Reason No. 4: You can breathe / Dawson Church, Ph.D.



About Dawson Church, Ph.D.

Dawson Church, PhD, is an award-winning science writer with several best-selling books to his credit. His groundbreaking work, “The Genie in Your Genes,” revealed the profound influence of emotions on gene expression. With a deep-rooted commitment to scientific inquiry, Dr. Church has conducted numerous clinical trials and established the National Institute for Integrative Healthcare. This institution is dedicated to investigating and implementing evidence-based psychological and medical approaches.

His research has been published in prestigious scientific journals, and he serves as the editor of the peer-reviewed journal “Energy Psychology: Theory, Research, & Treatment.” Dr. Church also shares practical applications for health and athletic performance through, one of the most-visited alternative healing websites.

More about Dawson Church:



Shai Tubali: I’m so delighted to have you in this project, Dawson Church. Thank you for being here with us and for being willing to share your insight—your particular insight into awe.

Dawson Church: I’ve so enjoyed our previous conversations, Shai, and I am honored to be here. I’m so delighted to be sharing together on this awesome theme. So, thank you for having me.

Shai Tubali: Thank you so much. That’s lovely.  So, as you already understand, in this project, what we do is guide readers, listeners, and viewers on different journeys into the best reasons for feeling awe. And I would like to invite you now to introduce us to one good reason for feeling awe. I know that, in your tremendously rich and fascinating field of study and exploration, you have probably found many good reasons for feeling awe. So perhaps it would be a little challenging for you to select one, but just for the sake of this interview.

Dawson Church: Yeah.  o you’re right, there are thousands of reasons that we can look at and consider for feeling awe, but I’m going to start with one, Shai, that I think is fundamental. And that is the fact that you and I and everyone with us right now are breathing. We have breath; we have the gift of breath. And I was so struck that I was writing an essay recently on the commonalities of the world’s spiritual traditions and the ways we can bring ourselves into elevated states of consciousness and connect with “all it is” and with the transcendent state of being. And I realized that the commonality of so many of these spiritual traditions is the breath. And so just the fact that we’re breathing is a cause for awe. One of the pieces of data I looked up on the World Health Organization website recently had to do with breathing.

One day I was sitting in meditation and just enjoying the privilege of taking a deep, slow, and fulfilling breath. And I suddenly thought, “I wonder how many people in the world can’t take a deep breath like that.” I looked up the data, and the number was around 400 million people in the world who have some kind of respiratory distress and have some kind of reason why just taking a breath is a challenge for them. And so you’re breathing, I am breathing, roll breathing, that one thing. We can sit here and just take a breath. and this is the ground for all. Now, breath is far more than breath. If you read Ramana Maharshi, the great Indian saint of the early 20th century, or read Ramahansi of Hernandez’s famous bestseller, “Autobiography of a Yogi,” many of these spiritual traditions, from the Jewish scriptures to the Christian scriptures to Lao Tse in China or the Eastern traditions, we find that they are all reminding us that the breath is fundamental to life, and that the breath is the collection point with the infinite.

And so it sounds so simple. We take 26,000 breaths a day, unconsciously; that’s about 8 million breaths a year. We take it unconsciously; we aren’t even thinking about it. Our body is keeping us breathing; our body is keeping us alive. without me having to think: “Okay, now breathe in, now breathe out.” It’s all happening spontaneously. And so it’s easy to take those 26,000 breaths a day for granted. And yet these traditions tell us that the breath is the connection point with the divine. The breath is the connection point with the transcendent. So I want to start with the most basic possible way of feeling awe, which is just to sit here and feel your in-breath and your out-breath. Now, if you slow it down a little bit, if you get more conscious of it, if you bring your breathing down slowly to about six seconds per in-breath and about six seconds per out-breath, then you go into this phenomenon called heart coherence.

Now, my heart rate is coherent. My heart function is coherent. What that does is trigger brain coherence. Now my brain literally entrains my heart, and now my brain is coherent. My brain is emitting coherent brainwaves. So my brainwaves go from delta, then theta, alpha, beta, and gamma, all the way up the brain. Those brainwaves become coherent, and they become in sync with each other and with the rest of my physiology. So it’s producing profound shifts and profound effects on our health and wellbeing. And as all of those virtual authorities tell us, it’s the connection with the infinite. So if you had to pick one thing out of a million reasons to be filled with awe every day, start with your breath.

Shai Tubali: That’s wonderful because I really appreciate that you are guiding us toward attention to something that is literally under our nose, because awe tends to hide behind and beneath the most ordinary phenomena. Isn’t that so? So, perhaps we can take a moment in which you are guiding us to become more conscious of our breath?

