During August, for my Institute for Jewish Spirituality Meditation Teacher Training program, we were to focus on breathing. During the first week of the month our teachers directed us to get back to basics-to use the breath actively as a concentration practice, experimenting with techniques such as labeling, counting, and paying attention to specifics such as beginning, middle and end; long, short, rough, and smooth.
We should set the intention to let the breath saturate our experience-to invite whatever pleasure arose, to grow and be sustained. We were to utilize this exercise to explore ways of deepening concentration. During the second week we worked with a sense of receiving the breathing and letting the attention be more on the whole body. I had hoped to establish mindfulness of the body so that the breath would simply come to me.
I dedicated myself to breathing in this receptive way, but I had trouble. My attention kept getting pulled to a recollection of a recent TED talk by Carl Safina about "clean-up" efforts related to the BP Gulf of Mexico oil gusher. Dr. Safina - an ornithologist, MacArthur Fellow, winner of the 2003 John Burroughs Medal for nature writing, and president of the Blue Ocean Institute who was named by the Audubon Society as one of the hundred leading conservationists of the twentieth century - began to cry during his talk as he recounted a story of a bottlenose dolphin in the Gulf. Now, I've seen men cry and I've witnessed the occasional scientist expressing profound sadness, but seeing Dr. Safina's seemingly uncalculated and public emotional response that arose from compassion was a first for me. In fact later in the talk, Safina explicitly referred to compassion as the most important quality we humans have to offer.
But it wasn't this that kept tripping me up in my efforts to deepen my concentration around the breath. It was the story of the dolphin. Safina said:
I heard the most incredible story today when I was on the train coming here. A writer named Ted Williams called me. And he was asking me a couple of questions about what I saw, because he's writing an article for Audubon magazine. He said that he had been in the Gulf a little while ago - like about a week ago - and a guy who had been a recreational fishing guide took him out to show him what's going on. ... he told Ted that on the last day he went out, a bottlenosed (sic) dolphin suddenly appeared next to the boat. And it was splattering oil out its blowhole. And he moved away because it was his last fishing trip, and he knew that the dolphins scare fish. So he moved away from it. Turned around a few minutes later, it was right next to the side of the boat again. He said that in 30 years of fishing he had never seen a dolphin do that. And he felt that - he felt that it was coming to ask for help.
Then he choked up, looked away from the audience momentarily, turned back to them and excused himself. "Sorry," he said.
Dr. Safina, if you read this, please know that I thank you and think no apology is necessary.
Now, I'm a geologist, not a cetologist, so Dr. Safina's story caused me to feel the need to do a bit of research on how bottlenose dolphins breathe. An article in Science told me that these athletic marine mammals show numerous physiologic adaptations to life in a dense, three-dimensional medium-that is, seawater-and as air breathers they are inseparably tied to the surface of the water. According to the website of the Dolphin Research Center, dolphins breathe air directly into their lungs via the blowhole, which is essentially a nostril that leads to two nasal passages beneath the skin. The blowhole is naturally closed and must be opened by contraction of a muscular flap. It opens briefly for a fast exhalation and inhalation. Air sacs under the blowhole help to close the blowhole.
Much to my amazement I learned also that dolphins are "conscious breathers" who must deliberately surface and open the blowhole to get air-that means they think about every breath they take; they concentrate on the breath. Bottlenose dolphins typically rise to the surface to breathe two to three times per minute although they can remain submerged for up to 20 minutes. How do they sleep, I wondered? Apparently, dolphins breathe while "half-asleep"; during the sleeping cycle, one brain hemisphere remains active in order to continue to handle surfacing and breathing behavior, while the other hemisphere shuts down. I tried to do my assignment, to focus on my breath, but I kept wondering if the recreational fishing guide to whom Safina referred had witnessed a dolphin, panicky, because it couldn't breathe.
I've had asthma myself and have been through bouts of croup and asthma with my children. I know that suffocating feeling. I wondered if Corexit, the dispersant used to break up the oil in the Gulf, might affect the geophysical fluid properties of seawater so as to make breathing more labored for dolphins there. It's been hard to find any information about this. Much of the bad news around Corexit relates to its geochemistry-not it's physical, but its toxic chemical effects.
As many people know, seawater contains not only sodium chloride (ordinary table salt) but magnesium sulfate, magnesium chloride, and calcium carbonate which taken together as the "dissolved salts" in seawater are called "salinity." It's measured in parts per thousand (‰) which is equal to grams per kilogram. The salinity of freshwater is 0‰; normal seawater has a salinity of about 35‰. Salinity makes seawater very different from freshwater. Most animals have a specific range of salinities that they can tolerate partly because salinity, along with temperature, determines water density. Density and pressure are related to one another. In my research I'd read that dolphins can detect very small changes in pressure. Could a pressure sensitive organ such as a blowhole membrane be affected by changes in the chemical and physical properties of seawater?
I watched as Safina conducted a science demonstration on TED; he showed that dishwashing detergent (a dispersant) added to a glass of oil floating on water and stirred causes the oil to break up into small globules that remain suspended in the water. The water became cloudy, and I would bet that if I tried to measure the density and viscosity of the Corexit-induced mixture of oil and sea water, those parameters would have changed from what the dolphins are accustomed to for their voluntary breathing process. Does the changed physics and chemistry of Gulf seawater owing to Corexit-dispersed oil in the seawater affect the breathing experience of dolphins?
Since the blowhole is supposed to contract tightly to ensure complete closure when the dolphin dives, would oil dispersed in the water make the seal slippery and less secure? Could oily water get into a dolphins respiratory system? I'm sure that some scientists would say that these effects are "negligible" so I had to leave these questions to the cetologists.
I finished an unsatisfactory sit because I couldn't easily receive the breath. My chest and heart felt heavy. I turned to one of our reading assignments for this month, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared by "Zen Rabbi" Alan Lew, of blessed memory, who had been the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco as well as founder and director of Makor Or, the first meditation center connected to a synagogue in the U.S. Lew wrote:
We all share the same heart. We penetrate each other far more than we are ordinarily aware. Ordinarily we are taken in by the materialist myth of discrete being. We look like we are separate bodies. We look like we are discrete from one another. Physically we can see where one of us begins and another of us ends, but emotionally, spiritually, it simply isn't this way. Our feelings and our spiritual impulses flow freely beyond the boundaries of the self, and this is something that each of us knows intuitively for a certainty (Lew 81).
Maybe Carl Safina's heart ached because we all share
the same heart. And perhaps I'm having trouble receiving the breath
because we and the dolphins share the same lungs.
This essay first appeared in Shambhala Sun Space.