Breathe.

We breathe in, and breathe out, thousands of times, every day. We don’t have to think about it.  Our bodies do it automatically.  Prompted by a complex physiology of which we might be dimly aware, our chests rise and fall – our lungs inhale and exhale, expanding and emptying – oxygen is absorbed into our bloodstream, carbon dioxide flows out of our nostrils.

As humans, we can live for quite some time without food, much less time without water; but for mere minutes without breathing.  Quite simply, it is necessary for us to breathe in order to live.

We breathe in, and out, until we don’t.  Breath is ever-present, until it isn’t.

Seared into our collective consciousness now are the last words of George Floyd, ‘I can’t breathe’ as his life was brutally ended on an ordinary day in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Just as Eric Garner’s life ended, his breath taken away. As it has been for tens of hundreds of thousands of men and women whose lives have been brutally taken from them, the same words cried out or silent.  Now those words are repeated by millions around the country who march and chant, fists raised in the air.

I can’t breathe.

Marchers wear masks, so what is breathed out doesn’t become what the person standing next to them breathes in. Because we are in the time of a pandemic, when anyone might, at any time, be contaminated; be a toxin to the stranger or lover a few inches, or feet, away. 

But you have to breathe to march and chant.  You cannot hold your breath.

Those who march know that, in this pandemic, people with the same color skin as George Floyd are dying in far greater numbers than people with skin the color of Derek Chauvin.   And hospitals for brown skinned people have fewer respirators and ICU beds for patients.

I can’t breathe.

People with skin the color of George Floyd go to prison in far greater numbers, and serve more time in solitary confinement, than people with the same color skin as the officers who witnessed his killing.

I can’t breathe.

And more people with skin the color of George Floyd live close to power plants, incinerators, refineries, and transportation hubs than people with white skin.  The air reeks, and is filled with particulates laden with toxins.  Asthma afflicts children, and the elderly.  Heat waves press down hard, especially on some urban neighborhoods lacking trees and parks, raising the temperatures even higher .

I can’t breathe.

Humans can breathe only because we are breathed by a complex interconnected system involving the atmosphere, plants, animals, and oceans.  Animal life breathes in oxygen and breathes out carbon dioxide; plant life does the opposite.  Oceans absorb carbon dioxide, seaweed releases oxygen.  This balance of respiration is critically important for all life.  We are interconnected through our breaths, and we breathe together into a shared atmosphere.  In the intricate, delicately balanced systems of life on Earth, we need one another to survive, and to thrive.

Our call now is to understand that this same lesson of interconnectedness stands before us in the world of human beings:  we are interconnected, whether we know one another or not, whether we see one another or not, regardless of skin color, or socially-constructed racial identity.  Our collective survival, our species’ well-being, depends on reconstructing our ways of doing and being so that we can all thrive

Until everyone can breathe – with the fullness of health and the freedom granted by true safety – none of us can breathe.

This reflection was written by the Rev. Alison Cornish for our June 2020 newsletter.


8 minutes 46 seconds.

As an ebbing and flowing community of practice, a number of us have been gathering on alternate Tuesday evenings to work our way “Around the Spiral.”  On June 9th, after a short practice rooting us in gratitude, and small groups honoring our pain for the world, Alison shared Breathing Through, a breath meditation led by the teacher Joanna Macy as our Seeing with New Eyes practice.  The practice itself is almost exactly 8 minutes and 46 seconds long.  Alison herself reported using it daily, with that consciousness —grateful for the tool of allowing breath, and the enormous feelings that are surfacing in our country and world right now to enter, and also to flow through.  The text of the meditation is available here


See more at PA IPL’s home page blog.