On breathing, sleeping, and being (aware) better.
From around puberty or so, until I was only a little younger than I am now, my internal struggles seemed many and mysterious and pronounced. I felt them all in there, somewhere, scattered about like a sort of spiritual buckshot, but I had no map or sense of direction. I didn't know their origins, or where to start looking for them, or even if doing so would be worthwhile. I hadn't a clue where to begin focusing my efforts. I just had these "bad" feelings that I carried around and did my best to alleviate.
From my teens through my twenties, I poured most of those mysteries into music, making it and listening to it, both of which helped greatly, but only while I was doing them. By my early thirties I'd added writing to my arsenal, which gave me a more tangible means for finding shape and direction and clarity in things. Whereas music often counters life's painful mysteries with palliative ones, writing seems to hold answers to those and other mysteries, answers that very often reveal themselves if one puts in the work, and puts enough things in order.
This remains true for me today. What I've added to my arsenal in the last few years is my increased, daily focus on mindfulness and related fundamental skills, states, processes and conditions that, coupled with writing, have given me the maps I’ve long been after for being a better-feeling, better-thinking, and more effective human being.
I fuck up all the time. I let my emotions get the best of me. Or I say the wrong thing. Or I allow my ego lead me astray. But I'm more aware of it now than I've ever been. And, more often than not, I know what to do about it. Again, knowing what to do does not always equate to successfully doing it. But I'm trying. And without that base level of awareness, my efforts would inevitably be, as they long were, little more than shots in the dark.
One of my more prominent remaining struggles seems to be my desire for others to see the lights I've seen. I don't want everyone to simply agree with me on everything. I know I'm a constantly changing lump of cells and flaws and thoughts and feelings and missteps. So no. I don't want that. In fact, I am fairly begging you right now to challenge me and my ideas and those of others. But what I do want is for as many of this planet's inhabitants as possible to be operating from the purest place of awareness they can reach and sustain.
Imagine how many of the social issues we now face would be helped by this, regardless of your particular views on them, regardless of which side you're on or have been placed. Imagine how things might improve if more of us operated from a place of greater nuance and reason and compassion and compromise, and of lesser raw emotion and hatred for those amorphous "others" positioned on one of the myriad "other sides." Imagine how things might improve if the majority of us placed a far greater emphasis on simply being effective in our more honorable efforts. Regardless of where you or I stand on things today, we could all be more effective, and we could all do away with some of our more defective actions, which, however well-intentioned they might be, are ultimately making us less effective in achieving our goals. And we could all get on this path together right now by simply trying to be more aware in the next minute than we were in the previous one.
Two other fundamentals that virtually one hundred percent of people could start working on right now is an ability to breathe and sleep better. There's no shortage of methodology and science-backed evidence out there to guide any one of us (on YouTube alone). But if you have the means, I highly recommend the books Breath by James Nestor and Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker.
Everyone knows the difference that simply sleeping well can make in one’s days. But I think our collective failure to breathe properly, and the numerous consequences therein, is less widely known.
[Before I go any further with this thought, I encourage you to try the following basic exercise a few times and see how it makes you feel: breathe in for the count of four, hold for the count of four, breathe out for the count of four, hold for the count of four, repeat.]
Breathwork—along with yoga and meditation—has become an essential part of my daily routine. I've written about this before, and so I won't go into detail here again. But for all of the problems in this world—many of which seem to be improving despite the feelings of hopelessness, dread, urgency and intractability pervading the land—breathing and sleeping well are two core human deficiencies that most of us have and can actually do something about right now. Alone. Without asking anything of anyone else. And without seeking to change the world, or any individual culture or society or country, though it might also help to move us some steps in those directions.
Brian Leli, December 2020
A while back, some 4 billion years ago, our earliest ancestors appeared on some rocks. We were small then, a microscopic ball of sludge. And we were hungry. We needed energy to live and proliferate. So we found a way to eat air.
The atmosphere was mostly carbon dioxide then, not the best fuel, but it worked well enough. These early versions of us learned to take this gas in, break it down, and spit out what was left: oxygen. For the next billion years, the primordial goo kept doing this, eating more gas, making more sludge, and excreting more oxygen.
Then, around two and a half billion years ago, there was enough oxygen waste in the atmosphere that a scavenger ancestor emerged to make use of it. It learned to gulp in all that leftover oxygen and excrete carbon dioxide: the first cycle of aerobic life.
Oxygen, it turned out, produced 16 times more energy than carbon dioxide. Aerobic life forms used this boost to evolve, to leave the sludge-covered rocks behind and grow larger and more complex. They crawled up to land, dove deep into the sea, and flew into the air. They became plants, trees, birds, bees, and the earliest mammals.
Mammals grew noses to warm and purify the air, throats to guide air into lungs, and a network of sacs that would remove oxygen from the atmosphere and transfer it into the blood. The aerobic cells that once clung to swampy rocks so many eons ago now made up the tissues in mammalian bodies. These cells took oxygen from our blood and returned carbon dioxide, which traveled back through the veins, through the lungs, and into the atmosphere: the process of breathing.