Dawson Church: And one way to become more conscious of it is to simply focus on an experience that left you feeling in awe. In Sufism, in the Sufi tradition, this is called the glimpse, the glimpse of heaven. And you’ve all had that glimpse of heaven when you’ve held a newborn baby in your arms, when you have met with a friend after a long absence and you feel that sense of connection with them when you walk on the beach and you look down and see the waves that are splashing on the beach near your feet and you feel your toes sinking down into the beach sand, or when you look at a beautiful sunset. Any of those things are what the Sufis call a glimpse of heaven and bring you into that state of awe. When you listen to music by your favorite composer or your favorite band, you feel yourself swept up in that state of flow, which is again a very specific set of brainwaves that we measure with MRIs or EEGs. So when you get into that state of flow, that’ll do it. When you look at art, when you do art, or when you’re doing any kind of performance that really inspires you, you can have those glimpses. So the simplest exercise to get in touch with awe is to just close your eyes. And let’s just all do that now together.

Shai Tubali: Yes, please.

Dawson Church: So close your eyes and reflect on one of your glimpses. What glimpse did you have that left you feeling filled with awe and put you in flow—that sense of perfection? So reflect on this event now. Now that you’ve had your event, I want you to tune in to the quality of all five senses you experienced at that time. So reflect on what you saw. So you saw something, whether it was the sunset, the waves of the ocean, the image of the saint, or the work of art. So, reflect on the visual component of your experience of awe. And notice all the details of what you saw. What was the smallest thing, the biggest thing, and the most vivid color? and really tune into the visual component of that awe-inspiring experience. Feel your breath as you breathe in and out. And now tune into what you heard. What were you hearing during that moment? What was the loudest sound? The softest sound, the most unusual sound? and become aware of your breath flowing in and out. And imagine your breath flowing in and out through the center of your chest. So you’re breathing in through the center of your chest, and you’re breathing out through the center of your chest. And now notice any scent or smell that you noticed during that moment of awe; maybe if it was at the ocean, it was the salty scent of the wave, and if it was in a garden, it may have been the scent of the flowers. So tune into any scent that might have been present during that experience of awe. Feel your breath again, flowing in and out of your body through your heart and the center of your chest. And now reflect on any taste that you might have experienced at that moment. So you might have tasted that salty air. You might have salivated at that very rich, sensual experience. So reflect on your taste and slowly breathe in and out through your heart. And now notice what you were touching. Perhaps you picked up that sand from the beach and felt the grains of sand flow through your fingers. Maybe you touched a rose; maybe you touched a baby’s cheek. And you had that physical experience, that tactile experience of touch, to go along with this moment of awe. and tune into your breath again. Breathe slowly in and out through your heart and open your eyes.

And you’ve now had a rich multisensory experience of that glimpse. And some of those great philosophers and sages, like Dr. Paul Brunton in the 1920s and thirties, who was a student of Ramana and Maharshi, would have us dwell on the glimpse. The Sufis recommend we make remembering the glimpse part of our spiritual practice. You have the glimpse of heaven now remembering it.  And then neuroscience tells us that when we sensualize it, when we bring in all five senses into our memory, it then lights up and activates different parts of the brain. and we begin to have a whole-brain experience of that glimpse. Now it becomes extremely real to the brain, and it’s more likely that we’ll be able to evoke those feelings of awe in the future. So all we’ve done here is simply remember one of our many glimpses of heaven. We dwell on it. We’re firing those neurons. When you fire neurons, you wire them. In my book “Bliss Brain,” I have an image of two neurons that are firing together, and in the scanning electron microscope image of these two neurons, you see them shaking and vibrating as they fire together. Slowly, they move closer and closer together, and eventually they literally shake hands and wire together. And the whole process, from firing to wiring, takes 12 seconds. So all you need to do is savor that experience of awe for 12 seconds, and you’re already potentially creating a neo-neural pathway. Do that repeatedly, and you’re creating many new neural pathways. Over time, that’s literally changing the anatomical structure of your brain and sensitizing you to awe. And you then become a person who has an appreciation, a delight, and an affinity for those kinds of experiences.

Shai Tubali: Well, that was an incredible meditation. Thank you so much. I hope I I’ll be able to ask further questions.

Dawson Church: Yeah. Don’t put your brain to sleep.

Shai Tubali: I am also so happy that you weaved the element of awe into our breathing and our breathing awareness. Well, I think that many people are aware of meditation, mindfulness, and breathing. But only a few are aware of the fact that, when the Buddha first designed this meditation, he actually did it because he believed that mindfulness of breathing could actually connect us with reality. So this could actually constitute a complete path to reality, from liberation to transcendence. So my next question is, “Why would you say our breath can connect us with the infinite?” How are the two related? What is this link?

