By Andrea Pascale, psychologist and psychotherapist
Ithaca, the end of a journey; Ulixes returns home from unknown worlds and incredible experiences, overwhelming, indecipherable… Yet he does not miss to recognize his father Laertes, old and worn out by his waiting. It is enough for him to stop and listen for a second to his slow breathing to reconnect with his origins, a sort of access code that can overcome any word for its immediacy and intensity. Homer uses a term, ψϋχή (psyche), which Socrates himself will use as one of the pillars of his philosophy: 'psyche', breath, vital blow, the soul.
Often happens that classical culture stores all the necessary elements we need to develop topics that deal with modern issues of which man is the center. It is fascinating to witness how four centuries before Christ, Greek civilization had already identified one of the deepest and essential aspects of a human being in the act of breathing. It is not difficult to detect how this so called 'vital blow' became today one of the archetypes – using a Jungian terminology – of all the principal modern religions, first of all the Catholic one, which describes the origin of life through its association with a 'divine breath', primordial and generative.
If we take a look at what happens in the evolutionary process of each one of us, it seems evident that the first request we are presented with by the world – without discounts nor mediations – is to breathe: our first breath represents the curtain call that we need to break through to enter the stage of our existence; it is a traumatic and terribly strong jump which defines the borderline between life and all that is not life and never will be. This very first great act, common to all newborns represents the immediate and constant confirmation of how human beings are organisms naturally prepared for their own development and self-realization. According to Carl Rogers, one of the most important modern psychologists, the first breath represents the inner strength strictly linked to the very essence of man, also known as self-actualizing tendency, which helps him to orient himself toward life and toward the maximum expansion of the possibilities of his organism.
It so happens, though, that that act so necessary and essential as much as automatic and instinctual is taken for granted and almost forgotten as we proceed in our existence. We unfortunately forget the anthropological meanings of which it is the symbol: the parallel between breathing, vital blow and soul introduced by Socrates shows us both the ancestral elements from a spiritual standpoint as well as the psychological charge this simple gesture carries along.
If we but think about it, the action of introducing air into our lungs represents an open channel towards the outside, the first and constant contact with what is "not I", the habit of bringing an external element directly inside of us, so much faster than eating… this is the primordial proof that there is an I and an external world different from I.
This differentiation leads the human being to perceive the first rudiments of his individualization as an organism that is not melted with its surroundings: this way the air he breathes in and out becomes the evidence of his entrance into the world and, at the same time, of his separation from it.
Breathing carries characteristics of protection from the outside: the act of breathing can be seen also as the creation of a cushion-space apt to soften the impact with the outside, a middle ground characterized by elements of mediation and elaboration of the outside shock, a medium between 'Self' and 'Non-Self'.
All this makes the promotion of a 'breathing culture' – so to speak – a duty and a necessity for us: a healthy, transversal and universal discipline able to bring our awareness on the importance of this precious internal asset. Through breathing we can get into a deep and truthful contact with ourselves; by knowing and understanding the respiratory act we can improve our physical performances; by educating and taming the behavior of the organs used for breathing we can better contain anxiety, fears, anguishes and start developing our true potentials, stretching our limits and improve our lives.
In order to do all this we need, nevertheless, to return to the depths of ancient cultures in order to avoid trivial approaches so easily met in a 'new age' filled world; only through a careful and sincere focus on our breathing we'll be able to get in touch with ourselves and meet our potentials: it is an act of devotion and it cannot be confused with superficial and ridiculous shortcuts sold in the market.
Let's finish up with the Iliad to close the circle: it was through Athena's divine 'breath' that Achilles saved himself from the deadly arrow stroke by Hector's hand.