Saturday, June 7, 2014

Breathing with Hildegard

Pearl Jellyfish at the Shedd Aquarium, Chicago

When we read excerpts of Hildegard of Bingen's 12th century medico-mystical/mystico-medical work Causae et Curae in my "Gender and Identity in Medieval Art" class this spring, my students prized being invited by her words to think about their bodies as complex, integrated, pulsing and purposeful systems. The nose as an organ of wisdom (sapientiae) cracked us up, and then we settled into thinking about smell and taste and discernment of good from bad. The idea of the cosmos as a giant stomach seemed, well, unpoetic, until we started thinking of the drive of hunger, of one thing feeding (into) the energy of another. But the one that we spent the most time talking about, the one that we actually wanted (could) experience together was her claim for our lungs.
  • The heart is the seat of all knowledge, the liver is the seat of the feelings, the lungs are like veins in the leaf of understanding. - Causae et Curae (translated as Holistic Healing by M Pawlik, Liturgical Press, 1994, p. 38).
Our humble, weird, fragile, unnoticed lungs! Granted the noble quality of rationalitas! Breathing as understanding! But as we heard a student's sharp intake of breath before she said "Oh!" in recognition, we started, yes, to understand. A long, slow exhale through pursed lips (the realization that you're overwhelmed, granting to yourself that you're tired); a sigh that slowly caves your body in (the sympathy you have for the demise before you); the disruptive impatience of a sighing student (demise of the classroom, surely); how much breath it takes to laugh (again, sympathy came up); the huge, greedy gulps of breath reclaiming consciousness after a nightmare (your breath letting you recognize that you're awake, that it's ok); the terror (and damage to the brain and its cognition if it continues) of not being able to breathe; the way breathing slows and regularizes when you're reading (slipping almost entirely out of your awareness of it); the deep breath you take before going on stage/being tested (resolution, understanding what you're facing/up against). Some of these are culturally specific (I love how French produces "Oui!" with a sharp intake of breath), some of them are not (is sighing trans-cultural?). And then, of course, those modes of thought, of powerful concentration, that valorize and study breath - we came up with two: yoga and giving birth (a pretty interesting pair, actually). So yes, yes we realized, breathing is understanding. It is a rational mode. It is also a sympathetic mode (and you can consider all of the times we breathe with someone: in sleep, in laughter, in sighing).

Alexander in a Diving Bell, The Met
At Kalamazoo this year, Karen Overbey shared/generously gave a brilliant meditation of "Breathing" as an Impossible Word. Thinking about Alexander the Great's ambitions to breathe underwater (searching led me to this beautiful Indian manuscript image from the late 16th century, in which the water swirls around Alexander's diving bell as it is being lowered), Karen asked after our own breathing, our own consciousness of something we do unconsciously. Answering that call took our bodies and our trust, as we touched the one standing next to us (and were touched by the same), so as to feel each other breathing. Fragile, poignant, ordinary, deep, momentary every time.  So yes, when we breathe, we participate in this great "leaf of understanding." That's (still) much harder to fully understand. It's more Hildegard and less modern: more her cosmological scale, her deeply integrated universe - that breathing courses (carries nutrients through, as veins do within a leaf) this larger floating thing, this leaf of understanding.

Why does she keep showing jellyfish?

But maybe our breathing and our understanding is all interconnected. The air we breathe is completely shared within this planet, gusts and winds moving it along (as Steve Mentz made me realize in his fantastic postmedieval essay on "Air"), redistributing it, bringing the increasingly complex chemical plumes we project along, redistributing those. It's the two-dimensionality of the leaf of understanding that defies my understanding - but maybe I need to think more three-dimensionally about leaves: enter their thickness and complexity. Consider entire systems that breathe. When we were at the special "Jellies" exhibit at the Shedd Aquarium this week, my daughter marveled at a tank full of them. "Look at them all breathing together!" she said (to be corrected by her much more precise, more scientific sister who explained about the absence of lungs, heart, brain even (though we all loved the idea of a "neural net" instead of a brain)). The movement of a jellyfish can look like an image of breathing - to me, that partly explains why almost any jellyfish exhibit I've seen (my fair share) has New Age music piped in, and glowing blues and greens backlighting the tanks (red for the deeply poisonous ones, of course). Jellyfish indeed do not have lungs, but they might look like lungs breathing because they absorb the oxygen they need through their entire body. Their entire body is a breathing surface. Entering almost any idea for me begins with an etymology - and so "lung": a solid Old English, proto-Germanic, Norse word simply meaning "light" - as in "not heavy" (as in "floats to the top when boiled unlike the other organs" - shudder). Our own lightness of being within, connecting us instantly to greater currents. But then, the very different word, "poumon" (the French word for lung) - of course it's from the Latin, pulmo. And if you keep reading the entry in the Latin dictionary, you understand (with a delighted intake of breath) that our linguistic net turns out to be as interconnected as our breathing. For pulmo marinus (ah!) means jellyfish.