Feeling for the Trees

ImageI feel for the trees. A huge (120-150 foot) eucalyptus tree that lived for over one hundred years next to the Victorian house at 14th and Lakeside in Oakland blew down in the big windstorm we had about a month ago.

At Daré (Daré is a Shona word for Council and is a once-a-month gathering in Oakland open to everyone and dedicated to healing and peacemaking) held two weeks ago, someone spoke of the downed Eucalyptus tree that he had used as an anchor point when he jogged around Lake Merritt. To see it on the ground had stunned him. Walking amongst its downed branches, he could see beauty that had been too high for his eyes before—the patterns in the bark, the colors of the leaves. ImageSo much beauty on this earth takes place outside of our ability to perceive it. And yet, how often do we really look at what we are capable of seeing. We move so fast.

When a friend and I went to pay homage to the valiant tree last week, a feeling of immense vulnerability swept over me. That something so large and seemingly invincible could crash down that way. It could have taken some humans or their structures with it, but instead it fell onto a large magnolia tree (it is yet to be seen if that tree will survive) but not onto the road or the structures that stand nearby. It lay there, immense, broken, with its root ball exposed, its lifeblood, its lifetime of stories laid bare for all who cared to listen. We climbed down into the hole left by those roots and could see a rottenness at the core that must have contributed to the fall. Image

The tree seemed to have been perched on a rock (or at least very hard clay) at the middle of where it had stood. Now we could run our hands over exposed roots, intertwine them with our fingers and our minds. Was it the drought that caused this to happen? And how many more will fall before it is over? How many will they take with them? How much unseen suffering is happening right now to the trees?Image

Trees are a huge part of the respiratory system of our planet, taking in our carbon dioxide and through photosynthesis converting it into nutrients and oxygen so that some kind of balance of in-breath and out-breath can be maintained. Our future is caught up in the web of well being of trees. There was a time in most cultures when humans worshiped trees as sacred bridges between earth and sky. Trees are living beings which have the capacity to slow us down, to allow us to see inside of time as they span centuries as guardians of place. They provide constancy when so much is changing around us. And yet maybe that takes too much for granted as they, too, are vulnerable to disease, old age and drought.Image

Poet Morton Felix who passed away almost two years ago wrote these lines.

“This evergreen chill

spirals through lungs shaped like leaves

breathing its breath

upon being’s instrument.”

                                      From a poem entitled Autumn by Morton Felix

 

Being’s instrument. Isn’t that what we are as we live to breath (instead of breathing to live), fully inhabiting this instrument that is us? This breath, kept in a place of honor and primacy, connects us to all beings who live now, who have ever lived and those who are yet to come. And it places us directly at the roots of our fellow travelers, the trees, as they work to keep this planet in balance. We must not be cavalier with their lives—each and every one is a precious being, as is each and every human. How can we honor them, tend them, learn to understand their sacred language (see the book by A. T. Mann: The Sacred Language of Trees)?

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tree altar. (credit: Nicki Koethner)

 

In this new year, maybe we can all consciously notice the trees in our neighborhood and in our travels, spend extra time getting to know and appreciate them, breathe with them, talk to them and most of all, listen.

 

 

 

 

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They Can’t Take That Away From Me

If you’ve been reading these blogs, you know that I am reporting on the trip my friend Viviane and I took to visit National Parks and to see our great friend Connie on her 75th birthday. Connie and I go way back (more than thirty years). She was the co-founder of our non-profit organization called Art Between Us. But even before that, I never would have finished my first book The Emperor Has a Body without the discussions she and I had every Friday night for years.BookCoverSm We would meet and just talk, some gossip but mostly talking about ideas and how to make the world a better place. Since she moved to Albuquerque some 14 years ago, I have never found a replacement for that deep connection that she and I had. Art Between Us, The Spiral, Explorations in the Between and ensuing Spiral Gatherings which still continue, were amazing accomplishments that would not have materialized without her.SpiralCover Since Viviane is a major player in the Spiral Gatherings, it was fitting that she and I make it to pay homage to Connie on her 75th birthday.

