Our lives are marked by breath. The first thing that happens when we leave the warm water of our mother’s body is the in breath. The very last thing we do, the thing that marks our passage from this world into the next, is the out breath. In between is a constant tide––inhale meeting exhale meeting inhale meeting exhale.

Last week, many of us watched video (and all of us heard reports) of a man’s desperate plea for breath. “I can’t breathe,” George Floyd cried, as a police officer held a knee to the back of his neck. “I can’t breathe.” This week, between fear of the breath-stealing Corona virus and the image of Floyd’s murder, few of us can think of anything else.

Ironically, we don’t usually think about breathing at all. Our bodies do the work for us. Until something goes awry––a stuffy room, a strenuous workout, a panic attack, asthma, a bout of Covid pneumonia, a pillow over your face, a canister of tear gas, or a knee on the back of your throat. This week, I’ve tried to be more mindful of my breath and, after many years of meditation practice, I’ve developed an entirely new appreciation for breathing.

Without the breath, we are nothing. We do nothing. We say nothing. The breath conveys our emotional state. It’s behind every word we say. And, it’s just as much the force behind every written utterance. For this week’s writing prompt, I invite you to rediscover that force.

Begin by setting a timer for five minutes. Sit quietly. Close your eyes. First notice the weight of your physical body in your chair. Then gradually bring your attention to your breath. Without trying to control it, simply pay attention to the shape of each breath—the length and depth of your inhale and exhale, its changing rhythm, the sound, the taste, and even the smell of your breath as your body carries on this most basic life function. When your timer goes off, bring your attention back to the rest of your body, and when you feel ready, open your eyes.

Now, some choices for writing:

  1. Write a scene recounting your first (or an early) memory in which you are suddenly aware of your breath. Where were you? What were you doing? Who was with you? How did you feel? In what ways did (or does) this experience inform your understanding about life and your relationship to the world and others in it?
  2. Write a scene with dialogue (fiction or memoir) in which breathing is central to one or more of the characters. Perhaps one character has had the wind knocked out of them, is having a panic attack, is giving birth, or breathing their final breaths. Or, perhaps, one of the characters displays their emotional state through the way in which they breathe their speech.