Breath, Breathing, and Being

It was a pleasure to attend Oxford Phenomenology Network’s ‘Breath, Breathing, and Being’ workshop on Friday 1st December, featuring Bristol’s Life of Breath team. Despite the frosty weather, it was well-worth the two-hour coach journey from London to Oxford.

As befitting the workshop’s interdisciplinary reach across the medicine, phenomenology, and the humanities, the event took place in the beautiful St Luke’s Chapel, situated next to TORCH and the Faculty of Philosophy, former home of the Radcliffe Infirmary. The workshop began with an introductory talk from Professor Havi Carel, Senior Investigator at Life of Breath, on ‘The Phenomenology of Breathlessness’. Drawing on personal experience, Professor Carel explored the divergence between medicine’s objective view of breathlessness as a symptom of disease, and the sufferer’s subjective experience of breathlessness as the ‘closing in’ of one’s world, where distrust of the body’s ability to perform ordinary tasks like walking up a hill – which she termed ‘bodily doubt’ – both physically and psychologically limit the person’s life choices. She later proposed a ‘Phenomenological toolkit’ as a resource for sufferers to explore the lived experiences of breathlessness and reflect on its meanings. This not only bridges the epistemic divide between doctors and patients, but also draw out the edifying impacts of ‘coexisting’ with respiratory diseases, such as the post-traumatic growth and emotional resilience that a person develops as she learns to manage her illness.

Expanding on Professor Carel’s point that most of us take air for granted, Tina Williams called for a ‘Pause for Breath’, exploring what Luce Irigaray called the ‘forgetting of air’ in Western Philosophy. Air, though invisible, is everywhere and connects us to each other. Emmanuel Lévinas calls the lungs an ‘ethical organ’: the very air we breathe in is the same air that the other person breathed out. Breathing in this sense is thus an intersubjective action of ‘co-breathing’ with the other. This notion of ‘co-breathing/being’ is beautifully illustrated in the later break-out session in film clips of The Intouchables (2011), where a fit, poor, black ex-con and a white, educated, wealthy quadraplegic paraglide together. The air becomes the immaterial space in which the two men, of different race, class, and physical ability, can come together freely and breathe/be with the other.

In contrast to the absence of air in Western philosophy, it is everywhere in Tibetan medicine and Tantric Buddhism. As Ronit Yoeli-Tialim explained, breath, which is conceived as rlung (wind), runs through the system of channels in the body and meet at centres (chakras). The five types of rlung correspond to various parts of the body and imbalances in certain rlungs will lead to certain ailments and emotional disorders. This interlinking of body, mind, and spirit is especially relevant today in light of recent developments in neuroimmunology which suggest that emotional and mental wellbeing can have correlative effects on physical health.

In Western medicine, breath is ‘measured in numbers’. Coreen McGuire looked at how spirometry gave form to the invisible ‘life of breath’. The spirometer measures the vital capacity of the lungs by the volume of air breathed out, which she demonstrated with a makeshift spirometer composed of a bucket of water and an empty soda bottle. Her talk highlighted a key concern of the day: in the face of medicine’s standardisation of breath, if to be is to breathe, then it is paramount that medicine also recognises the individuality of breath(less) experiences and of the person who breathes.


Christina Lee (English Research MPhil/PhD at King’s College London)

breath breathing being