I can’t stop pondering why so many of the challenges we’re facing as a culture right now revolve around the breath. COVID is a disease that threatens our breathing. West Coast wildfires right now and recent horrific fires in Australia and the Amazon are making it impossible for us to breathe inside our own homes. They say the rainforests are the lungs of our planet. How can we survive as a planet if the lungs of our planet are on fire? Black lives that end prematurely are crying out what has become a rally cry—”I can’t breathe.” What is it about the breath being threatened right now?
I’m reflecting on how intimately the breath is related to spirituality and healing. The breath is quite literally “inspiration”—to inspire. The word refers to the breath AS spirit. In many spiritual traditions, the breath is seen quite literally as our spiritual essence—the breath as whatever you call God, if you will. Meditation techniques ask us to focus on the breath. Yoga is about pranayama—breathwork. Even creation myths begin with God breathing life into the world. Human life begins with a baby’s first breath outside its mother and ends when we take our last breath. Breath is life force. Breath animates us. Breath makes the difference between life and death, and now we’re having a hard time breathing.
Breath is at the center of nearly every spiritual tradition. Yet so many in spiritual circles right now seem to be ignoring the reality of how many people of color, indigenous communities, firefighters, COVID health care workers, the financially disadvantaged, the elderly, the chronically ill, and those doing our essential work on the front lines have their access to breath threatened right now. How long can we sit in our privilege and breathe in our yoga poses and on our meditation pillows without realizing that not everyone has the same access to the breath right now?
Do “Spiritual” People Care About Easing The Suffering Of Others?
I realize I’m making an assumption here that people in spiritual communities are tasked with caring about and responding to people, the Earth, and other beings who are suffering in apocalyptic times. Perhaps that’s an inaccurate assumption. But assuming you agree with me that those who love the Divine, those who devote themselves to spiritual practices like yoga, meditation, and prayer, and those who espouse beliefs about Oneness, non-duality, and a spiritual path of awakening care about the wellbeing of all living creatures, how do we wrestle with this disparity?
How do we reckon with identifying as “spiritual” if we’re not looking to see what we can do from our position of relative privilege and power to ensure that every being on this earth is equally entitled to clean, breathable air, and unlabored, unstrangled breath?
The simultaneous threats to our breath seem too synchronistic to be a coincidence. I notice my breath a lot these days. Like every freakin’ breath is a goddamn miracle—because right now, it’s becoming an increasingly rare gift. I’m hurting for people who are begging for breath when they’re being pinned down by police who can’t respond to their breathless panic with life-giving mercy. I’m hurting for COVID patients who can’t catch their breath; especially the elders left alone in isolation in hospitals, where it must be so scary and disorienting to have trouble breathing without loved ones holding your hand and looking into your scared eyes to say, “I’m here. We’ll do this together.” I’m hurting as so many of us can’t even take a walk outside safely because of thick, dangerous smoke and active fires. As someone who had to leave home in order to find air it’s safe enough to breathe, I’m especially feeling for so many in the West who can’t breathe right now and have no place to run to or can’t afford to leave jobs that aren’t portable.
What hurts most is the moral injury of realizing that breath is threatened most for people who lack the privilege I was born into, something I did not earn and don’t know how to share with those whose breath is more threatened than mine. Police brutality, COVID, and the impact of these fires are not impacting people equally. I have the luxury of running away from the fires and smoke to a friend’s house on a mountain where we’re above most of the low hanging smoke. Many do not, and it’s not fair. How can we urgently create a world where your basic birthright—your breath—is a privilege equally available to all beings?
We Need To Feel Healthy Shame Without Getting Frozen By It
When I feel all my feelings around this painful realization, I feel guilt and shame, which according to the work of Karla McLaren, is an appropriate response to violation of other people’s boundaries. If anger is the emotion we’re supposed to feel when our own boundaries are violated, then shame is the feeling we’re supposed to feel when we personally or collectively harm others by violating their boundaries. As a person of white privilege who has been part of a system that violates other people’s boundaries so I can live better than they can, shame is a natural and healthy emotion that can motivate me to into actions meant to stop the harm and start the healing.
