounter situations when we simply want to help someone in need, and yet we may not know what to do for or what to say to them — the avenues you are used to providing help in are exhausted, unwanted, or unnecessary.
They don’t need anything material — their needs are already met.
They don’t need to be fixed, for they are not broken.
They don’t need kind words or advice.
They do need something:
They need you.
They may feel lonely, alienated, isolated, hurt, miserable, or depressed.
They may simply be stuck in confusion or uncertainty.
They may be sick, suffering, and in pain.
They may even be dying.
What do you give this person, especially if they are leaving everything behind?
By simply being with them. It is one of the simplest things in the world to do, and yet most of us have forgotten how to just be; we are so much more accustomed to complicating things by doing.
In Chapter 11 of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche writes:
People who are very sick long to be touched, long to be treated as living people and not diseases. A great deal of consolation can be given to the very ill simply by touching their hands, looking into their eyes, gently massaging them, or holding them in your arms, or breathing in the same rhythm gently with them.
I’d like to elaborate on that very last thought, as it is an extremely powerful method for sharing your presence, even when someone does not want to be touched (or it is inappropriate to do so) or when it is not possible to look into their eyes. Of course it deepens the effects of touch and eye-contact in combination with them.
It’s even effective when someone is unconscious, or on the brink of death. This method is not only for the sick and dying, but is also powerful when consoling a friend who is upset, or making a deeper connection with a loved one.
The best part is that it is simple and non-invasive, and the person needn’t even know you are doing it. The hardest part is not to inflict your desires on the process, and instead follow it consciously as a witness.
Here is the process:
- Let your breath settle into its own, natural rhythm. Forget about breathing properly, how you “should” breathe, any pranayama or creative visualizations. Simply breathe. You already know how to do this, you’ve been doing it at least since the day you were born. As the breath settles into its natural rhythm, observe it: observe the sensations of the breath moving in and out of your body. If you get distracted, simply return to your breath and its sensations. Try not to even label your breath (“breathing in,” “breathing out”). Do nothing. Just watch.
- Once your own breath has settled, let that rhythm run on its own and turn your attention to the other person. Observe their breath. Observe the speed, depth, sounds, texture, and movements of their breath. As with observing your own breath, forget about how they should be breathing, do not try to alter their breath in any way. Simply let them breathe. They already know how — they’ve also been doing it since at least birth. Do nothing. Just watch.
- This step may already have occurred spontaneously: without attempting to affect them or their breath, begin to change your own breath pattern to match theirs. Replicate as many traits of their breath pattern as possible, but be as gentle and subtle about this as possible — both for yourself and for them — if they are heavy or noisy breathers, only mildly replicate these traits, for they may feel that you are mocking them.
- Continue observing their breath. Again, do not make any attempt to change their breath so that it matches yours, but do change yours if and when their breath pattern changes on its own.
- If you lose the rhythm, or if maintaining it causes you anxiety, return to step 1 until your own natural breath pattern settles in. Then, continue through each step gradually. Remember that in steps 1 & 2, the mantra is: Do nothing. Just watch.
- If you lose the rhythm more than twice, discontinue the practice for that session. Settle back into your own breath and continue giving your presence by simply being there and allowing the other person to do the same. Similarly, discontinue the practice for that session if the other person’s breath makes a significant shift more than twice — this is often signified by a deep sigh, but is sometimes more subtle.
- Finally, if you feel or observe the other person becoming anxious or that there is a noticeable disturbance in their breath pattern at any point, do not continue synchronizing your breath with them — they may be extra sensitive to your presence and feel it as an invasion, or you may be unknowingly asserting your will on them and attempting to change their breath (also an invasion). In this case, go back to steps 1 & 2, remembering: Do nothing. Just watch.
By sharing your breath with another, you are not only sharing your presence with them and theirs with you, but you are also sharing an experience of interconnectedness.
This experience, simple as it is, will affect both of you deeply.
It is the kind of gift you will both benefit from.
The most essential thing in life is to establish an unafraid, heartfelt communication with others, and it is never more important than with a dying person.
~ Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying
Use this method wisely, however: it breaks down the barriers between self and others. While much of spiritual practice hinges on this breakdown, those same barriers are there for a reason — they provide protection and help us function in our day-to-day lives.
We’ll explore barriers more deeply in an upcoming post, as part of the Pairspectives series.