Breathing all the time, we seldom think of what it means. We’re too busy and preoccupied to remember how our breath, our Life, depends on an ancient and beautiful biosphere. Mindful Biology, as a practice, reminds us to slow down and appreciate our true situation as human organisms.
We live embedded in a sea of air. Oxygen constitutes about a fifth of the atmosphere that surrounds us, and it is the gas most central to our ability to move and imagine. Remember that oxygen is given to us by photosynthesis. Plants and algae release it as a waste product as they convert carbon dioxide (our own waste gas) into water and sugar.
Imagine photons bursting into existence deep within the Sun. Because the surroundings are so dense with matter and energy, the light takes from several thousand to a million years to reach the surface of our star. From there, it’s a mere eight minutes to Earth. The photons pour down onto the leaves of trees and other plants, where complex molecules absorb the light, convert it into electrical energy, and thence into highly reactive chemicals that lead to the production of sugar and other substances of of life. In the process, oxygen is released through tiny pores in the leaves.
With your next in-breath, remember that the air you breath connects you to the plants on earth and the power of the sun. Feel the air at your nostrils. Notice how it is slightly cool and bracing as it enters. Exhaled air, in contrast, feels warm and moist. For a few breaths, observe this subtle change in sensation around your nostrils: cool and fresh on the inhale, warm and moist on the exhale.
Now follow that sensation higher into the nasal passages. In tall but narrow spaces between and below your eyes, air moves through your skull. It flows over a folded surface of nasal mucosa, which filters, warms, and humidifies it. As you tune into the sensation in these spaces, you can find that same alternation of cool freshness on inhalation and warm humidity on exhalation.
See if you can track that alternation further back, into the pharynx that connects nose and mouth. Can you feel the the lively coolness at the back of your throat on the inhalation? Can you feel the soothing warmth on exhalation?
It is even possible to follow such changes deeper, past the larynx (voicebox) and into the upper chest. The alternation becomes exquisitely subtle, but there is still a shift in flavor of sensation between incoming and outgoing breaths.
Using your imagination, you can follow the air all the way down, visualizing it in contact with the surfaces of your alveoli, the little air sacs where oxygen is absorbed into your blood and carbon dioxide released. In aggregate, the total surface stretched out would be about the size of a tennis court. Remember how gas exchange connects you in the most intimate way with the surrounding sea of air, and by extension to photosynthesis in forests and seas, and nuclear fusion within the sun.
See if you can visualize this oxygen flowing to your feet and hands, ankles and wrists, knees and elbows, hips and shoulders. It flows throughout your torso and up into your head and neck. As it is used to ‘burn’ sugars and other chemicals from food you’ve eaten, it lends vitality to your limbs and to the organs in your pelvis, abdomen, and chest.
In complex ways that are far from completely understood, the oxygen that flows through your bloodstream energizes your brain and supports the very awareness that allows you to feel and imagine as you move through this meditation. Thus, oxygen and energy that plants and algae liberate–using light from the sun–power the ever-changing sensations in your human body and the ever-fascinating experiences of Life.
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