Hero's Journey Breath

Practices for the Hero’s Journey: The Breath

These articles are about various spiritual tools and practices that have helped me further my Hero’s Journey, to overcome the monster of inner Depression and my very selfish Ego.

 

The Sacred Nose

In some cultures the nose is viewed as sacred and intricately connected to the soul and spirituality. Daoists referred to the nostrils as the gateways to Heaven, suggesting a heavenly state of Mind, if not a literal Heaven, must be reached through the nostrils and nowhere else (Lao Tze,  verse 10). Yoga practices, Buddhist meditative practices also place critical importance on breathing in through the nose (Singh, Bhargav, and Srinivasan, 2016). I view the Hero’s Journey as a process of finding meaning through leaving the Ego, Mind, and living more through the Body, and conscious nostril breathing symbolically and scientifically supports this; yet Americans, as a culture, are not taught this, or at least this American was not taught it in school. The nose as a symbol is seen in cultures spread far in time and distance, showing the nose as a sense organ fundamental to all manners of mental and physical well-being.

 

Nose Picking

Proper nostril breathing for me has been a long and arduous journey in itself. I have been a nose-picker for most of my life. Picking my nose has always been the hardest and most long-standing compulsive habit to break, having never broken it for any sustained period the entirety of my life. By compulsion, while immersed in thought my finger often somehow found its way to my nose and I felt I could not control it, since it happened unconsciously since early childhood. By the time I was generally aware, the damage was done. The unconscious aspect made it seemingly impossible to stop; for years I could only grow awareness of a habit I resented.
In picking the nose, the mucus always came back. When the nose was picked more aggressively, tangible damage seemed to be inflicted, which could only heal by the compulsion’s lessening or cessation. As my awareness grew, I noticed a concurrent pattern in the compulsion to pick it and a further build-up of mucus as a result; another association was as the trapped, circular form of thinking of the mind increased, mucus built up in the nose, simultaneous to breathing more through the mouth. Due to the association with thinking, I concluded that, perhaps like someone picking scabs, nose picking primarily occurs as a response to anxiety and uncontrolled emotions and resultant thoughts in the mind.

As a clear cause for irritation in the nostrils, causing more mucus to form, picking leads to more blockage, which leads to more mouth breathing and thus thinking, which leads to further passage restriction, ad infinitum, pushing those lost in this habit towards further mouth breathing. Only in some inner resolution with my father, which resulted primarily from a transformative experience with psychedelic medicines, did my nostril blockage and compulsion finally hit a breakthrough. With a particularly powerful psilocybin experience putting a decent dent into my Ego, I visualized nose-picking as something related to my Ego, passed down to me like the Sins of the Father are passed down. This imagery rang true, as simultaneously a breakthrough in this habit occurred, to which I haven’t looked back since.

Does you pick your nose? Have you ever? If so, why?

 

The Nostrils In Science and Symbols

Breathing through the nose is, from science and symbols, the proper way to breathe. Art symbolism of Heaven and Hell show Heaven’s entry represented as an actual gateway–resembling the nostril’s shape–and Hell’s gateway being either explicitly a mouth, or shaped by one. The nose, through intentional breathing, until it becomes second nature brings me to the Body, while an unconscious return to mouth breathing leads further into my personal Mind prison, where everyone’s brilliant thoughts remain stuck and cannot be actualized.
Purgatory has a gateways shaped like nostrils and mouths leading to Hell
In these paintings, do you see any symbols of a mouth or a gateway shape?
Hieronymous Bosch enter hell through the Mouth
The Bible may have something to say about the nose:
“For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” – Matthew 7:13-14
This, like the Daoist’s metaphor, suggests the nose as a gateway to contentment, happiness, a personal kind of Heaven; whereas the gateway to Hell is visualized as wide and broad, easy to travel through, with monsters involved.                           mouth heroes journey Entering Hell through Dragon's Mouth
Science is only beginning to explore nose breathing as related to physical and mental health, but scientists have found associations between mouth breathing and poor health in disparate conditions in all age groups: infants, adolescents, and adults. The associations may surprise you. Here are some articles, a quote, and a link to conduct your own research and find other associations to research evidence for yourself. (Lourenco and Turner, 2014; Mummolo et al., 2018; Trabalon & Schaal, 2012)
“…the nose and its lining membrane perform three valuable services to the body in rendering the inspired air fit for the lung; the nose humidifies the air, warms it, and purifies it. Since this membrane is a delicate structure with a complex function, it may readily be understood that when the membrane is damaged, its functions are interfered with and the body as a whole suffers.” – Albert Seltzer (1963)
In practicing conscious nose breathing, my goal is to maintain constant awareness on the nostrils as long as possible, everything a meditation; I can rarely keep my focus for longer than a couple minutes, often much shorter, yet it’s a continual practice. Unaware, breathing unconsciously, I naturally hold my breath indefinitely or by ingrained impulse breathe through the mouth. Consciously, nostril breathing can be practiced in almost every waking activity, be that meditating, walking, painting, writing, gardening, or washing dishes and doing chores. As a practice, conscious nostril breathing helps me prevent and regain awareness from circling thoughts, and deepens a focus on creative tasks requiring intense attention, like writing. The longer I remain in the Body rather than Mind, the greater and more sustained my ability to engage in meaningful work.

