Breath of Life

So many estoteric traditions and magical practices make use of the power of breath. But what to do when even your normal ability to breathe is hampered by indoor and outdoor pollutants?

The ability to breathe is fundamental to most life on this planet. For almost thirty years, almost half my life, I have struggled to breathe freely, to breathe clean air. Now I know that billions of human beings (plus our animals and plants) are also struggling with this simple, necessary action in this astoundingly polluted world. However, as someone who experiences many kinds of health problems when exposed to even small amounts of common consumer toxins, my condition still seems exotic or even foolishly “special” or deluded to most people. However, soon people like me will the mainstream, not just outliers, and there is nothing in place to handle that public health disaster (Anne Steinemann’s 2018 study estimates one in four Americans already suffer some form of environmental illness). Medical practices and public policies in the United States have not kept pace with the impact of toxic chemicals on human and environmental health. Unlike many other countries, we have no precautionary principle to guide our decision-making.

Pollution, like climate change and war, is one of the apocalyptic challenges of our time. We will not survive if we don’t address them. These three challenges are interelated and are also deeply emeshed in capitalism and consumerism.

The Impact of Indoor Air Pollution is Seldom Addressed

In 1998, Wayne R. Ott and John W. Roberts published the results of their studies in “Everyday Exposure to Toxic Pollutants” in Scientific American. You can download the PDF here. Quote:

“…most citizens were very likely to have the greatest contact with potentially toxic pollutants not outside but inside the places they usually consider to be essentially unpolluted, such as homes, offices and automobiles. The exposure arising from the sources normally targeted by environmental laws–Superfund sites, factories, local industry–was negligible in comparison. Even in the New Jersey cities of Bayonne and Elizabeth, both of which have an abundance of chemical processing plants, the levels of 11 volatile organic compounds proved much higher indoors than out. (Concentrations of the other volatile compounds tested were found to be insignificant in both settings.) The chief sources appeared to be ordinary consumer products, such as air fresheners and cleaning compounds, and various building materials.”

Nothing has changed. In fact, things have gotten worse. MUCH worse.

Those Who Are Aleady Ill and Know the Cause

Do you have friends, relatives, co-workers, or patients who are afflicted by exposure to toxic chemicals? Are you seeking a way to understand this complex and derided condition? For an excellent discussion of the impact of environmental illness and chemical injuries on everyday people, please see these links to Linda Sepp’s Seriously Sensitive to Pollution blog. Note: “MCS” stands for “multiple chemical sensitivity” and “ES” stands for “environmental sensitivity.”

Part One: What’s It Like to Have MCS/ES? Arms, Brains, and Legs.

Part Two: What’s It Like to Have MCS/ES? Curbs. (I am quoted in this one.)

Part Three: What’s It Like to Have MCS/ES? Toast Chaos. 

For more information, go to the Environmental Health Network of California, Chemical Injury Information Network and The Environmental Working Group Not Too Pretty report.

And check out the documentary, StinkHere’s the trailer. It’s currently on Netflix.

Babies and Children, Innocents at Risk

Even babies are subjected to harmful volatile organic compounds. “Squishy” soft foam toys have been banned in Denmark, due to hazardous scents and other toxins. And here is a quote from “Volatile chemical emissions from fragranced baby products,”Air Quality, Atmosphere, and Health, June 2018:

“Fragranced consumer products have been associated with adverse effects on human health. Babies are exposed to a variety of fragranced consumer products, which can emit numerous volatile organic compounds (VOCs), some considered potentially hazardous. However, fragranced baby products are exempt from disclosure of all ingredients. Consequently, parents and the public have little information on product emissions. This study investigates VOCs emitted from a range of fragranced baby products, including baby hair shampoos, body washes, lotions, creams, ointments, oils, hair sprays, and fragrance.”

As for the unborn or never to be born, human sperm counts are plummeting worldwide. Here is a link to “Air Pollution and Quality of Sperm: A Meta-Analysis,” 2015. Seventy-six articles were reviewed.

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Meme source unknown

Animals Can’t Tell You They’d Like Clean Air Too

As for animals, it is a shame what we’re doing to them. Even people who adore their pets have no problem subjecting them to toxic personal care products, essential oils, “air fresheners,” scented candles, and scented animal washes and even toe nail polish on dogs. Here’s a quote from an article by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker, which outlines some of the reasons pets are at great risk:

“Most pets are even smaller than kids.
They tend to spend a lot of time near the floor where all indoor air pollutants eventually wind up.
They groom themselves and each other, which means they’re ingesting the pollutant particles that have accumulated on their fur and in the environment.
Many pets spend up to 100 percent of their time indoors, and are living with very high levels of airborne toxins.
These factors combine to put pets at the highest risk of anyone in the household for health conditions related to indoor air pollution. Even if neither you nor your pets are having symptoms, it’s still possible the air fresheners in your home are harming your health. Most of the effects of these products aren’t immediately obvious and may not even manifest as respiratory issues. Some people say, “If I was having a problem, my pets or I would have watery eyes. We’d be coughing or wheezing.” But that’s not always the case.”

In other words, the use of products which create airborne toxins is chemical abuse of children and animals (not to mention adult humans). 

Some Products Used in Magic Rituals Can Impact Indoor Air Quality

From that same article by Dr. Becker, there’s also a caution for those of us who love our animals and children, but who also engage in magic and devotional rituals indoors:

“A 2001 EPA study concluded that candles containing fragrance produce more soot. It’s possible organic compounds in poor-quality candle wax may increase cancer risk.(2) A 2009 study warns that the chemicals emitted into the air by burning candles can have a harmful effect on human health.(3) Paraffin candles produce potentially toxic chemicals, including alkanes, alkenes and toluene.

