“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which
unites your body to your thoughts.”
—THICH NHAT HANH
In June 1970 I was in boot camp, where they made you run everywhere all the time. I quickly learned how to pace my breathing in rhythm to my footsteps to be able to keep up and even stay ahead. You also shut up and stand still a lot (often while they shout insults at you). It’s normal to hold your breath in those moments, and had I known then what I know now, I would have breathed quietly and consciously instead. That would have allowed me to take in their instruction without getting frazzled or feeling intimidated We shouted all the time. “Yes, sir!” “No, sir!” “I can’t hear you!” “Yes, Sir!” “I still can’t hear you!” “Yes, sir!” I shouted so loud one time that I tore my vocal cords and lost my voice. It was the strangest thing: I could only shout or whisper. I had nothing in between—which worked out perfectly for the military, because they wanted you to either yell or be silent. So no one even noticed my problem, and the last thing I wanted to do was ask to go to the hospital. Suck it up. “Grin and bear it” was the unspoken rule. I was assigned to the Naval Hospital Corps School out of boot camp, and on the first day I was put into a special accelerated program. Four of us were selected because of our previous college or medical training, I suppose. Together we finished thirty-six weeks of Hospital Corps School in less than three weeks. Then we spent another three weeks qualifying for all the practical skills: physical exams, bandaging, splinting, drawing blood, giving injections, and sticking things down each other’s throats, into each other’s noses and ears, and up each other’s butts—basically getting skilled and comfortable with just about everything we might be called upon to do out in the field or in a hospital. At the end of the training, I was offered a special advancement incentive: it was called “Push Button E-4.” In exchange for extending my enlistment from four to six years, I could immediately advance to petty officer third class, a rate and a pay grade that normally took a good sailor at least two years to earn. I had been in the navy for only four months. I was now officially an independent duty hospital corpsman. My first assignment was at a dispensary across the river from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. I was put in charge of my own X-ray department. On the first day, I took an inventory and did a detailed inspection. I found a very serious problem: the facility did not meet the most basic radiation safety standards. There was no lead shielding anywhere in the building. Since there was no X-ray work to do, and we had nine corpsmen working (on the busiest day, four of us could easily handle the workload), I was getting bored and began to spend time with the crew of the USS Alvin, the navy’s first deep- sea submersible. I began to work with local civilian authorities to train first responders, and I led safety and rescue programs and health inspections. I took every ambulance call that came in, and over the next eighteen months, I taught first aid and CPR to just about every fireman and policeman in the states of Maryland and Delaware. When my two-year assignment at the naval station was up, I had advanced to petty officer second class. I was now an E-5 (an enlisted rank), and I had orders for the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy. I was being transferred to what was basically a floating city with as many as five thousand crewmembers. It was the last place I wanted to be, and the last thing I wanted to do. I had grown way too comfortable with my independence, and joining the “regular navy” felt like a prison sentence. I called Washington and requested that I be sent anywhere else, assigned to anything else. “Anything?” the person on the phone asked me. “Yes, sir. Anything,” I said. Thus I was assigned to Special Operations: Deep Sea Diving School. It came with a juicy raise (they called it “hazardous duty pay”). The combination of medical skills, deep-sea diving, and salvage and rescue training would make me a member of a very unique and elite group in one of the oldest and proudest traditions in the navy—a medical deep-sea diving technician. I would learn underwater welding and ship salvage, receive demolition training, and be given the opportunity to do a whole lot of things very few people ever got the chance to do. The guy on the phone gave me the impression that I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. He said, “Hey, want some advice?”nI said, “Sure!” “You’ve got two months before you report in for the program. You better start running everywhere, all the time, and with ninety pounds of gear on your back, or you won’t make it through the first two weeks.”
