Breath: Divine Gas In a Smart Body

The word breath most often refers to the air we pull in to and pump out of our lungs (or to the action of doing so) as in “Take a deep breath.” But we also give the same word loftier qualities in phrases such as “the breath of life” and in practices like yoga that view the breath as a source of health and peace. Other traditions and languages also have words for breath in both these ordinary and spiritual senses, such as Latin spiritus, Hebrew ruach, and Chinese qi.

breath spirit (

But what about the breathing body itself? Unless we are wheezing or short of breath, we usually take the smooth coordination of our lungs, diaphragm, membranes, and blood cells as unremarkable. But let’s refocus our wonderment for a moment. The air is, when you come down to it, just a mix of gasses, but our body’s ingenious respiration of them is a process to appreciate.

We breathe in air because it contains one gas that we must have: oxygen. We know that. Less familiar, though, is the step-down system that has evolved to make the most of the fact that, like all gasses, oxygen spreads out from wherever there is more of it to where there is less of it. Thanks to this step-down dispersal and our flowing  blood, we move oxygen from the air outside of us to every cell that is waiting for it, all several trillion—that’s 000,000,000,000—of them.

Why oxygen? Its electrons are arranged in such a way that it interacts eagerly and often with other elements. It’s a potent extrovert. The body’s cells may get their nourishment from food molecules but not unless they also have oxygen handy to break those molecules down. That would be like our eating dinner without any acid in our stomach to digest it. No nourishment. Without oxygen, cells go hungry.

But a little oxygen goes a long way. The numbers surprised me. Only about twenty percent of the air that we breathe is oxygen. The rest is nitrogen and a percent or two of other gasses. And of that twenty percent of oxygen that we inhale, we actually use only about a quarter of it. The rest goes out again. Our inhalation is twenty percent oxygen; we exhale fifteen percent.

Once it is in our lungs, oxygen must get across the lung’s membrane to the blood stream that will move it around the body. The amount of oxygen in the lung might not seem like much, but it is more than remains in the oxygen-depleted blood that is returning towards the lungs through the veins. So the new oxygen steps down across the thin membrane to the empty hemoglobin molecules in the blood cells for the ride to the rest of the body.

As this convoy of oxygenated blood flows near, say, a finger, the oxygen detaches from the hemoglobin, steps down once more across a membrane to a cell itself, and goes to work on the food particles. In the process, extrovert that it is, oxygen combines to form unusable carbon dioxide, crosses the cell membrane back out to some empty passing hemoglobin that just dropped off new oxygen elsewhere, rides the vein back to the lungs, gets off again, and is exhaled back out to air. Like riding the bus you took to work back home at the end of the day.

I argue for the wonderment of a distribution system that pulls in air-borne oxygen in an endless rhythm, arranges for it to disperse itself across strategic membranes, loads it on to the blood for transport to a million million cells that it will help nourish, after which it returns the way it came in. Our stunning respiration makes oxygen look good—even divine.


Black Body and Soul

In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates often refers to himself and other black people as bodies. The central fear of blacks in America, he writes, is and has been that their bodies will be destroyed. The fear pervades the bravado of black youth as well as the steely hope of the elders. Instead of using an I or we or you, Coates writes such sentences as “Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed” and “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage” (103).

In the middle of the book, this theme of the body takes a turn.

I believed, and still do, that our bodies are our selves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh. (79)

I have no praise anthems [in memory of the deaths of slaves], nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and soul are the body and brain, which are destructible—that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton. (103)

For Coates, soul and spirit exist as mortal, not immortal, attributes, present in us when we live and gone when we die.



Coates surprised me when he argued for the thoroughly bodily nature of spirit and soul. I have had the luxury of holding secular views of life without feeling the threat of bodily destruction hanging over me and those close to me. But Coates has the courage to put aside the consolations of the immaterial and the supernatural despite believing that the bodies he cares about are never safe from violence. I’ve never been put to that test.

Coates is not fully comfortable with his secularism, however. He writes to his son, to whom the book is addressed, that he, Coates, worries about having “missed something” by rejecting religion.

I thought of my own distance from an institution that has so often been the only support for our people. I often wonder if in that distance I’ve missed something, some notions of cosmic hope, some wisdom beyond my mean physical perception of the world, something beyond the body, that I might have transmitted to you. (139)

But Coates does find a kind of transcendant hope and wisdom in a different collaborative setting besides the church. He writes to his son that his life has essentially been happy, “that I drew great joy from the study, from the struggle toward which I now urge you” (115). Perhaps the shared purpose and collective energy of his political activism is a portion of what he fears he missed in rejecting religion. If so, I think his son has the message.

The Purpose Problem

Years ago I heard about a book on the purpose-driven life. I rushed to a bookstore (ah, bookstores), only to find that it was mostly about God. But I realized then that I had uncertainties that had snuck up on me about my life’s purpose . Now, years later, I’m thinking that life is indeed purpose-driven but not at all in Rick Warren’s terms.

But let me back up and summarize some basic ideas about purpose.

A traditional view has been that things happen in order to achieve a final goal, a goal often involving God. Today we often think about goals on the more modest scale of strategic plans and personal targets. And yet the idea that everything is part of a grand plan remains very comforting. People seem calmer about bad news after saying that “everything happens for a reason.”

Over the last century, this traditional view has been largely dismantled. Things in nature and life happen for reasons—physical, social, psychological—that are rooted in the past and present more than in the future. A woman who is looking for a job might say that her purpose for doing so is to earn money so her young children will be able to go to college some day. The traditional analysis of her actions would be that she is “pulled along” through her job search by the final goal of college for her kids. But her friends today might tell you that while that distant goal may boost her spirits from time to time, her actions are more the result of her history, her personality, and her current debts.

god and purpose statement

People take comfort from viewing the world, including themselves, as full of purpose. (

Now the pendulum is swinging again and a different perspective about purpose is getting attention. This is the observation that certain ordinary actions are indeed clearly purposeful. If you’re getting hungry and planning your dinner, your planning is purposeful. Maybe you need to drive to Subway to buy that sandwich; the drive is purposeful. Once you’ve eaten the sandwich, your digestive system will take up its own purposeful process. It turns out that most of what you and your body parts do—your stomach, your heart, your sleeping, your socializing—is purposeful in that it accomplishes some basic biological function or meets a biological need.

In other words, human organs and behaviors did not come into existence for a purpose but came into existence because they served a purpose. There is very little in us that is not purposeful in terms of functioning to keep us alive. 

Evolution of the heart

The heart evolved not for a purpose but because it served a purpose. (

So back to the big question about the purpose-driven life. Are the purpose-serving activities of the organs that keep us alive related to that Purpose with a capital P that we look for in our  life as a whole? Do these biological functions and behaviors with their specific purposes make up part of  what we can think of as “the purpose of life”?

I think so. I think it would be surprising if they didn’t. We may each frame our Purpose in a different future-oriented way—to live happily, to be creative, to find peace, to achieve success. But each vision of a direction seems to me to be the work of our brain as it extends and embellishes the biological functionality that keeps us alive. We are indeed purpose-driven.



Note: A useful source has been a paper by Nathan Bourne, “Teleology as Evolutionary Etiology: An analysis of teleological explanations of biological phenomena,” at Bourne draws on the work of Larry Wright, especially his book Teleological Explanations: An Etiological Analysis of Goals and Functions, UCal Press, 1976.