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I've been writing to you for a year now. I am in the pursuit of understanding survival (its shape, its logic, its ethics, its limits). How does life adamantly continue to find a way? In 2018, I went down many disparate rabbit holes of thought pursuing answers. Reading was my primary vehicle for understanding.
But as Arab scholar Al-Ghazali once said, knowing is different from being. In many of my forthcoming essays, I will recount my own ongoing experiments in understanding.
I think many of you will find their quality interesting, perhaps in some ways more interesting than the pedantic, armchair quality of my previous twenty essays.
So give this one a read. If you don't like these emails, please unsubscribe. I'd rather have a small and active group of participants rather than a large and passive one.
What Is a Ritual
A ritual is a recurring pattern of behavior that arises under particular circumstances. Man is a set of rituals, conscious and unconscious, and yet he believes he is in control of his fate. Humanity is a dance of colliding sets of rituals.
We are pushed along the timeline of our existences through the rituals of instinct, desire, emotion, and thought. Many of us believe we may have transcended such irrational mechanics, yet we "reasonable" men of intellect, too, are governed by ritual.
We desperately cling to the belief of control. Our ignorance of unconscious rituals makes us more robotic than autonomous. We pity those caught in destructive loops, but we are so slow to notice those same ones in ourselves.
I'm not trying to erase ritual. My intuitions tell me ritual is the key to understanding the rhythm of life. But I'm definitely in the business of excavating and examining my rituals. So here we go.
I've been studying the ritual of breathing for a while. Here are some preliminary notes from my "research."
The Ritual of Breathing
Everyone breathes until they don't.
The rate of breathing varies. I feel anxiety, and my body clutches desperate for air.
The depth of breathing varies. I am deskbound, receiving and responding to messages, texts, emails, and calls. I am pulled to respond to what others push. How shallow my breath has become.
The balance of breathing varies. In my frustration, I expel breath; in my concentration, I compel breath back into me.
The Inner Fire
The "Iceman" Wim Hof introduced me to tummo, the Tibetan meditation of the inner fire. A series of deep inhales and deep exhales, followed by the holding of the breath.
I slowly slip into a blurred state, and the distinction between myself and my surroundings melts. I assume a plank position and perform fifty pushups, which arrive effortlessly.
My breath is still held. I wonder how this is possible, how I do not yet beg for the ritual gasping for life. Science explains this as the activation of mitochondria, thanks to our breath, and the production of energy (heat, fire). The Iceman employed this technique to scale Mount Everest wearing nothing but a pair of shorts.
Do your preferences and your desire for optimal conditions liberate you, or do they confine you? For even the way you breathe can provide you the warmth of wool, the calm of a cigarette drag. Do you always need that jacket, that phone, and that map to find your way?
The Endless Breath
Pir Vilayat Khan introduced me to the endless breath. "Beneficence" as new breath enters, "realization" as it begins to turn back outwards, "centeredness" as it exits fully, and you (for a moment) feel yourself "vanish" as the expelled air turns back around again into you.
The world is continuous, like the surface of a sphere. But our egoes and our plans and our technologies prefer that the world be a collection of discrete entities -- measurable, computable, predictable, legible, categorizable.
The endless breath, when does it begin and where does it end? I breathe in, and my breath turns around so I can breathe out. The Breath turns around again so I can breathe again.
Where do you begin and end? Are you Ammar the Wise One, the Smart-Ass, the Cynic, the Contrarian, the Try-Hard, the Son, the Brother, the Husband, the Creative, the Friend, the Aloof, the Engineer, the Artist, the Writer, the Lover, the Thinker, the Adventurer, the Social Climber, the Questioner, the Student, the Employee, the Citizen, the Muslim, the Heretic, the Non-believer?
What a vast collection of discrete Ammars, and none of them quite right. An illusion to break. The breath does not end, even though you stopped paying attention.
George Gurdjieff introduced me to the act of "self-remembering." As you eat, observe Eating eating, Digesting digesting, Observing observing. There is that which is you beyond the sense machine collecting perceptions and the symbol machine sifting through classifications.
I sit and hold my breath. I begin to tremble and clutch for more life force. This time, I allow myself to struggle. My throat spasms, my diaphragm contracts, my chest heaves.
My mind pleads to end the suffering. Yet I persist. I relax deeper into observation. Initially, this induced fear. And typically now it induces frustration, as I keep gasping for breath. But sometimes, an involuntary smile stretches my face. How funny, how brilliant, this struggle.
This is life's will to survive. All it needs is a single breath! All this suffering, when all we wanted was a single breath.
But if my body and my mind are pleading me to allow new breath, who am I if not my body or my mind? This puzzle remains unsolved.
Breath is a ritual, breath is survival. You don't need much, but you do need to find your breath. It is endless, it is your fire, and it is your window.
I do not fully understand this, but I think I am beginning to understand.
Some books/references guiding the above:
Happy Thursday and until next time. As always, all feedback is greatly appreciated, however big or small.
- Al-Ghazali, "The Path to Sufism: His Deliverance from Error"
- Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, "Awakening"
- PD Ouspensky, "In Search of the Miraculous"
- Wim Hof, "The Way of the Iceman"
- Mircea Eliade, "Yoga: Immortality and Freedom"
- Nyogen Senzaki, "Zen Flesh, Zen Bones"