I thought: Hmmm . . . physical training. “I’m up for that!” I was the champion pool player on the base at the time, and befriended the base boxing champion. He approached me with a proposition: I teach him to play pool and he teaches me to box. I thought it would be a great way to supplement my physical training and so I agreed. I really liked the first couple of sessions with him, learning some basic stances and moves and hitting the bag. I had no idea there was so much to learn. It was kind of fun, and it was a real workout. I also loved his coaching around the breath. Every punch had a breath sound! Then we had our first sparring session. And every time he hit me, or even pretended to hit me, I would close my eyes. I wanted to run away or curl up in a ball like a baby. Every time he hit me somewhere, I would instinctively move to protect that place, so he would hit me in another unprotected place; or he would just knock my arms out of the way and hit me in the same place again! He kept pointing it out and calling me hopeless. “You’re afraid to get hit! Man, you have to learn to love it.” “Love it? What are you talking about? Nobody loves getting hit.” “I do. I love it!” (And he really did. He was crazy that way.) This went on every day, and for a while it didn’t seem like a very good trade. We would meet at lunch and he would beat me up for an hour; then after work I would play pool with him. But then at one point I realized that I was not afraid so much of pain as I was of intensity, and I began to notice that many of his punches really didn’t hurt. They were intense, sort of stunning, more numbing than painful. I began to control my breathing to keep from getting the wind knocked out of me. I also began to pay more attention to his breathing, and started to see how it helped me to sense things about him. My fear started losing its grip on me. I was able to keep my eyes open, even as his big, fat glove came straight into my face. I began to sense when and what was coming. By paying attention, I knew what he was going to do from how he planted his feet, or from the angle he tried to get on me. I began to get a sense of his rhythms: one, two; one, two . . . one, two, three; one, two . . . one, two; one, two three . . . Then one day as I walked across the street to the gym, preparing to get beat up again, I stopped to take a few breaths to prepare and commit. I was suddenly struck with such aclear and conscious sense of a new and expanded level of being present and awake. I took in a very conscious breath, and I felt it go to every cell of my body. That breath was delicious, and it gave me goose bumps. I took another one and it felt even better than the first. I was elated! I took another breath and felt the emotions turn into streaming physical energy that made me wiggle my toes with pleasure. I was moved to look up and I stretched my arms to the sky. And as I breathed in, it felt as if I was taking in the power of God. I could feel the earth under my feet, loving me. Even the trees and the clouds and the birds seemed to love me. The grace of God was surrounding me. With every breath, I felt more and more energy and aliveness coursing through me. And so I kept on breathing, taking in one breath after the next without stopping. My eyes saw everything in Technicolor; it was as if my consciousness was opening and expanding with every breath I took. When I looked around, I could see the energy in the air—tiny particles of light were moving, dancing, and swirling everywhere. I thought, So this is what cats are seeing when they seem to stare into empty space! A very special feeling took over me as I crossed the street that day toward the boxing ring, and it has never really left me. I often return to that moment in order to remember or reawaken to who I am or how I can be. And to do that, all I have to do is relax, focus on my breathing, and feel. As we started sparring, I began to look forward to getting hit! It’s hard to explain, but I was actually beginning to enjoy it—the energy and intensity of it. The pain—if that is the only word we have for it—just made me feel more alive. He started taking more shots than usual at my stomach and lower rib cage, in rapid machine-gun fashion, and I found that I could meet his blows with my energy, or I could absorb them with my breath. He began to turn up the heat. I realized he had been holding back on me out of kindness or something all this time, and now I began to feel just how hard this guy could hit. And I could sense that he was enjoying really letting go into his full-on violent urges. For a short moment his power was frightening. It rocked me; I was in over my head, and I sensed the urge to curl up or run away. But instead, I tucked my chin down, bit my mouthpiece, planted my back foot, and leaned into his attack. I found that by focusing on the center of his chest in an open, soft way, I could see all of him, from head to toe. When I saw a punch coming, I actually threw myself at it. And I started to plan my own attack, looking for targets and openings. I decided to lure him in. I deliberately gave him an angle that he liked, knowing he would use the opportunity to fire off his favorite weapon: a right hook to my head. I felt exactly when he was about to unload, and as he did, I didn’t even try to block it. I came up from underneath with a powerful left of my own, right into the side of his ribs. As they say: I beat him to the punch. I put the power of my breath behind that shot, and I heard what sounded like a stick in the mud breaking, and he went down like a sack of potatoes. I was shocked. It took him a few minutes just to get onto one knee. I was already taking my gloves off; I knew he was hurt bad. When I helped him to his feet, he couldn’t straighten up, and he was having trouble breathing. At the hospital, we learned that I had broken two of his ribs, and one of them punctured his lung! I felt so bad sitting by his bed that night. And even though it hurt, he insisted on hugging me, and as he did, he said: “Man, you are one dangerous son of a bitch!” I felt like the president had given me the Medal of Honor that day, and I felt like I was ready for anything. It provided me the kind of confidence I needed for what came next.
In the navy diving world of the seventies, there seemed to be an acceptance of crude, vulgar language, and of blatantly racist and sexist attitudes. Running around the base every morning we would sing: “Eat, bite, fuck, chew! I’m a deep-sea diver, who the hell are you?” Deep-sea divers were supposed to be the toughest guys on the block, and to a few of them, that meant going out of their way to look for fights. There I was, a pacifist at heart, playing the animal thug game with them, both loving and hating it. Before you are accepted into diving school, you have to pass a physical exam and report for an orientation dive. That’s when a lot of guys discover that they have claustrophobia. They put you in the full deep-sea rig—lead shoes, lead weights, brass helmet, and breastplate—and throw you over the side of the barge. When it was my turn, I found myself upside down stuck in the mud at the bottom of the Anacostia River, with water leaking into my suit and helmet. At first, all I could focus on was catching my breath. As soon as I got it under control, I felt good. Then my next goal was maneuvering around to get upright. I laughed at my predicament and how silly I must have looked from a distance. It turned out to be fun until I became short of breath again, and realized I had to figure out how to regulate my air control and exhaust valve.Once I got the hang of it, my attention turned to the darkness. It was pitch dark, and for some strange reason, I liked it. The world on the surface, my past —everything just disappeared. I felt at home. By the time I climbed back up the ladder onto the deck of that barge, I was as thrilled as I was exhausted. The physical and psychological training in medical deep-sea diving school was intense, and the work was extremely challenging: physics, respiratory chemistry, diving medicine, mixing gases, salvage and rescue, firefighting, demolition training, along with lots of time under water in the dark, alone or with a buddy. Every day brought a new adventure. One consistently predictable thing was morning physical training. It was always a struggle for me. I never really enjoyed those workouts. They were boring and tedious, not to mention tiring, but I forced myself to tolerate them.