 

Breathing Exercise 1

Here is one helpful method for fast, clear, nostril breathing, taught to me by a local Shaman. For the great many who do not know how to even begin, like me, perhaps their nostrils inflamed or clogged so thickly, this practice is my favorite and produces immediate results. The purpose is to clear restricted passages enough such that more air can pass through and nostril breathing becomes ever easier, cascading as a healthy habit as more air is drawn through nostrils and they clear themselves naturally.

To perform this exercise, stand or sit in a comfortable relaxed position. Allow your lungs to empty and breathe to clear. Then, breathe in quickly and deeply into the nose, especially if it feels uncomfortable or hard to do; breath in through the nose as intensely as possible. Then breathe out with the same intensity, not caring about any snot that may eject. Repeat this at least a total of 5 times, but more is always better. If my nose starts to become clogged due to whatever I ate recently or anxious thoughts, I may need to extend this to 10 or more. If you have never done this and have restricted passages, perhaps try 20.

After trying this exercise yourself, notice the feelings in your body, paying particular attention to the temperature (hot/warm/cold) and the location of any sensations. For me, the feeling always occurs in the same place. If you practice this exercise, where do you feel it?

This exercise gives me a rush of warmth around my upper chest area, a feeling as though mucus or inflammation is draining away down further into the chest.

After clearing the nostrils, conscious nostril breathing can still feel uncomfortable and unnatural if the nose has been clogged a long time. But if nostril breathing is difficult, endeavor to continue a conscious practice for 30 minutes, focusing entirely on the nostrils at first and then perhaps moving around or doing something simple while continuing the focus.

How do you feel after a continuous awareness of breathing through your nose?

 

The Vital Force

breath work heroes journey

Going further than the nostrils as the proper way to breathe, the Daoist worldview refers to the breath as the vital force. Although the implications are vague, they may be suggesting that it is a potent means through which energy can be channeled, life extended, and some inner source of strength and magic, unlocked.
“When the intelligent and animal souls are held together in one embrace, they can be kept from separating. When one gives undivided attention to the (vital) breath and brings it to the utmost degree of pliancy, he can become as a tender babe. When he has cleansed away the most mysterious sights (of his imagination), he can become without a flaw.” – Lao Tze, Tao te Ching (10)

The breath, through the nose, is central to taste, smell and every other sense by getting us out of the Mind and is also, as Lao Tze suggests, central to channeling some inner human potential, force. In several verses previous, the vital force is even suggested as key to life extension (Lao Tze, 6).

An interesting parallel with this is also seen between Jung’s concept of the Anima and Animus. The Animus is the masculine aspect in women, representing material control and manipulation, skills necessary for living in the male, material world. The Anima, the essential part of the feminine present—but sometimes suppressed—within all men, is visualized as the breath by Jung. Jung connected the breath through the Anima as being essential to the male’s journey towards wholeness–he called it individuation, I call it the Hero’s Journey. The breath, exercised properly, connects males with this other aspect of themselves crucial to psychological well-being.