The ability to breathe so efficiently in a wide variety of ways—consciously and unconsciously; fast, slow, and not at all—allowed our mammal ancestors to catch prey, escape predators, and adapt to different environments.
It was all going so well until about 1.5 million years ago, when the pathways through which we took in and exhaled air began to shift and fissure. It was a shift that, much later in history, would affect the breathing of every person on Earth.
James Nestor, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art
Over several months leading up to the Stanford experiment [a "20-day study at Stanford University to test the long-held belief that the pathway through which we breathe—nose or mouth—is inconsequential"], I visited with several Buteyko teachers and other low-breathing devotees. They told me the same story, of how they’d been plagued by some chronic respiratory illness that no drug or surgery or medical therapy could fix. Of how they all “cured” themselves with nothing more than breathing less. The techniques they used varied, but all circled around the same premise: to extend the length of time between inhalations and exhalations. The less one breathes, the more one absorbs the warming touch of respiratory efficiency—and the further a body can go.
This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Nature functions in orders of magnitude. Mammals with the lowest resting heart rates live the longest. And it’s no coincidence that these are consistently the same mammals that breathe the slowest. The only way to retain a slow resting heart rate is with slow breaths. This is as true for baboons and bison as it is for blue whales and us.
“The yogi’s life is not measured by the number of his days, but the number of his breaths,” wrote B. K. S. Iyengar, an Indian yoga teacher who had spent years in bed as a sickly child until he learned yoga and breathed himself back to health. He died in 2014, at age 95.
I’d hear this repeated over and over again by Olsson during our early Skype chats and again throughout the Stanford experiment. I’d read about it in Stough’s research. Buteyko and the Catholics, Buddhists, Hindus, and 9/11 survivors were aware of it as well. By various means, in various ways, in various eras of human history, all these pulmonauts discovered the same thing. They discovered that the optimum amount of air we should take in at rest per minute is 5.5 liters. The optimum breathing rate is about 5.5 breaths per minute. That’s 5.5-second inhales and 5.5-second exhales. This is the perfect breath.
Asthmatics, emphysemics, Olympians, and almost anyone, anywhere, can benefit from breathing this way for even a few minutes a day, much longer if possible: to inhale and exhale in a way that feeds our bodies just the right amount of air, at just the right time, to perform at peak capacity.
To just keep breathing, less.
James Nestor, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art
When I was a child in the 1980s, I went on vacation to Greece with my family. As we walked the streets of the major metropolitan Greek cities we visited, there were signs hanging in storefront windows that were very different from those I was used to back in England. They stated: open from nine a.m. to one p.m., closed from one to five p.m., open five to nine p.m.
Today, few of those signs remain in windows of shops throughout Greece. Prior to the turn of the millennium, there was increasing pressure to abandon the siesta-like practice in Greece. A team of researchers from Harvard University’s School of Public Health decided to quantify the health consequences of this radical change in more than 23,000 Greek adults, which contained men and women ranging in age from twenty to eighty-three years old. The researchers focused on cardiovascular outcomes, tracking the group across a six-year period as the siesta practice came to an end for many of them.
As with countless Greek tragedies, the end result was heartbreaking, but here in the most serious, literal way. None of the individuals had a history of coronary heart disease or stroke at the start of the study, indicating the absence of cardiovascular ill health. However, those that abandoned regular siestas went on to suffer a 37 percent increased risk of death from heart disease across the six-year period, relative to those who maintained regular daytime naps. The effect was especially strong in workingmen, where the ensuing mortality risk of not napping increased by well over 60 percent.
Apparent from this remarkable study is this fact: when we are cleaved from the innate practice of biphasic sleep, our lives are shortened. It is perhaps unsurprising that in the small enclaves of Greece where siestas still remain intact, such as the island of Ikaria, men are nearly four times as likely to reach the age of ninety as American males. These napping communities have sometimes been described as “the places where people forget to die.” From a prescription written long ago in our ancestral genetic code, the practice of natural biphasic sleep, and a healthy diet, appear to be the keys to a long-sustained life.
Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams
Why were the emotion centers of the brain so excessively reactive without sleep? Further MRI studies using more refined analyses allowed us to identify the root cause. After a full night of sleep, the prefrontal cortex—the region of the brain that sits just above your eyeballs; is most developed in humans, relative to other primates; and is associated with rational, logical thought and decision-making—was strongly coupled to the amygdala, regulating this deep emotional brain center with inhibitory control. With a full night of plentiful sleep, we have a balanced mix between our emotional gas pedal (amygdala) and brake (prefrontal cortex). Without sleep, however, the strong coupling between these two brain regions is lost. We cannot rein in our atavistic impulses—too much emotional gas pedal (amygdala) and not enough regulatory brake (prefrontal cortex). Without the rational control given to us each night by sleep, we’re not on a neurological—and hence emotional—even keel.
Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams