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Breathing Metaphors

Kate MacDowell "Canary 3"

Take a breath

Breathe with me before we begin. Note how it feels. Pull the cool air in through your nostrils, moving the breath downward into your chest. Fill your lungs slowly and deliberately until they are completely full. Pause at this peak of fullness and ask, “What does it feel like to be full?”

With your full lungs, now breathe out. Allow the body-warmed air to move across your lips and tongue, noting the sound it makes. Breathe out slowly and deliberately until your lungs are completely empty. Pause at this nadir of emptiness and ask, “How does it feel to be empty?”

With empty lungs, now breathe in again. Allow this process to flow inwards and outwards as your respiratory instinct naturally takes over.

A story about breathing

I often get nervous speaking in front of crowds. This strange thing happens where I tend to only breathe in. I will say a sentence or two, then breathe in, continue talking, and then breathe in some more. My chest starts to puff up like a cartoon strongman. It is a very peculiar sight to see. Over the course of a minute or two, my lungs are so bursting with air that I can no longer speak. I start to feel like I am going to pass out – lungs full of breath, but no more oxygen. There is nowhere to go but a huge, awkward exhale. Then I feel dizzy and embarrassed, panting as if I just finished a race. My body does weird things under stress.

When my only brother, Morgan, got married a few years ago, he asked me to be his best man. I felt very honored. He and I are close, and over the years I have learned so much from him; this speech was my chance to pay tribute to our relationship. I spent months pouring over what I would say. For me, it was a very symbolic moment.

I felt great about the speech, and had it mostly memorized, but was nervous about speaking before the crowd. I was anxious, of course, about that “only breathing in” thing. I envisioned a disaster. There I would be, with a hundred and fifty faces patiently waiting as I fought over words and breath.

My father saw me standing in the corner, nursing a cocktail, practicing the speech to myself. He asked me how I felt. I told him about the breath thing, and he laughed. He smiled and said, “When you go up there, don’t think of it like a speech. Instead, imagine yourself standing at the line before a free throw.” My dad, after all, used to coach me in basketball.

He continued, “When you’re at the line, the crowd, the other players, they’re all watching expectantly. But if you’re going to make those two shots, you can’t be on their schedule. You have to create your own space. Make sure your feet are aligned. Feel the texture of the ball on your fingertips. Spin it around a few times, feel its weight. You remember,” he said. “What do you do? You square up. You dribble at the line. Only then do you take your shot.”

I nodded along, not yet seeing where he was going with this. I asked him how I was supposed to dribble before my speech.

“When you’re standing in front of the wedding party,” he answered, “take a few breaths. You’ll feel all those eyes on you, all that pressure to speak. But think of it like the free throw line. Take a few moments to collect yourself. Soak in the expectation of everyone. Bask in the glow of their silence. That moment is for you. You’re not just here to speak, but to be present. Your speech is about two things: words and silences. Honor both. If you think of yourself as only there to speak, then you’ll only be breathing in. So breathe out too. The audience is there to listen to your silences as much as your words.”

An hour later, it was my time. I stood before the wedding and took a deep breath in. Then, in silence, I breathed out. Slowly the anxiety of expectation melted into its opposite. I felt confident standing silently before the crowd. And when I finally spoke, the words came out measured and balanced.

Respiration as a model for balance

If you are reading this book, then you are probably alive, and most likely have a working knowledge of how to breathe. If you are new to the breath game, then please refer to the exercise described above. There you will see that breathing is a polarity composed of two opposites: full lungs and empty lungs. You breathe in. You breathe out. It is important to note that neither of these poles is either “good” or “bad”. Respiration is a process. Breathing is the flow from full to empty and back again. The only “harmful” form of respiration is the stoppage of the process. One-sidedness, like my lungs being so full they are bursting at the seams, is damaging to the organism. The healthy (and only) way for me to breathe is for my breath to be a balanced flow. Breathing, in this sense, can be viewed as a metaphor for duality. In this model, the two opposites of “full” and “empty” cannot be in opposition, but must rather compose a stable whole.

Thinking duality in this way is surprisingly not common in our culture. In the west, we want a “good” side and a “bad” side so we know who to root for and who to throw old vegetables at. We want our polarities to be at war (because war is good for the economy, right?). Even though we all have bodies and rely on the balance of respiration to live, it seems as if our conceptual models for polarity have us situated in a very “us vs. them” or “good vs. bad” mentality of one-sidedness. The Star Wars movies (which I grew up on) present us with two opposites eternally at war: the “light side” and the “dark side” of the force. The Jedi are the good guys and the Sith are the bad guys. This moral device makes incredible intuitive sense to our culture. We want “good” to triumph over “evil” at every turn. In fact, “good vs. evil” is our primary metaphor for duality, a war metaphor. It would seem like ours is the culture of bursting lungs.

In her book A Philosophy of Emptiness, author Gay Watson explores the metaphorical origins of western and eastern models for duality. She suggests how each culture began with a different paradigm for experience, which in turn structured their divergent worldviews. She writes, “The initial choice between ‘I breathe’ and ‘I perceive’ defines what constitutes reality.”1 The legacy of the Greeks to the west, she claims, takes “perception” as its primary metaphor. In this model, what I see exists and what I do not see does not exist. Such a binary cleaves the world into two camps: one present and one absent. This split is emblematic of our culture, which celebrates presence while shunning absence. “It’s better to have and not need, than need and not have,” as the saying goes.2

The legacy of the Chinese to the east, however, takes respiration as its model for reality. Watson writes, “The Chinese choice, based on an experiential knowledge of breathing in and breathing out, led to the principle of a regulating alternation of emptiness and fullness from which the process of the world flows.”3 Alan Watts, in his book on Taoism, expands this definition:4

At the very roots of Chinese thinking and feeling there lies the principle of polarity, which is not to be confused with the ideas of opposition or conflict. In the metaphors of other cultures, light is at war with darkness, life with death, good with evil, and the positive with the negative, and thus an idealism to cultivate the former and be rid of the latter flourishes throughout much of the world. To the traditional way of Chinese thinking, this is as incomprehensible as an electric current without both positive and negative poles, for polarity is the principle that + and –, north and south, are different aspects of one and the same system, and that the disappearance of either one of them would be the disappearance of the system.5

In this “respiration” model of reality, duality is held wholly and non-antagonistically. Emptiness and fullness, knowledge and non-knowledge, life and death, are both equal and essential aspects of the same process. Thinking such a thought – duality in balance – and the worldview that follows, is contingent upon having a central structuring metaphor, such as our breath metaphor. The way we understand the world is structured by the metaphorical framework we have in our brains.

Conceptual metaphors

Metaphor is much more than fancy rhetoric. Typically, when we think about metaphor, we think back to when we learned about “figures of speech” in school. We learned that when poets write “love is a rose” they are being metaphorical. Love is not actually a rose, you were taught, and so this use of language is “figurative”, not literal. The poet is painting a picture in your mind. It is art, not reality. As young students, such a definition of metaphor made us believe that there could be literal uses language that would give us direct access to reality. Ironically, such a thought itself is metaphorical.

Studying consciousness through language and the brain, cognitive scientists have discovered how metaphor and the structure of thought are actually quite inseparable. Metaphor, it seems, is not something that “gets in the way” of understanding reality “as it is”, but rather, metaphor is how we understand and reason about the world.

This inseparability of metaphor and reason comes from the fact that we are thinking bodies. We do not “have a body” and “have a mind”. Rather, we are one body-mind system. To comprehend this system, we have to understand the feedback loop that exists between the abstract thoughts we think, how we think them physically in our brains, and what our bodies are capable of doing with these thoughts.

The term “conceptual metaphor” is used to show how metaphor is not merely about words, but rather about thought itself. “Metaphorical language is a reflection of metaphorical thought,” write George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their book Philosophy in the Flesh.6 We can see metaphorical thought happening directly in a process called “conflation”, which is the neurological process of merging two types of experience occurring simultaneously in the brain. These conflated co-activations form the very building blocks of thought. Lakoff and Johnson call these building blocks “primary metaphors”. The two authors explain:

For young children, subjective (nonsensorimotor) experiences and judgments, on the one hand, and sensorimotor7 experiences, on the other, are so regularly conflated – undifferentiated in experience – that for a time children do not distinguish between the two when they occur together. For example, for an infant, the subjective experience of affection is typically correlated with the sensory experience of warmth, the warmth of being held. During the period of conflation, associations are automatically built up between the two domains. Later… [these] cross-domain associations persist. These persisting associations are the mappings of conceptual metaphor that will lead the same infant, later in life, to speak of “a warm smile,” “a big problem,” and “a close friend.”8

This means that for the typical infant, your first experiences of “love and affection” happen when your parent is physically holding you. Your parent is a human (most likely) and is running at a warm ninety-eight point six degrees. This means that your first experiences of love are happening simultaneously with experiences of warmth. During the period of conflation, these two domains of experience are permanently connected in the brain. “Neurons that fire together wire together,” as the expression goes.9

There is nothing figurative about this process. “Love” and “warmth” are physically mapped together in the brain through actual neural connections. This is why, later in life, when I say, “She had a warm smile,” you know exactly what I mean. If you try to undo that primary metaphor, it actually does not make sense. How can a smile be warm? Did you touch her mouth with your hand? Did she stop smiling when you did that? Does she now think you are creepy?

You would never ask these questions, because “warm” co-activates “love and affection” in your brain. You know that I mean, “She had an affectionate smile,” because you intuitively know that “warmth” is the experience of affection. In fact, you only know affection because you know warmth.

Expanding on this idea, the most important aspect of primary metaphor comes from one distinction: love as a feeling is deeply complex, abstract, and hard to understand, while warmth as a sensation is physical, fairly literal, and easier to understand. Thus, the power of conceptual metaphor comes from the ability it gives you to reason about abstract feelings with the logic of physical experiences. This is called a “mapping”. Allow me to introduce you to some lingo: there is a “source domain” and a “target domain”. The source is the thing that makes physical sense, the thing you experience with your body. It is called the “source” since it is the source of reasoning. The target, on the other hand, is the thing that is hard to understand, the thing that mainly exists abstractly in your brain. It is called the “target” since it needs help.

Conceptual metaphor is thus fairly straightforward, since it is only made up of two parts. The abstract target is metaphorically (and neurologically) linked to the physical source. We understand warmth, but it is hard to understand love. So, we apply the logic of warmth to the experience of love in order to make inferences. (On your first date, was he being “cold” or “warm” to you?) This capacity for inferential reasoning is what thought is. Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter writes, “All meaning is mapping-mediated, which is to say, all meaning comes from analogies.”10 Since metaphor and analogy is the very stuff of thought, the list of primary metaphors could go on forever. Beyond “affection is warmth” we have “important is big,” “happy is up,” “intimacy is closeness,” “bad is stinky,” “difficulties are burdens,” “knowing is seeing,” and so forth.11 Lakoff and Johnson show beautifully how even complex conceptual metaphors are slowly built up from these primary metaphor building blocks. In their book they spend an entire chapter on “a purposeful life is a journey”. For instance, there is a certain experience that we have all felt, but the only way for me to describe it is to say, “I’m feeing stuck” or “I feel like I’m spinning my wheels”.12 Such expressions come directly from the “life is a journey” complex metaphor, and give both you and me a way to understand, discuss, and reason about our experience (which is to say: it is how we think).

We can no longer think of metaphor as an artistic but unnecessary flourish to thinking; rather, we must understand that metaphor is what it means to think. Lakoff and Johnson write, “Metaphors provide subjective experience with extremely rich inferential structure, imagery, and qualitative “feel,” when the networks for subjective experience and the sensorimotor networks neurally connected to them are coactivated.”13 The key phrase here is “rich inferential structure”, which means that metaphor allows us to reason. This is one of the boldest discoveries of their work. Our human capacity to reason, the very stuff of thinking and consciousness, is an embodied process that emerges from conceptual metaphor. They write, “Perhaps the most important thing to understand about conceptual metaphors is that they are used to reason with.”14 The metaphors we use structure our very capacity to reason and think.

The beauty here, as I see it, is that by understanding the metaphorical way thought works, by being mindful of our own process, we can then become conscious agents in the sculpting of new metaphors for thought, allowing us to finally think and enact the type of world we actually want to inhabit. For me, this is an enormous insight into the potential plasticity of our habitual worldviews. Sure, we inherited an antagonistic metaphorical system of “good vs. evil” from our culture, but this is not where our story ends. We have the power to change this story by changing our metaphors, which structure our ability to reason and think, and which, in turn, change the way we live and act.

Our breath metaphor described in the above section is not just a figure of speech. This respiratory model is a new way of being in the world. It is a way of thinking and a way of acting. Thinking “duality in balance” is thus an ethical imperative structured by a mindful metaphorics. It is the responsibility of our conscious minds to choose the metaphor system that most ethically fits with the world we want to create. Ask yourself: Do I want to live in a “world of war” or a “world of balance”?


1. [Gay Watson, A Philosophy of Emptiness, p. 52, Reaktion Books, 2014.]
2. [This expression seems to be attributed to many different people, which leads me to believe that it is just a cultural expression emblematic of the west, rather than the quote of a single author.]
3. [Watson, A Philosophy of Emptiness., p. 52-3.]
4. [I quote these sources, however inspirational as I find them, with some hesitation. I fear that describing “east vs. west” in this way is just one more antagonistic (and ethnocentric) model for reality, especially since these two authors, Watson and Watts, are both white. My goal here is not to situate one culture as superior to or more exotic than the other. Rather, my goal is to highlight multiple cultural perspectives and show how they structure our capacity to reason.
That being said, I am an American, so my own cultural heritage (and baggage) is unavoidably present. An important part of this project will then be its capacity to break out of old models so that we may use new metaphors for thought. As the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes, “True philosophy consists in relearning to look at the world.” (Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, p. xxiii, Routledge Classics, 2002.)
Achieving this new vision will require casting a wide net to find the best metaphors and analogies that will help us re-think our habitually engrained patterns of understanding. Doing this will often mean jumping from science to religion to literature to art, and it will often require us to think through the texts of different cultural heritages.
I will try to be careful and respectful in the process. My goal is not to culturally appropriate, but rather to be as inclusive as possible. With respiration as our model for balance, we will have to breathe both eastern and western viewpoints, both consciousness and the unconscious, both pain and pleasure, both feminine and masculine, and, most dramatically, both life and death, in order to find something truly balanced. In the words of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, “All feelings that concentrate you and lift you up are pure; only that feeling is impure which grasps just one side of your being and thus distorts you.” (Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, p. 101, Vintage Books, 1984.)]
5. [Alan Watts, Tao: The Watercourse Way, p. 19-20, Pantheon Books, 1975.]
6. [George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, p. 123, Basic Books, 1999.]
7. [“Sensorimotor” is lingo for “sensory-motor”, which is a cognitive science expression meaning “both the sensory and motor domains of the human body.” “Sensory” are the body’s senses and “motor” is the ability for the body to move. These two domains are deeply linked, thus the hybrid expression.]
8. [Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, p. 46.]
9. [This expression is a popular paraphrase of neuropsychologist Donald Hebb’s “Hebbian theory,” or cell assembly theory, which he introduced in 1949. For more on this theory, see his book The Organization of Behavior.]
10. [Douglas Hofstadter, I Am A Strange Loop, p. 158, Basic Books, 2007.]
11. [Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, p. 50-54.]
12. [Ibid., p. 68.]
13. [Ibid., p. 59.]
14. [Ibid., p. 65.]


  1. Theo Swillens says

    Your personal story about breathing is very relatable. It helps to think about public speaking not as just speaking, but as presenting.

    I also really enjoy the quote: “the principle of a regulating alternation of emptiness and fullness from which the process of the world flows.” I find this a beautiful way of looking at the biological oscillators we hold in our physical bodies. Alternating emptiness and fullness that propels expression.

    Thanks for sharing.


    • Thanks for reading and for the comment, Theo! I really appreciate it.

      The more I get into dynamic systems the more I see them as flows of breathing between different states – the entire process being what makes something alive.


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