I was led to reflect on the act of breathing from three different directions in my life. My tutor at Oxford, Peter Matthews was a neurphysiologist, but he organised four exceedingly enjoyable tutorials with Dan Cunningham, a respiratory physiologist. It was astonishing to learn of the monitoring of carbon dioxide levels in the blood, both by peripheral receptors in the aorta and carotid arteries as well as more centrally in the brainstem. Looking back, I cannot think why I didn’t ask about the cortical control of respiration with the striated (ie voluntary) muscles of the diaphragm and thorax responsive to the intention of someone wishing to override the reflexes driven by peripheral sensors. One could do interesting experiments on oneself. For example, if one over-breathes, that is breathes rapidly and forcibly for a few minutes, one can lower one’s blood carbon dioxide level, and by reducing the reflex drive to take a breath, hold one’s breath for longer. I found I could hold my breath for twenty seconds longer by this means. My takeaway, unsurprising in a future psychiatrist, was that the border between what one could do through effort and what one was no longer able to do was uncertain. To move from physiology to psychology, (which I have always been prone to do), when the chips are down, most of us surprise ourselves by finding we can do more than we hitherto thought was possible. A second way I was encouraged to think about respiration was when I attended some Buddhist meetings and retreats. Being invited to sit and follow (important word) my inspiration and expiration seemed to open spaces and connections within me, even though I never became especially proficient in the technique. Thirdly, as a practising psychiatrist, I sometimes helped a patient to abreact painful and repressed feelings from past trauma. The catharsis was often accompanied by a deep and sighing respiration, not unlike sobbing. It was as though the memeory had been held in the muscles for years.
Rilke has written brilliantly about breathing. He is sensitive to the cycles of inspiration and expiration as more than a metaphor, a mimesis of life and death, and links them to the seasons from spring to winter. Also, and this is perhaps the most important insight I take from Rilke, he recognises how breathing connects us with everything and disconnects us from everything. But the connectedness contains the disconnectedness, or that at least is his hope. The first poem of the second part of the Sonnets to Orpheus, is said to be the last poem he wrote in the sequence. This makes perfect sense, concluding as it does with a question which is also an effort of faith – to paraphrase ‘Do you, vast world still remember tiny me and the mark I make through being here?’ The poem II,1 of Sonnets to Orpheus follows:-
Breathing, you invisible poem! Again and again I trade with the pure repelenishing void. Counterweight against whom rhythmically I beat. Single wave, whose swelling sea I am; you, least of all possible seas, - a breath won from the air. How many parts of space have already been within me? Often a wind is like my own son. Do you know me, sky, still full of places once mine? You who were then the smooth bark, round limb and leaf of my words.