I came across a concept in David Abram’s wonderful book on language and perception, The Spell of the Sensuous, that I had heard before, but was now given extra depth and dimension.

Our word “psyche”, which is now used for all things involving the state of our mind or spirit, comes from the ancient Greek word psychê, which signifies “soul” but also signifies “breath” or a “gust of wind”. The Greek noun was derived from the verb psychein, which meant “to breathe” or “to blow”. Another Greek word for “air, wind, and breath”, pneuma, also (and at the same time) means “spirit”. And we find that again in our word respiration, from the Latin word spiritus.

There is more to breathing than meets the eye, apparently. Other cultures know this as well and have never forgotten. As a qigong practitioner, I am aware that the breath holds the qi, the energetic essence of life. When we breathe in, we are bringing qi into our bodies. When we breathe out, we breathe out that which we must let go of.

When you stop to think of it: we breathe carbon dioxide out, which the trees and plants breathe in as necessary nutrients for their survival. And they breathe oxygen out, which we need to breathe in, in order to live. We are connected to the natural, more-than-human, world in more ways than we sometimes realize.

And, alas, we produce more carbon dioxide than simply by breathing, which disturbs the balance of nature and the earth. Some of us search for a way to bring the balance back. Some of us grow angry and depressed because it seems to have gone too far for any possibility of recovery. And some of us either aren’t aware of the problem or have lost the connection so thoroughly that they simply don’t care.

But the connection is there, for anyone to experience who can stop doing for a moment and be in the present, in the natural world.

The world is my altar

The world is my altar

I do not keep an altar in my home, these days. I don’t feel it necessary. My daily practice consists of stepping outside and feeling this connection to all that lives and breathes. I breathe in awareness of the present, the feeling of the air against my skin, the rustling of leaves and fluttering of birds, the smell of the earth under my feet. I breathe out my gratitude, my sorrow, my fears, and my prayers. And I breathe in again, listening, feeling, receiving…

So, whenever the world feels too overwhelming, please do not hold your breath. Not only do you need your breath, the world does too.


  1. Mary Lou Gillette

    Dear Maddi,
    I have just returned from a day long retreat on pain management. The event was held outdoors under the welcoming shade of a truly immense California Oak tree on our beautiful Ardenwood estate here in Fremont. Therapists trained in dance and physical therapies coached us throughout the day. A great deal of time was spent on breathing and releasing what was painful to us. I was always aware of the comforting, “mombrella-like” canopy above, and so, when I returned home and read your post, I marveled at what you had written!
    I enjoy all your posts, Maddi. I don’t know if my comments ever get to you from here? I hope so! Love, Malou

    • Madeleine Lenagh

      Yes, I do read and enjoy them, Malou! But I’m not sure you read my answers so I will send you a seperate email this time.

  2. Hi Maddi,
    good to read about breathing – in and out … An African colleague from years back always replied to my questions about how he was doing: “still breathing …” which I thought was to the point but also very funny.
    Another thing I once read which fascinated me, was the idea that the air that I breathe in now, has been touched by people in the past – maybe a few years back, maybe hundreds of years. If you look at it at molecular level, we all are made of molecules that have been someone else, a tree, a grain of sand – whatever. Which again ties us back into this earth in so many ways!
    Love, Wilma

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