If we’re in denial about COVID, climate crisis, unequal police brutality aimed at people of color, and other disasters threatening our world right now, we can’t feel the shame of the moral injury we should feel as people tasked with caring about social justice, public health, environmentalism, and human rights.
I get that it’s hard to feel shame. Someone on Facebook said she gets paralyzed and sucked into a pit when she feels shame, which is REALLY common for those of us (myself included) who were shamed as children as a way to control us and overpower us. Those young parts that got shamed can dissociate, shut down, freeze, give us physical pain, or otherwise “take us out” as adults when we feel shame until we get those parts healed and treated. Once we do, we become more able to feel shame without getting paralyzed. Then we can feel our healthy shame in ways that give us the ability to respond to the suffering of others. The reason people blended with sociopathic parts can do the horrific things they do is because they don’t feel their shame. They are shameless, which makes them dangerous and unable to even say “I’m sorry” when they do things that hurt others.
When we feel our shame but don’t get frozen by it, then we can recognize it as an emotion that’s trying to get our attention so we can respond to someone else’s distress and restore the integrity of any boundary we’ve breached in someone else or in ourselves. People who never get their young shamed parts treated tend to be unable to tolerate feeling healthy shame, which makes them vulnerable to hurting people unwittingly. Being shameless or bypassing or demonizing our healthy shame handicaps our moral compass. Feeling our shame and letting it motivate us to right any wrongs we’ve done tends to work better for everyone involved, even those of us who have made mistakes, allowing us to make apologies and make amends
Moral Injury Is Related To Your Moral Compass
Shame is one of the most uncomfortable emotions, but it’s a natural emotion to feel when we realize we are personally or collectively culpable for some of the horrific things happening on this planet right now. It’s the emotion that made me leave the hospital when I realized that I became a doctor so I could help people heal but that by colluding with a corrupt system that gives lip service to patient well being but ultimately bows to the almighty dollar, I was hurting people. When I found out that preventable medical error was the #3 cause of death in the US, I felt ashamed, and this caused what physician burnout researchers call “moral injury,” based on a phrase used to describe combat soldiers who are asked to do things that violate their ethics. All people in health care (or the military or so many other fields) would be better able to do the right thing if we actually felt the shame of our impact, instead of repressing or denying it.
I’m very aware that many self-help leaders demonize shame—understandably, given that so many people are traumatized by toxic shaming. But shame is not to be demonized any more than any other emotion is. Shame helps us do the right thing. Shameless people can cause horrific damage without feeling bad about the harm they do. Shame protects us from hurting other people or other aspects of nature that deserve our care—as it rightfully should. Then when we feel our shame, like any emotion, it moves on, and the next emotion arises.
Feeling Our Shame Helps Us Evolve Spiritually & Morally
Those of us colluding with corrupt systems need to feel the shame—not as a self-attack, not to spiral into shame and get paralyzed, but to feel the emotion that fuels us to care bigger, harder, and broader than our own self-interests or those of our inner circle. But shame is not the enemy any more than anger is. The time for swift and decisive action is now, and we need our shame to help us feel the pain of what’s happening so we can snap out of our totally understandable spiritual bypassing and denial. When we feel the pain of the pain we’re causing to others, we will know how to do our own part to right the many wrongs of the hurting world that are causing so much unnecessary suffering right now. This will motivate us beyond our meditation pillows and yoga mats so we can engage in conscious activism from a calm, compassionate, non-reactive way. Then we become “response-able,” as Thomas Hubl says, able to respond to the crises at hand.
Not sure how to deal with shame in a healthy way that doesn’t paralyze you? (Learn more about the gifts of shame here).
Want to participate in a community of collective healing so we can be more able to feel painful emotions—together—in ways that allow us to respond to the crises we face? Join the free Collective Trauma Summit here.
Want to alchemize some of the emotions that are arising into really meaningful art through writing? Join me for my first online writing workshop Alchemizing Uncertain Times Through Writing, which starts LIVE this Thursday.
What Do You Make Of This Crisis of Breath?
I’m curious. This is my point of view, but I might be totally off base here. Please tell me—what do you all make of these concurrent breath disasters? If you have access to a deep clean breath, see if you can take a deep breath and discover for yourself what arises when you ponder this question. I’d love to hear what you discover.
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