In my profession as a hospice social worker, I frequently encounter people at the very end of their life.
It is not uncommon at the beginning of service to hear a family voice concerns about how soon their loved one will die.
It is a popular misconception that once a person is admitted to hospice they only have days to live. In truth, many of our patients live for longer than the six months predicted at admission.
Hospice nurses identify patients with only days to live as imminent. Patients in this stage of life display a variety of physical and mental changes as they decline.
One of the most significant is a change in breathing pattern. As the body’s vital organs slow down, the frequency of breaths changes, and dying individuals experience long pauses in breathing called apnea.
As the decline proceeds, the pauses between breaths lengthen until the breathing stops altogether.
I think it is our dependence on breathing that guided early spiritual seekers to utilize this process as a means of spiritual development.
In Buddhism, a common meditation instruction to practitioners is to follow the breath with their mind. Specifically, the meditator is encouraged to identify the sensations of the breath as it enters the body through their nostrils.
The meditator then will continue following the sensations as the belly expands out and then contracts during exhalation. Lastly, there is the awareness of air being released through the nose or mouth.
There is a Zen Buddhist story that highlights the overlooked importance of breathing:
A Zen student was complaining to his teacher that the instruction to watch his breath was too boring. The Zen master took the student roughly by the back of his robes, dragged him over to a nearby stream and pushed the student’s head underwater. He held his impudent student’s head under the surface for a very long time. Upon pulling the gasping student’s head out of the water, the Zen teacher demanded to know, if his student still thought watching his breath was boring?
Breathing is not something we normally think about. In our day-to-day lives, breathing is one of those automatic body functions that our brain manages well without any conscious effort.
It is only when we experience changes in our normal breathing through physical exertion, stress or illness that we begin to pay it any attention at all.
Buddhism, and the science of stress reduction, teach us that we can improve the quality of our lives by paying attention to our breathing.
When undergoing stressful experiences, our bodies will automatically engage in what is known as a flight or fight response. This survival response is meant to protect us by pumping up our ability to respond to threats through the release of hormones and increases in heart and respiratory rate. Our primitive ancestors depended on this physical adaptation for survival.
Unfortunately, many of us encounter chronic stressors that initiate flight or fight response on a regular basis, and this can have a negative effect on our health.
Dissatisfaction at work, financial insecurity, unhealthy personal relationships, discrimination because of race, gender, religion or sexual orientation are all triggers for chronic stress effects.
Luckily, there is an ancient, simple way for everyone to better manage their stress. By just stopping for a moment and bringing our attention to the quality of our breathing, we can reduce our stress levels.
Stress reduction studies have shown that deeper breathing slows our heart rate and increases feelings of relaxation. We do not need to have our heads plunged into a cold mountain stream to rediscover the healing power of breathing.
Breathe in. Breathe out.
Today’s Insights was written by Kunga Nyima, coordinator of the St. Joseph Buddhist Sangha. Insights is written by area clergy to give different viewpoints on a variety of topics. It is published each Saturday in cooperation with the Berrien County Association of Churches. The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of member churches.