In about 5 billion years, our sun is expected to die. Recently, the Hubble Space Telescope, focused on the planetary nebula NGC 6210 about 6,500 light-years away, photographed a star, slightly less massive than our sun, breathing its last breath.
A dying star forms a planetary nebula (actually just gas and dust, but from a great distance it looks like a planet) as it ejects its outer layers. In its death throes, a star sheds multiple shells, including electrons from platinum and gold, in irregular patterns. In what’s known as its last breath, it leaves behind a small, extremely hot remnant called a white dwarf.
In an uncharacteristic parallel, romanticism meets empiricism, giving rise to the poetic and scientifically correct image of gold as the last breath of a dying star – the last fading expiration date.
I don’t know if a star breathes as such, but kids (and I presume adolescents) of the 1960s preyed on Joni Mitchell’s opinion. She sang, “We are stardust. We are golden.” Many didn’t know any better, but if the Children of the Sixties had been inspired to put into practice the insights on prana from the yoga manuals of Ernest Wood and Richard Hittleman, they would at least have realized that they were breathing. The root of the word inspiration is “breathing in,” and this revealing connection opens up its inner meaning and associations, as well as its potential for stimulating personal enlightenment in both the spiritual and knowledge senses.
Because if inspiration — that mysterious essence that visits us in life and fosters enthusiasm and meaningful action and connects heaven to earth — is so commonplace, commonplace, predictable and freely available, then why aren’t we always inspired, or at least as often as when we inhale?
As the ancient alchemists may have put it, the Philosopher’s Stone of Self-knowledge allows us to turn lead into gold, or our everyday humanity into our divine nature. In inner alchemy, for example, a key concept is the refinement of essential matter into vital breath and spirit. To this end, Taoists practice breathing exercises, massage and martial arts with great dedication.
In contemporary New Age and pop psychology literature, we are often told that our attitude dictates our commitment to our learning potential. It shows up and is expressed through our reactions: eloquent, dismissive, doubtful, cynical, angry, resentful. Other ways to respond to statements of truth or guidance include: strangely sad, full of longing (a longing in the distance that you can’t find words for), hesitant, hopeful, scared, hurt, relentless, fixated, or unyielding.
Like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the authoritative nearly 1,000-page manual of diagnostic criteria used by mental health professionals and insurance companies, descriptions of illness and condition outnumber descriptions of well-being. But find the logic. Our attitude produces a positive response only when we become receptive, open, and insightful. Yet there are a plethora of ways to sabotage this response and find our way into negativity.
And the logic is this. I am driving from York to London, England. The route is to take the A64 to the A1 and then the M1 all the way. This is the route, because it gets me there quickly, safely and more economically than any other route. However, if I take a wrong turn and take the M18 to Sheffield just past Doncaster, I will take a detour of 20 miles or more, adding time, more danger and expense to my journey. If I accidentally take the M62 to Hull or stay on the A64 to Leeds the result is the same. There is really only one efficient route.
In another uncharacteristic parallel, inner work corresponds to outer life by reinforcing and reflecting the fact that one way is right when there are a great many wrong ways. Is it any wonder that so many are lost and seek guidance?
“I don’t know who I am / But you know life is for learning,” Joni Mitchell sang in that stardust / gold song. Knowing who you are is the goal of personal enlightenment, as in “Who am I?” or “What is a human?” The root meaning of enlightenment is wisdom, knowledge and there is even a connection with feathers. The word “drive” has the curious meaning of the German “to push from behind”, reminiscent of the Taoist concept of “leading from below”.
In an ancient Taoist story, a man is filled with an irrational fear that the sky would fall and destroy his home and family. A friend told him that the sky was everywhere and consisted of nothing but the air in which he walked and breathed, so how could anyone fear the collapse of the sky.
The frightened man replied that if the sky were heaped air, there was no danger of the stars falling. The friend replied that the stars were only illuminated masses of air, to which the frightened man replied, “What if the earth gave way under my feet?”
His friend replied that the Earth was a solid mass of filling space. “It’s everywhere,” he said, “because you can walk on it all day and night without reaching the end, so how can you be afraid of it breaking under your feet?” Apparently, the frightened man experienced great relief in the explanation and began to live with confidence.
We are getting closer to a breathing universe with the friend identifying the planets as air bodies and the Earth leading from below. To quote that correspondence, let’s just say that the ancient Taoists who used to say, “Look not left or right,” were right and went on without distraction. Every time, according to an old story, they set foot on the earth, they refused to take for granted the fact that there was stability and matter around their feet, so inspired were they to be thankful by the blessing of all they needed for their nature. .
Perhaps they were inspired as often as they exhaled.