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  • Writer's picturePastor Liz

You Breathe Out, I Breathe In

Updated: Feb 24

Glitter and Ash, WildWood's riff on Ash Wednesday, is a ritual that reminds us of our cosmic beginnings and interconnection. It reminds us of our of belonging and responsibility within a vastly long arc of becoming and unbecoming. Where we come from and where we go. Beginning and ending. 

“Snowflakes, leaves, humans, plants, raindrops, stars, molecules, microscopic entities all come in communities. The singular cannot in reality exist.”

This is a quote from the book Grandmothers of the Light: A Medicine Woman's Sourcebook published in 1991 by Paula Gunn Allen. She was an astounding American Indian poet, literary critic, activist, professor, and novelist. Her academic work sought to bridge, and correct, the expansive divide between American Indian life and thought and western literature. She harshly critiqued western literature for its inaccurate characterization of American Indian thought and culture. To which I say, "duh," of course western academia got it wrong. I don’t hesitate to share her work, it deserves the widest audience possible, but I am hesitate in how I present it because I know I will not bring a correct interpretation because of my own implicit bias. I bring voice to her work with that in mind and with deep respect and humbleness.


I deeply appreciate her beautiful articulation of with-ness, of what it means to be woven together. It is central to American Indian culture and a learning edge for the rest of us. She writes that the western literary construct of individuality is alien to American Indian culture and it’s own literary tradition. Western (I should be saying white America) sees self-expression, art, writing, poetry, as bringing the “private soul to the public wall,” presenting the internal self for public consumption. 


Tribal song, ceremony, legend, sacred story, all embody and articulate a shared reality, bringing the private self into harmony and balance with the collective. That one’s internal thoughts give truth and voice to the collective human knowledge. All creativity, all emotion, all artistry comes from the whole, expressing not one’s own experiences but expressing the experience of all. “I add my breath to your breath.”


In an earlier book published in 1986, The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, she writes; 

“Breath is life, and the intermingling of breaths is the purpose of good living. This is in essence the great principle on which all productive living must rest, for relationships among all the beings of the universe must be fulfilled; in this way each individual life may also be fulfilled.”

It reminds me of lyrics written by singer and songwriter Harry Styles. Many of his songs are about his longterm relationship, in one such song he writes, 

“You breathe out, I breathe in”

While he is referring to his romantic relationship, I can’t help but think of Paula’s words. 


I add my breath to your breath.

You breathe out, I breathe in.


In 2013 the University of Gothenburg in Sweden studied the heart rates of high school choir members as they sang together. Using pulse monitors they found that when the choir began to sing, their heart rates slowed down. Musicologist Bjorn Vickhoff, who led the study said; 

“When you sing the phrases, it is a form of guided breathing, You exhale on the phrases and breathe in between the phrases. When you exhale, the heart slows down.” What surprised him was that very quickly all the singers' heart rates to become synchronized. When we sing together our heart rates fall into a shared rhythm guided by the song's tempo.


Expanding on that, a study published at the end of last year found that there was a physical synchronization between audience members at classical concerts. People’s heart beats would speed up and slow down in relation to the music, finding they were also breathing at a similar speed. The lead researcher said, 

“It is fascinating that people at a concert, who do not know each other and do not even speak to each other, seem to have a shared experience, based on measurements like their heart rate. When we see synchrony, we know people are really engaged in the music, as they are reacting to it emotionally in the same way.”

I add my breath to your breath.

You breathe out, I breathe in.

Our hearts beat together.

Connected through breath, rhythm.

Pulsing with one heartbeat.


Our sacred story begins with that same holy breath. From the dust of the earth, the Holy One breathed us into life. Through that Divine breath we are all connected. Shaped in her image. The holy breath comes from the Hebrew word Ruah (Ru-Ha-gg). Throughout the sacred stories it is translated as “spirit”, “wind” or “breath, but there is no english equivalent. Ruah is the wind that parted the waters and created dry land, it is the breath that God breathed into humans in our creation, it is the spirit that parted the seas and allowed the people to escape from slavery in Egypt, it is the fiery Pentecost sprit that fell upon the early Jesus followers. Theologian Walter Brueggemann says ruah, “…is a shaped, purposefully, intentional force: A wind of wisdom and understanding, paying attention to the hidden connections and process of life, refusing to reduce reality to beneficial techniques and strategies - that’s what wisdom is about.”


Filled with ruah, Divine breath.

I add my breath to your breath.

You breathe out, I breathe in.

Our hearts beat together.

Connected through breath, rhythm.

Pulsing with one heartbeat.


Created in God’s image from the dust of the earth we are a mix of ash, humus, a mix of valuable minerals, precious metals, all elements of our planate carbon, oxygen, silicon, calcium, and sodium come from the explosive death of ancient stars. Planetary scientist and stardust expert, Dr Ashley King says,

“nearly all the elements in the human body were made in a star and many have come through several supernovas. … When stars die and lose their mass, all the elements that had been generated inside are swept out into space. Then the next generation of stars form from those elements, [they] burn and are again swept out.”

A process repeated over millennia, Dr. King goes on; 

This constant reprocessing of everything is called galactic-chemical-evolution. Every element was made in a star and if you combine those elements in different ways you can make species of gas, minerals, and bigger things like asteroids, and from asteroids you can start making planets and then you start to make water and other ingredients required for life and then, eventually, us.”

Created from stardust,

filled with ruah, Divine breath.

I add my breath to your breath.

You breathe out, I breathe in.

Our hearts beat together.

Connected through breath, rhythm, 

supernovas and stardust.

Pulsing with one heartbeat.

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