As an extra practice if you already breathe regularly through your nostrils, consider also exercising your lung capacity through the nostrils by taking small breaths repeatedly as long as you can before being forced to exhale, or in pulling further air into your diaphragm after your lungs have reached their maximum. Admittedly I don’t fully grasp what Daoists suggest is attainable through managing the vital force of breath, the Tao te Ching leads me to conclude that increasing lung capacity, holding the breath, is involved.

 

Other Practices in Better Nostril Breathing

A few other key experiences with my nose seem relevant to mention here. When I am eating, particularly while eating too quickly, I stop breathing through the nose and instinctively return to mouth breathing; my mind is hyper-focused on the act of eating and not tasting the food. Only when I slow down and breathe in through my nose while chewing can I actually taste the food in my mouth; the nostrils, every bit as much as the mouth, is critical to the sense of taste. In my practice, I have to eat more intentionally, slowing down, to prevent myself from consuming food like some savage, piling it in without tasting anything, returning to mouth breathing in the process.

As well, in growing my awareness of my nostrils, I notice after eating I experience a concomitant increase in mucus in my nose–apparently inflamed when I eat, lasting a couple hours or more after finishing the meal. Certain foods make it much worse. While inflamed, proper nostril breathing is harder for me until a portion of the food is digested and the inflammation lessened.

To help combat this and keep the nose unrestricted, one practice might be interval fasting, in which someone limits their intake of food to only certain hours of the day, say a 12 or 10-hour window. While I reach this practice through a desire to breathe easier through my nose–less inflammation and mucus resulting from not constantly eating–fasting proponents point to the growing body of research showing how our bodies age in significant part as a result of eating. Specifically, telomere length shortened in one prominent study, with much recent research suggesting intermittent fasting and calorie restriction can have various health benefits (Weir, 2017).

 

Changing a Habit

Simply shifting my viewpoint towards the nostrils as the gateway to Heaven, in a very real literal and symbolic sense of better well-being, has further helped instill a more sacred view of the nose and–combined with clearing the passages and conscious breathing–helped me start to eliminate a long-standing habit. By holding the nose as sacred, essential to proper breathing, I take far more seriously now any compulsion to allay stress/thoughts through that act. Although the world tends to view nose picking as taboo because of the ‘gross’ factor, the real reason it is taboo, and consequently why people pick their noses in private, is it being extremely counterproductive to humans’ overall health, mental health in particular.

What does the nose, breathe, mean to you, for your life?

How do you breathe, naturally? Do you ever breathe through your mouth, ever, or do your nostrils remain clear most of the time? Have you ever noticed whether one way or another affect you differently?

 

References

Lourenco, C. and Turner, C. (2014). Breath analysis in disease diagnosis: Methodological considerations and applications. Metabolites, 4(2), 465-498. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4101517/

Mummolo, S., Nota, A., Caruso, S., Quinzi, V., Marchetti, E., Marzo, G. (2018). Salivary markers and microbial flora in mouth breathing late adolescents. BioMed Research International. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5859862/

Seltzer, A. (1963). Nose picking. Journal of the National Medical Association, 55(5), 451-452. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2642359/?page=1

Singh, K., Bhargav, H., and Srinivasan, T. (2016). Effect of uninostril yoga breathing on brain hemodynamics: A functional near-infrared spectroscopy study. International Journal of Yoga, 9(1) 12-19. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4728953/

Trabalon, M. and Schaal, B. (2012). It Takes a mouth to eat and a nose to breathe: Abnormal oral respiration affects neonates’ oral Competence and systemic adaptation. International Journal of Pediatry. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3397177/

Weir, H. J., et al. (2017) Dietary restriction and AMPK Increase lifespan via mitochondrial network and peroxisome remodeling. Cell Metabolism, 26(6), 884-896. Retrieved from https://www.cell.com/cell-metabolism/fulltext/S1550-4131%2817%2930612-5

Andrew Haacke is a lifelong spiritual seeker who researches, writes about, and provides training and experiential learning related to The Hero's Journey, Shamanism, Plant Medicine, and Integrated Body Healing practices. Andrew studied Anthropology at the University of Utah and earned a Master's in Social Work and Master's in Public Administration from the University of Southern California.

Andrew Haacke

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