Like air fresheners, scented candles can also contain dangerous chemicals such as formaldehyde and VOCs. Cheaply made candles can contain toxic levels of heavy metals in the wicks. When one of these candles burns, the lead particles are released into the air. Frequent use of these candles could contribute to the development of health conditions such as asthma, allergies and cancer.

Research shows that burning incense can be dangerous to human health, and a 2015 study even suggested it’s much worse that inhaling cigarette smoke.(4) Incense smoke is mutagenic, meaning it can cause mutations in DNA that can lead to cancer. In the 2015 study, incense was found to be more toxic to cells and DNA than cigarette smoke. Of the 65 compounds identified in incense smoke, two were determined to be highly toxic.”

The Magic of Interdependence?

Switching now from science to metaphysics, I’ve touched before on the spiritual and esoteric quandries posed by artificial substances and toxins, those substances that result from what I call “unwise alchemies.” And I am personally desperate for anything–ANYTHING–that can ease my remaining years on this planet and provide a semblance of better health. I am frankly weary of fleeing fragrant products in particular, which are everywhere I go. And I am tired of living as a hermit (though I fancy myself “ornamental”).

And I’ve used various breath techniques for years–tantric breathing, HA breath for ho’oponopono rituals, the “six healing sounds” (Taoist) practice, and so on–though I often forget to resort to these techniques in times of crisis (like when the stove repair man comes into my home offgassing a scented deodorant).

But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the uses of language, sounds, breath, and how to put these together to help myself. Obsessing, really. I don’t use the word “desperate” lightly.

So I was staggered this morning when I came across a possible helpful technique, a combination of breath and sound, explained in a way that I could understand. I found it in a link from a post made by Aidan Wachter (author of Six Ways: Approaches & Entries for Practical Magic).

The link was to the Perfumed Skull (I know, not a completely auspicious name from my perspective), a blog written by Ben Joffe, “a cultural anthropology Ph.D. candidate” as of 2016. (He’s probably received his doctorate by now.) His June 19, 2016 post is titled “The Magic of Interdependence: A General Description of the View of How Mantras Produce Results.” It concerns a book on mantra healing called The Science of Interdependent Connection Mantra Healing (rten ‘brel sngags bcos thabs kyi rig pa) by Dr Nida Chenagtsang and Yeshe Drolma, Beijing People’s Press, December 2015. The post includes a translation (his translation?) of “Chapter Four: A Rough Explanation of How Mantras Work.” Though there are all kinds of compelling implications for Western magic practitioners in this chapter, here is the part that grabbed my attention, because it may be of practical value to me:

“As an example of how the way in which breath flows generates results, if, taking the mantra-syllables OM AH HUNG, one intones OM when one inhales, AH as one abides (or holds the breath), and HUNG as one exhales, the three-fold arising, entering and abiding of the rlung flows in the proper way, and as a result this is greatly beneficial for the body. Through the good qualities of the proper movement of the constitutive elements, five winds, as well as life-bearing and upward-flowing (winds), bodily illness is cured (and) the constitutive elements are balanced. It (also) endows one with the good quality of mental happiness. These are the reasons that what are called the three Vajra seed-syllables are extolled by all mantra-holders or ngakpa as the highest of mantras. Moreover, intoning ‘HA’ and expelling HA! with a strong sigh for diseases of the vital and heart-winds, for mental discomfort, memory loss, mental agitation or anxiety directly expels stale rlung in the life-force channel(s) from out the body and thereby cures disease.”

[The above also credited by Ben Joffe as from ‘The Science of Dependent-Origination Mantra Healing’ (rten ‘brel sngags bcos rig pa), written by Nyida Heruka and Yeshe Drolma, 2015, mi rigs dpe skrun khang, pp. 36-52.]

I am particularly struck by the instructions to inhale, hold, and exhale each syllable. In all the neotantric workshops and pujas I’ve ever attended, not once we were we ever instructed to OM on an inhale. (So, is a little–neotantric–knowledge a dangerous or an ineffective thing?)

The authors say “reciting the three Vajra seed-syllables (OM AH HUNG) balances the breath and resolves sickness.” I have tried this now a few times, in the recommended manner, and it will definitely take practice. To generate the mantra syllable “Ah” while holding my breath is no easy feat! And I have to take gulps of air between each series of syllables. I am going to practice this a lot and see what happens.

I am also staring hard at the chapter’s reference to “mantras for poisoning,” because poisoning is exactly what we are all experiencing at this time, on this planet. Do I sense a practice that might be useful for transforming the toxic effect of the unwise alchemies? What would happen if many practitioners gathered together to ease the poisoning of a place, with such a mantra? I want very badly to understand this.

Finally I am happy to find this sentence as well: “One’s own mind and the minds of others are made sick through harsh words, and conversely, expressing pleasant words can gladden others’ hearts.” I was attempting to address this very topic earlier this week in my blog post, “Try a Little Tenderness.”

I notice that toxic and uncivil words and harsh sounds are as ubiquitous as toxic chemicals in modern American culture. There are so many ways to make and keep us sick. But perhaps somewhere in a skillful use of our breath, and mantras of seed syllables, and the weilding of pleasant words, there may lie a little more healing for me and for all of you too.

As always, comments are very welcome. Thank you, readers!

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4 thoughts on “Breath of Life

  1. Thank you as always! Definitely going to be sharing these resources.

    On a separate note, I don’t know how you feel about Odin, but I couldn’t help but think about him reading this piece, given his associations with disabilities, breath, and galdr.

    Liked by 1 person

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