The last installment of this blog brought us through Death Valley and to Tecopa Hot Springs. Next came a long tedious drive through Arizona to Holbrook, Arizona, near the New Mexico border.nat'l parks trip 9-13 (67)

The one happening worth reporting that day was when we stopped at a Rest Area. Outside the bathrooms, a Native American woman was displaying her stunning jewelry. On our way out, we looked at her wares and struck up a conversation. She lived on a reservation not far from there. We decided to buy Connie a necklace with a heart within a heart that had turquoise decoration but was made mainly of hematite; it was colorful and appealed to both of us. Before we had finished our transaction, a man flashed a sign to our seller that the cops were coming. Before we could complete our transaction, she grabbed up her stuff and ran into the restroom where we followed her. Evidently it is against the law to sell your wares that way at a rest stop. We sympathized with the woman, completed our transaction and left, wishing her well, having been witnesses to that harassment.

After passing a horribly stinky coal plant not too far from our destination, we arrived in Holbrook, Arizona to stay at a motel there. We reveled in the bath tub and re-charged all of our various electronic equipment. I couldn’t find my phone charger so had to keep the phone off the whole trip. My mother had had surgery the day we left so I was worrying about that on and off throughout the trip, calling for updates occasionally and just generally feeling too far away to be of any use.

The next morning we had a long conversation with the clerk at the motel while we were eating the breakfast they provided. He was an artist and filmmaker just working there to make ends meet. He told us of his plans to make documentaries and narrative films. Loved the title of his production company, Refrigerator Door Productions. He seemed to get in trouble with his bosses for not getting his work done properly. We slipped out so that he could concentrate on the business at hand.

We met Connie and her friend Karin in Grants, NM on September 28th, Connie’s seventy-fifth birthday between 11:30 and noon. Our plan was to eat lunch and then drive to Chaco Canyon. However, since the region had experienced 10 hours of rain a couple days before, the main roads were washed out and we would have had to go a long way around on bad roads to get there. Connie was afraid of the bumpiness of the drive and opted to just stay around Grants and the lovely hotel and relax. We had a nice lunch and then took a swim in the hotel’s indoor pool and a soak in their hot tub—we had it to ourselves.

For dinner, the hotel recommended a place they called the Bistro and we went in search of it. However, we drove by where we thought it was three times and could see nothing resembling the Bistro. We asked some people and finally found the restaurant which was actually called La Bella Vida. We were charmed the minute we entered the colorful and joyful place.

Every surface that could be painted, was painted in a naïve style. We were all dressed colorfully as well so we fit right in. Turned out that the restaurant has only been in business for one month and the owners, a couple, were there and available to speak with us about how the restaurant came to be. The site had been a restaurant before but had been unoccupied for seven years. The wife was the painter of the tables and pictures hanging on the wall and in the restrooms. They had a Navajo cook who was from the Acoma people nearby. He also came out and gave us his story about having learned Italian cooking and then going to Italy and staying with a family there to complete his studies. When he returned, he found that he could not work at say, an Olive Garden, because his creativity would be crushed. So this small place near his birthplace was perfect to allow his creativity to blossom. He began work at 7:00 am making the soups (the Minestone was fabulous) and was there when we left at about 8:30 pm. Our meals of eggplant parmesan and fettuccine were first rate. And they whole staff came out to sing happy birthday to Connie as she ate her gratis cannoli. It couldn’t have been more perfect.

nat'l parks trip 9-13 (70)We returned to the hotel and continued the celebration making a collaborative birthday card, having Tarot readings from Connie. Viviane and I then sang Connie our song based on the George Gershwin song, They Can’t Take That Away From Me with a rhythmic bridge that introduced the idea that if she thinks she’s old, she needs to just think of the bristlecone pines.

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She’s a Julep                                             September 28th, 2013

The way she throws down words

The way they fly like birds

The way she reaches our hearts

Chorus:

Oh, you can’t take that away from her

No, you can’t take that away from her

The way her eyes mesmerize

The way she swims with words

The way she sweeps us on our feet

Chorus

The way she southerns us up

She’s a julep with a sprig of mint

We have a thirst for her

Chorus:

…her away from us

…her away from us

The way she cat…alyzes

The way she conjures the muse

May she linger in lavender

Chorus:

…From her

…From her

2x Bristlecone, Bristlecone, Bristlecone Pine

4000 years of electric energy

Breathe the magic (audible breath)

Longevity is its sweet wine

Don’t let your energy be caught in a bind

Just think of, think of, the bristle cone pine.

[Riff with didgeridoo and voice: Standing tall and looking fine

Just think of the Bristlecone pine!]

Integration is making me wait

I am still dealing with my injured foot/ankle and feeling as if I need to tell more stories from the National Parks trip to allow myself to continue to absorb what we encountered in those sacred lands.nat'l parks trip 9-13 (29)

After meeting the Bristle Cone Pines (on a mountain between Mono Lake and Death Valley), our perspective on time had changed. If those trees had survived for 6000 years and they continued to learn and adapt, our bouts with the cold, wind, sun were such specks of sand in a desert. I began to feel the expansion of myself filling in the spaces between the trees and me—we weren’t so different. Maybe I had some Bristle Cone Pine in me and now that I had met them, I could get in touch with that part of myself that was timeless, enduring, and appreciative.

We made our way back down the mountain and continued to Lake Diaz to camp for the night. Lake Diaz was a bit strange and at first it looked like we would be camping right near the road but it turned out that the campsite was in a small oasis on the other side of the lake with trees and stiff breezes. We set up in a sheltered spot, hoping the winds would not blow us away or irritate us too much. There were very few other people there. nat'l parks trip 9-13 (37)

We  cooked and ate our dinner of polenta and soup and then admired the stars before curling up in the little tent and getting much needed sleep (the night before at Tuolumne neither of us slept much at all even though we were warm and cozy, but perhaps because of the excitement of starting such a trip, we couldn’t settle in).

We got going the next morning fairly early again, getting better at breaking camp and stowing our stuff (of which we had too much) in the car and moving out. We were near the entrance to Death Valley and the scenery demanded our constant attention as the terrain changed drastically from moment to moment—stark yet ever-changing desert, rock, mountain, valley, the subtle colors that Death Valley’s elements materialize so beautifully.

Just before we officially entered the park, up on a ridge above the valley, we stopped and Viviane collected larea, a strong anti-cancer plant. These plants were healthy and growing in this most magnificent place. A raven watched our every move as we collected the herbs.nat'l parks trip 9-13 (49)

Then down into the valley where one feels as if one is going back in time. The ancient is what rules the valley—no Congress or President can begin to think they can close or open this park—it wields true power. The sheer drops, the subtle colors, the expanses, the growth of an occasional Joshua Tree and larea plant or sage brush. nat'l parks trip 9-13 (39)Our clocks seem so puny there where so much has happened over such a long period of time. Even the Now cannot hold it. It is a place of yesterday, today and tomorrow all at once.

As we drove time telescoped and microscoped around us, a playground for the atomic and the galactic all at once.

At the Artist’s Drive where the mountains show off strange colors that look like a palette of different colors, strange blues and reds and oranges. Viviane stopped and painted a sketch of the area as I played the didge to it and to different rocks that were strewn about.   I discovered that volcanic rock seemed to have the strongest response (reverb) to my playing. nat'l parks trip 9-13 (62)The hungry winds quickly swallowed up the sounds of the didgeridoo. In such a place where my human form is diminutive and the place ancient and still, some ineffable part of me seeds itself into the surroundings and the boundaries separating me from the land, the animals and those who came before me, soften and spread out like shifting sand.

We were lucky that the temperatures were in the 80’s that day and not into the 90’s or 100’s as they often are. Their record for the summer was 128, six degrees shy of the top heat recorded in the Valley of 134 degrees.

Our timeline did not allow us to stay overnight in Death Valley, and we traveled on through to Tecopa Hot Springs on the south side of Death Valley. The campsite we found was challenging in many ways: gravel under the tent, no picnic table, surrounded by RV’s. But we made the most of soaking in private tubs containing the special mineral laden waters that underlay the area.

At about three in the morning we were disturbed by a drunk man and woman who came by to use the springs and who were noisy and vaguely threatening as they were swearing loudly and just seemed out of control especially to two women lying in a tent, vulnerable and awake. But they finally left without incident, and we tried to resume our night’s sleep. No one in the RV’s seemed to hear them.

The next morning in order to have our breakfast, we carted all of our stuff up to the building in which the hot springs were housed and took over the foyer there to cook. Since it was windy, we also rolled up the tent there and then had a morning soak before heading out for our longest day drive to Holbrook, Arizona, almost at the border to New Mexico.

Our aim was to get to Grants, New Mexico by noon the next day to meet our cohort Connie for her 75th birthday. Look someday for the U-tube video of us singing the song we wrote for Connie, inspired by both Connie and her creative life and by what we had been seeing along the way. It is called She’s a Julep and features a chorus that goes like this:

Bristle Cone, Bristle Cone, Bristle Cone Pine (repeat).

Don’t let your energy be caught in a bind,

Just think of, think of the Bristle Cone Pine.

Standing tall and feeling fine

Just think of, think of the Bristle Cone Pine.

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Not Another Step

???????????  For about a week, I have been on crutches, unable to put weight on my left ankle/foot. This situation has caused a forced shut down of my activities. I had been trying to get back to normal after a series of journeys this summer and fall, when my ankle began to hurt and then got steadily worse. The pain started after the ten day National Parks trip and before I went to Tennessee to assist my mother in her recovery from back surgery which was right before a week’s trip to the ocean.

As I wrote that last sentence I realized that all of this is about the mother, writ large and small. At the Bay Area Daré (a monthly gathering for healing and peace-making) on Sunday, I asked for healing work for myself. When asked to tell the story of this ankle/foot, I began with the silent retreat I attended at Mt. Tamalpais in August. The retreat, including sitting and walking meditation, took place outdoors among the redwood trees. Since I was born with a neuro-muscular disorder that affects the shape of my feet and thereby my balance, walking meditation has always been extra-challenging for me. It is only in recent years that I have attempted the walking meditation and this year found myself deriving a great deal of joy and satisfaction from it. My high arches make it so that not much of my foot touches the ground when I walk normally. But in the deliberateness of the walking meditation, I found that my feet were given time to spread out and touch more of the ground.  Each step became an offering to the earth and the earth seemed to be reciprocating. Image

At times it was as if I were dancing with the earth as I walked, a kind of one, two, three, waltz rhythm. I remember that rhythm following me into lunch where I continued to sway to that beat as I ate my food. Time flew by as my consciousness was invited into my feet where it so seldom lives. Feet kissing the earth, dancing with its rhythms, my mind quiet.

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Wupatki

I started the story there because it feels as if that shifting in my relationship with the earth mother was a watershed event. The next thing I knew I was on the National Parks trip for ten days and walking on sacred ground in the footsteps of ancestors who have honored that earth for hundreds of years—in Yosemite, Mono Lake, Bristle Cone Pine Forest, Death Valley, Chaco Canyon, Canyon De Chelly, Sunset Crater and Wupatki.

Upon my return, my foot/ankle began to hurt but I managed it and continued on.

Then suddenly I am in Tennessee with my mother helping her in her recovery from back surgery. This interlude did not put a lot of stress on my feet but demonstrated a way to give back to the mother who has given me so much. The back is the primary support system for the body as well as a primary nerve center. Feeling. Reciprocity.

Then to the ocean at Sea Ranch and to a Spiral Gathering and ritual there for the oceans and especially for healing the fallout from the Fukishima disaster that goes on and on and does not stop at any country’s borders. And walking the sands of that place, entering sea caves and playing didgeridoo for the rocks, the sea, the seaweed and the seals.elise in cave

And then suddenly, I cannot take another step, there is so much pain. Perhaps my feet are taking in the pain of the Mother Earth or I have absorbed so much from these places where I have stepped that I must stop until I can integrate all of that energy into this small human body and learn the lessons I am meant to learn and tell the stories I am meant to tell.

After I told my story at Daré, and after I lay flat on my back and was held by a circle of lovely people and their ancestors and after they had walked around me in a reverent and joyful slow meditative walk, I felt relieved of something that had been too much for one individual to hold. They were taking some of the weight as well.

The pain is gone now and I am gradually putting a little weight on my foot. And I am telling the stories here and will continue them in the next blogs. Now you, too, help me carry that joy and that load. We can all begin to walk again in a different way, sharing the pain and the joy of the earth mother, one foot after the other, giving and receiving.????????????????????

Sacred Lands

After traveling much of September and October, I have returned home and settled back into the routine. It’s hard to know where to begin to update readers on all that has happened.

I will start with a piece of the National Park’s trip. At the end of September, my friend Viviane and I went on a ten-day journey to visit sacred lands from California to New Mexico. The impetus for the trip was that I am working on a new novel called Here After which takes place in the months following 9-11. Some of the characters in the novel end up driving to New York from San Francisco in what becomes a pilgrimage to bring the wisdom of the sacred lands of this country to NYC and the devastation there. I found in writing it that I needed to visit these places in order to write about them. Thus, the trip.

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Berkeley camp entrance–burned trees

The first day, after driving through areas devastated by the fire, we landed in Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite. We had to find our camping legs rather quickly that night as Tuolumne Meadows turned out to be the coldest spot in the United States that night. We couldn’t hang around there long in the morning as we had far to go that day, but also it was too cold to dally.

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Tioga Pass

We continued through Tioga Pass down to Mono Lake where we stopped for viewing and to get our bearings and pay homage to those who worked so hard to save that precious lake from being drained by voracious water-users. Yes, we had attacks on this country in New York City, but how much devastation do we do to ourselves that goes almost unreported?  nat'l parks trip 9-13 (25)

Our main destination that day was the Bristle Cone Pine Forest, about an hour’s drive up a mountain from Route 395. It was well worth the extra driving as this forest is home to the world’s oldest living beings, the Bristle Cone Pines. They are 4000 to 6000 years old. I had not heard of these trees before a couple of weeks before we left on the trip when someone I met began telling me about a trip she was taking to the forest.  nat'l parks trip 9-13 (23)When I looked it up on the map and saw that we would be going right by there, we made a point of taking that detour to visit the trees.

As we walked around the forest and I played didgeridoo to some of the trees, I could feel an uncanny presence among them. Several times I looked over my shoulders, sure that some humans were coming up on us, only to see that there were just the trees. These trees have learned how to survive in very harsh conditions, high altitude, strong winds, extremes of hot and cold and poor soil.

nat'l parks trip 9-13 (31)nat'l parks trip 9-13 (32)Their presence felt watchful and full of gratitude for the interaction as they absorbed more than just nutrients from their roots. I could sense an openness to our presence, a way in which they may have been taking in even the small amount of energy we were offering them. Perhaps this is the evolutionary step that makes them able to survive on so little.

Maybe they have learned how to appreciate even the smallest gesture of connection, take it in, let it nurture them. I wanted to sit at their roots for long periods of time and to see if I could learn it too. This place could surely be a destination for the future.

Living to Breathe

Mask created at a Spiral Gathering

Mask collaboratively created at a Spiral Gathering

While driving, I turned off the radio to let my mind open up to a topic that has been of interest to me lately, didgeridoo and breathing. What came floating into me was this: Many people in Western culture breathe to live instead of living to breathe. My first reaction was that this thought was too radical–what in the world would it mean to live to breathe?

Then the rationale started to come. When we are anxious (according to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety is now the nation’s most common psychiatric complaint, affecting some 40 million people), we breathe in a shallow way, taking in the minimum oxygen required to live. It is as if by controlling our breathing, we feel we are controlling the situation. And breathing becomes a means to stay alive, nothing more. We limit air’s entry into us, limiting what comes all the way into us.

But what if?  What if the act of breathing deeply, allowing air into the center of ourselves is actually what connects us with all things? Oxygen, of course, has been produced by the plants and trees and provides us with a connection to the plant world. And then there is the element called argon, an inert gas that we breathe in and out without absorbing. Argon has been around since the atmosphere was first formed and because it is inert, it has been in and out of the lungs of people and animals on this planet for millennium.