One morning run, we did a lot more jumping jacks, push-ups, chin-ups, and sit-ups than usual. After a little too much partying the night before, I was having a particularly tough time of it, and I was almost relieved when we started our run. But the relief didn’t last long. Three miles into our five-mile run, it felt like torture. I began to wonder if I would even make it. I hung in there, and was so relieved when we finally approached the finish point.
But my relief turned to despair when Youngblood, our trainer, didn’t even slow down at the five-mile marker. In fact, he picked up the pace! I hesitated, and felt myself slowing down, and if one of the guys hadn’t pushed me from behind in that moment, I would have given up. This was a test, we found out later, and sure enough, several guys failed. They dropped out or were cut from the class that day. And I came very close to being one of them. What saved me that day was Kane, one of my diving buddies who saw me slowing down and began to run beside me, encouraging me. That moral support and his presence helped for a few minutes, but then it wasn’t enough. My body wanted to quit; it felt like lead. And my mind was not helping. It wanted me to listen to my body and quit. But out of the height of my despair, I heard Kane shouting at me: “You can do it. Let’s breathe together.” And we did, with him setting the pace: breathing in for three steps and breathing out for three steps, in for three steps and out for three steps. That total, single-minded focus on my breathing was like magic. It took my attention off everything else: my pain, fatigue, and negative mental dialogue. Energy seemed to come out of nowhere, and I was only a few steps behind the leader when we finished the run. Afterward, they made us do more push-ups, chin-ups, and sit-ups. By then I was determined to do whatever was called for. I continued the breathing, moving my breath with conscious force in sync to the repetitive exercises. A few months later, I was officially a medical deep-sea diving technician, and I was in the best shape of my life. Thirty-seven of us started the program, and six of us completed it. I wore my diving pin with pride.
You don’t need to be a deep-sea diver or a professional boxer to apply Breath Awareness and Conscious Breathing to your life. The lessons I learned during those years have helped me in many other situations, and they can help you meet your unique life challenges. For example, if you need to focus on something, start by focusing on your breath. If you need to control yourself—your mind, body, emotions, posture, or behavior—then start by getting control of your breathing. I learned that when we breathe together, when we synchronize our breathing, we connect in a certain subtle way. When we breathe together, we tend to think alike, to react at the same time and in the same way to the same things. If you breathe together with those you love or those with whom you work, you will begin to read each other’s minds and give each other energy. Bonds are strengthened. Intimacy is enhanced. Teamwork goes to a higher level. The lesson here is that whenever you think you are reaching a limit, you need to become aware of your breathing and breathe consciously. It’s almost like a mind trick: when you are focused on your breathing, when you are breathing consciously, then you’re not focused on what would normally limit or control your thinking. When you focus on your breath instead, something new, something else, is possible.
Breathing Together: Team Building
We can take our individual practice to new levels by breathing together. When we breathe together, sharing a heartfelt intent or a common vision, we can create a deeper connection and generate an intuitive force that is extremely powerful. Throughout history, when small, close-knit groups of people prepared to set out to change the world together, or their small piece of it, they would form a circle, hold hands, or lock arms. They might pray, chant, dance, or breathe together in ritual fashion. The simple act of repeating a vow, reciting a prayer, or just shouting together would result in their synchronizing their breath in that moment. Could it be that the closeness that groups feel has something to do with sharing the same breath? Could it be part of the reason people feel good after group meditation, praying, singing or chanting a hymn or mantra out loud together? Or feeling more energy and confidence from moving together, from dancing or running as one united force? Teams of all kinds—from sports, artistic performance, business and finance, military and security, schools, and ordinary families—can use the power of breath to unite and be more in tune with each other under a common cause or shared purpose. People who work together, begin a mission together, or who simply want to celebrate their connection, can use the breath in this way: using a simple two-two pattern, inhaling for a count of two and exhaling for a count of two. Breathing together may have benefits that truly bring success in life, business, and beyond for you and those with whom you live, work, and play.