Dawson Church: We’re alive, and being alive is by itself a miracle. If you think for a moment about a corpse in the morgue, So imagine you’re visiting a hospital. There’s a dead body on the slab in the morgue. And this person has already been pronounced dead by a doctor. The doctor has said this person is dead. So that dead body, if you think about it, has all the cells required to move, love, laugh, and do all the activities of life; it has all the enzymes, all the proteins, all the genes, everything required for life, all the molecules; everything is there. It is missing one thing. and that’s actual life force. So five minutes before, this person was alive; now this person is dead. And so there’s just a dead body there. And so that’s the miracle of life. And so we want to connect ourselves with gratitude for that miracle of life in every moment.

And awe is one of the reasons for doing that. When you feel awe, a part of the brain called the insula lights up. And so we have our four familiar lobes of the neocortex, the new part of the brain, the most recently evolved part of the brain. Right below that, we have the insula. The insula is quite a big lobe of the brain. And the insula is what lights up when people are experiencing awe. They also have this part of the brain light up when they’re experiencing positive emotions generally. So gratitude, happiness, thankfulness, altruism, and compassion—all of these things light up the insula. So this positive emotional capacity of human beings is linked to that part of the brain. And when you cultivate that ability to move into these positive states, that part of the brain wires and fires, becomes better at signaling, and gradually develops connections with other parts of the brain.

So now you’re much more inclined to be in those states because you’ve developed your neural capacity to experience them. So just something as simple as breathing, something as simple as moving into awe, is able to move you there. And you want to use simple practices, especially when you’re stressed. When we’re stressed, we can’t remember elaborate things we’re supposed to do. Like, if you’ve ever learned non-violent communication, which I really like and admire, I would use it myself, but I know that when I’m stressed, I can’t remember to differentiate between needs and feelings, like many of the cognitive therapy techniques that I also teach. When I’m stressed, though, I can’t think because my brain, my reasoning brain, shuts down. I mean, my emotional brain is in fight or flight mode. And in those states, you can’t function; you can’t recall all of those really elaborate ideas that cognitive techniques have us use. But you can breathe. Remember to breathe and to feel. And so that’s able to reconnect you with that sense of something transcendent. So that’s when you’re stressed. When you’re not stressed, say you get up in the morning, you put on a meditation track, and you meditate early in the morning. I really recommend you meditate first thing in the morning. Like this morning, I meditated before I brushed my teeth, just like, “Get outta bed.” The first priority of the day is to plug in to that transcendent state. So what’s more important than that? I mean, is any email more important than any news story? Is any pain in my body more important than plugging into the infinite? Do I want to face the day without being plugged into the infinite? So the first thing you do is just get out of bed.

You breathe; you plug in to that which is greater than your local self. And we are that thing whose consciousness is greater than our local self. Rumi said that we are not a drop in the ocean of consciousness. We are the ocean of consciousness in a drop. And so we’re able to plug into the whole of consciousness when we deliberately induce those states early in the morning. and then that frames your day. I go into my day not as a confused, disturbed, or distracted human being. I go into my day with passion, purpose, and power. I plugged into the infinite. So sure, the day will bring challenges, difficulties, stresses, and problems. And I am facing them as that person who, first thing in the morning, prioritizes framing the day in positivity and plugging into all it is.

and that just radically changes your day. We interview people sometimes. I do a lot of research. We do get a lot of quantitative data from people through our research studies. I’ve been involved in over a hundred studies, but we also interview people, and they tell us that the days they don’t meditate, the days they skip meditation, just don’t go as well because they don’t have that resource. So that’s why I’m such a passionate advocate of meditation first thing in the morning. So plug in, frame your day that way, move forward that day, and then your whole day is transformed. It’s also an extension of your spiritual life. You live your day, your business, your money, your house, your marriage, your children, your grandchildren, your parents, and your friends. Everything is an extension of that spiritual connection that we create. first thing in the day.

We connect our local minds with non-local minds and with great minds. We lived then from that transcendent perspective. So first thing in the morning, breath meditation is going to take you there. It then has a dramatic effect throughout your whole day. And I’ll just finish by saying that in one study that I did, which we’re now publishing the results of in a peer-reviewed medical journal, we looked at what happens to people later in the day. So we were measuring all the usual phenomena of transcendence. And we know that they enter transcendent states, but for the very first time, we’re asking the question, “How do they perform at work after they’re in the transcendent states?” So what happens when the meditator goes to work and then has all the stresses of a job, children, money, and all of the ups and downs of life?

And we found that within 30 days of practicing the meditation tracks on my website, within 30 days of using those tracks on the website, they were 20% more productive. In one month, their productivity goes up by 20%. That is like accomplishing in four days what used to take you five days. And that’s just in the first 30 days of using those practices; if you keep on doing it for 3, 6, 9, 12, and longer, you become even more productive. So it’s not just affecting your own disposition, your mind, or your emotions at the beginning of the day. It’s literally making you a more effective human being as you move through your day.

Shai Tubali: This has been irresistibly convincing, and I think that all of these should be considered. And when you are speaking of all these levels or dimensions of life that become aroused or awakened as a result of breathing, this kind of flagging ourselves into the cosmic socket, as it were,

Dawson Church: I love that phrase.

Shai Tubali: This is what you’re actually describing. You are indicating that breath is the life force. Is that right? So how is that connected? You mentioned traditions and ancient schools of thought that refer to breath. And they also refer to another aspect, the subtler aspect of the life force, which is sometimes termed prana, sometimes chi. How do you see these two dimensions of the life force?

Dawson Church: Yeah.  And in all the ancient traditions, they use different terms for it. Like you mentioned, chi is called prana in India. And so they all have some notion of the life force. They all notice that the dead corpse on the morgue table doesn’t have it. And the living person has this mysterious thing. And even though that dead corpse has everything else required for great life—cells, enzymes, and genes—it doesn’t have this mysterious thing called life energy. Also, one other dimension of that is the amount of water you have flowing. So in acupuncture, for example, the acupuncturist, if you go in for treatment, will read your acupuncture meridians and then say, “Oh, okay, we noticed there is a blockage in this theme.” Meridian, let’s insert a needle and release that blockage, and then that life force will flow. So you want to have that life force flow. You want the life force flowing evenly on both sides of your body, both left and right, both right and back. And so there are 12 primary acupuncture meridians. And when you balance those, then the life force flows evenly. And then you also have energy. You have plenty of energy. And I hear so many people, Shai, even young people, that I’m teaching workshops sometimes, and I’m either teaching them in person or I’m teaching them remotely online. And often young people, like those in their twenties, tell me I have no energy. I’m dragging myself to work every day. I’m dragging myself to play with my kids and take care of my family, and I just have low energy. You want to have vibrant energy. You want to have lots and lots of energy flowing through you. There’s an amazing YouTube video I watched about 10 years ago of a tai chi master doing tai chi at 114 years old.

This guy laughs Chinese guy, 114 years old And here he is, with full range of motion in every joint. He is moving fluidly and easily as he does those Tai Chi moves. He died a couple of years after that video. But imagine having that much life force at 100 or 90. You know, one of the things we find about people who practice these practices is that they live longer. And if you look at studies—and again, there are some marvelous long-term studies, which I described in my books—about people who practice awe, gratitude, and all these other positive emotions daily, they live longer. Optimists, for example, are shown in giant population studies to live about 10 years longer than pessimists. A positive emotional attitude toward your circumstances confers around 10 years more longevity on average than pessimism. So you want to trigger these states. Not only does it feel much better every day, every moment filled with awe, joy, gratitude, and optimism, but it’s also having an effect on your gene expression. In one study I did with veterans with PTSD, we showed that in six treatments with acupressure and working on their cognitive issues, all their fears and terrible memories of trauma around combat went away. And we found that when we looked at their gene expression before and after that, the genes that regulate inflammation were dialed up. So now that their bodies are regulating the excess inflammatory response, their genes for immunity are dialed way up. Another study done by a colleague of mine found that genes to do with memory and learning are dialed up after these treatments, which I describe in my books.

So there are all of these physiological benefits to us for plugging in and doing this. We feel better, but the long-term effect is greater longevity and health. There are so many reasons to do this. One reason, of course, is feeling wonderful every day, plugging into that divine light socket, as you put it, and downloading all power, imagination, creativity, joy, and love. I mean, there’s so much love out there, Shai. Sometimes when I finish meditation and I’m starting to walk around my house for the morning, the love I feel pouring through from that dimension is so great. I don’t even know what to do with it all. I’m sometimes singing, sometimes dancing, and sometimes running outside to smell the roses in the garden. And you just have all this life flowing through you, and that life energy, that chi, is flowing abundantly. So you find that these people are chi-full; they have chi. And you also find then that, like a tai chi master with that chi, with that life force flowing through them, they have much longer, not just lifespans but health spans. They don’t have all the degenerative diseases that people who don’t allow energy to flow through them are subject to. They have much lower rates of those diseases, and often they are very, very healthy until just a few days before their physical bodies die. So chi energy is powerful, and it’s just a tragedy. If you’re 25 years old or 45 years old and you aren’t feeling full of life, cultivate awe, cultivate gratitude, cultivate joy, and cultivate inner peace. These things are super easy to cultivate. Just spend half an hour in the morning listening to a guided meditation track. You just have to listen passively, and you start to produce all these epigenetic changes in your body.

And you’ll start to feel better. usually within a month. We did one randomized controlled trial of people doing one of my meditation tracks compared to a control group. And we found that in just one month, the insula, that lobe of the brain that is responsible for all of these positive emotions—all gratitude and joy—had literally rewired itself to make the insula more active. So compared to the control group, which saw no change, the group doing meditation just for a month had this shift in function and anatomical structure in their brains. The lobe that actually governs all of these other positive emotions became more active in only 30 days. So do that; do yourself the favor of using meditation for only a month. and you’ll start to feel energy changing in your body. Do it for a year, and the whole landscape of your life will start to shift. So we have all of these things available to us. They’re free, they’re available online, and they’re easy to do. Yes.  And so there’s no reason not to cultivate what Daoism called “chi,” that life energy.

Shai Tubali: Yes.  That’s wonderful. So my last question is: I think that it follows from everything that you’ve said so far. How would you recommend that we begin to associate breath with awe? How could we make this connection in our daily lives, in our daily awareness?

Dawson Church: Virtually every meditation tradition is going to recommend that you focus on the breath in some way. Even those who use mantra repetition, singing, or chanting are using that cycle of the breath. So start by just being awed by the fact that you can breathe every day. Just be filled with gratitude for the fact that you aren’t that corpse on the slab. You are a living, breathing being, and you have this gift called life. What will you do with it just this one day? for this one day? What will you do with this gift called life? If we saw life as precious, if we saw every single thought in our consciousness, every single emotion in our hearts as a precious opportunity to fill ourselves with life, with joy, with chi, with awe, then if we have that frame for our lives, every single day is a miracle, why not make every single day a miracle? You know, every single day I’m alive, I feel so happy and excited. I just jump every day with enormous enthusiasm because I get plugged into that divine light sock in the morning. I breathe; I have amplified my cheek. I’ve felt life’s energy flowing through me. I then go do things with that life energy.

That’s the productivity I mentioned earlier. and get a 20% increase in productivity in only 30 days. So again, I’m more productive, I’m accomplishing more, and I’m having a much more satisfying life. And then the results start to show around you. So it’s a very simple practice. If you just meditate in the morning and then enter that space, you will find that gratitude and compassion are natural. You can’t stop them. You don’t have to try to create them in your life. They’re just there. They’re just flowing out all around you. So you walk out of your house, you are so happy, and you start smiling at people. You know, I walk around smiling most of the day, and what I found is that I’m smiling. I’m just looking at strangers in the street, and I’m smiling. I walk by somebody in the park, and I smile at that person. I say hello, and they smile, and they say hello. So suddenly, my whole life is full of friendly people who are smiling back at me because I’m smiling. I’m sharing that joy with all around me. And so I now perceive the world as a place of love, safety, support, and connection because I am generating those emotions myself. As I express them, they then reciprocate back to me as well. So it’s so powerful to do this. And again, we have that choice every day to connect with breath and then connect with awe, externalize that, and live our lives that way. And as we live our lives that way, it reflects back on us. One of the things people don’t realize is that our minds and our brains are creating reality every day. You have 10 times the number of neurons flowing from your visual cortex in the back of your head. The part of the brain that processes vision and visual information has 10 times the number of neurons flowing to the eyes as flow from the eyes. Now you have a lot of neurons going from the eyes to the visual cortex. You have 10 times as many going from the visual cortex into the central connecting point of the optic nerve. So you, by your perception and your beliefs about the world, are literally telling your eyes what to see. and you will start to see beauty. If your mind is full of beauty, you’ll start to see joy. If your mind is full of joy, you’ll start to see generosity; if your mind is full of generosity, you’ll start to see courage and compassion; if your mind is full of all of these things, we literally create the world. I wrote a whole book called “Mind to Matter” about how our brains are literally creating what we think of as the world outside of ourselves and external reality. So create my mind is my vision for everyone here: that we are creating the most gorgeous, satisfying, and awesome external reality possible by filling our mind and our brain with those energies and those virtues.

Shai Tubali: Wow. That’s why they did this; this whole discussion has been a source of awe for me. Thank you.  I can’t thank you enough for this absolutely exhilarating talk.

Dawson Church: It’s a joy. I love to share. Thank you for giving me the opportunity.

Shai Tubali: Thank you, Dawson. Thank you.


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