In his book The Sacred Balance, Canadian scientist David Suzuki says”Your next breath will contain more than 400,000 of the argon atoms that Ghandi breathed in his long life. Argon atoms are here from the conversations at the Last Supper, from the arguments of diplomats at Yalta, and from the recitations of the classic poets.” And from the exhalations of dinosaurs, whales, and our grandmothers. Suzuki continues saying, “each breathe is a sacrament, an affirmation of our connection with all other living things, a renewal of our link with our ancestors and a contribution to generations yet to come… Air is a matrix that joins all life together, past and future as well as present. We inhale our ancestors and exhale into the lungs of our children.”  From the Green Interview–The Most Important Idea in the World – Sunday column, March 20, 2011 http://www.thegreeninterview.com/blog/most-important-idea-world-sunday-column-march-20-2011

My contribution to this conversation is that this air that we breathe, when we breathe deeply, can help to in-form us, to form us as connected beings. We then have access to the wisdom of the ages at our deepest core. Our culture is so visual that something like air which cannot be seen (unless it is so polluted that it has a color…), is over”looked” as an essential part of our being. But air is in our every cell. When we breathe deeply, we can feel that connection with the unseen that assists us in choosing right action in every moment. Anxiety’s shallow breathing tends to keep us from accessing that support, wisdom and, I might say, love.

When I am teaching didgeridoo and I demonstrate taking that deep breath that activates the diaphragm, I move into a place of great letting go and peace. I am not forcing the breath into my body, I am simply letting go to make space for breath to enter. That deep breath reminds me that I am not an isolated individual having to make it on my own, but am part of a huge matrix of past, present and future that is holding me, supporting me, keeping me from falling. When I take that breath, I know that I am held.

So living to breathe is not a far-fetched an idea; it is actually something to ease into that has the power to change how we stand in relation to this moment, this breath, this life, this planet and all that we encounter here. Try it on and let me know how it fits for you.

Fear Less

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Steep Ravine

My intention is to create a series of blogs that have to do with creating space in our lives through the awareness of the breath.

The longer I teach didgeridoo (Australian Aboriginal instrument that creates a drone) , the more I learn that this instrument is truly an instrument of peace and spaciousness (see Sound Rivers.net). On one level it is merely a physical act of blowing through a tube to make a sound; on another, it is an act that brings one fully and consciously into the moment.

Last night I went to a dharma talk at the Insight Meditation Community of Berkeley http://www.insightberkeley.org (Bancroft near Martin Luther King Jr. Way) where Donald Rothberg was the guest dharma teacher. His topic was fear. Overactive fear has long been a damaging feature on the landscape of this country. Since 9-11 that feature has become even more pronounced in our government and in the individuals living here. Take the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case and our acquiescence to surveillance by our own government as recent evidence of the fear we walk around holding.

Rothberg spoke of the way fear can enter our bodies and lodge there so that when it arises, there may be no story attached at all, just intensely uncomfortable body sensation. Our minds might then create a story to account for the sensation, perhaps we find an enemy to go after to alleviate that horrible sensation. One way that he has found to deal with irrational fear is to send out metta or lovingkindness, thus transforming the energies of fear. Fear cannot exist in the midst of lovingkindness.

Yes and let’s find more ways as well to work with the body, not just the mind. I have found that on at least two levels the didgeridoo works with these very energies and transforms them into deep peace and a feeling of at easeness with the universe. The low drone itself surrounds and holds the body, allowing it to relax. And circular breathing requires diaphragmatic breathing that cannot co-exist with anxiety.

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Elise playing agave didgeridoo

When we breathe shallowly, using just the upper lungs, we are straining to try to control the universe and how much of it we will let in. Most people in western culture routinely breathe in a shallow way that keeps the breath out of our deepest selves. It is a kind of breath that says to the universe, “mind your own business; I’ve got things under control here.” When we have the wherewithal to let that breath in deeply, the anxious need for control vanishes. Then a way to connect with whatever situation is at hand arises in the now, not in a fear-based story about the future.

The in-breath is a gift from the universe, the out-breath what we offer back to the universe. By taking the breath fully into our deepest places through a process of letting go, we give the breath a chance to transform us so that what we offer is not just our own agenda, but a conduit for harmony.

Deep breathing goes to the place where we connect with other humans, with our place in the ecosystem, with other creatures, and with our ancestors. It is a cornucopia of resources. And yet how often do we get there? Some of us, only in our dreams (making dreams even more crucial to our lives).

Why is sleep apnea so prevalent in this culture? Could it be because we are so unused to allowing breath to ful/fill us that even in sleep we find ways to shut it down? Perhaps this is why the only cure for sleep apnea that is known is circular breathing and why it is so difficult for many to learn it. Circular breathing is not just a technique, it is a deep letting go of fear.