The Way In Is through the Breath

From the Series: An Otherwise Anthropology

A Luta Continua (The Struggle Continues). Constitutional Court of South Africa, Johannesburg.
Photo by Laura McTighe. A Luta Continua (The Struggle Continues). Constitutional Court of South Africa, Johannesburg.

There are many ways of knowing and understanding our world. Otherwise anthropology calls for us to reposition ourselves. In this repositioning, we realize there are an infinite number of vantage points to enter into “otherwise possibilities” (Crawley 2016, 2). I am interested in a full-bodied approach to ethnographic research which means paying attention to the breath as a way to remind us of our deeper intentions.

In meditation practice, we are taught to use the breath as an anchor to the present moment. We pay close attention to the breath to notice that there are infinite ways the breath can be experienced. Because when we can notice that, it brings us to the present moment, and offers some insight into the static ways in which we might usually relate to the breath and the body. When we hold the intention to attend to the breath in its true expression, we see that it is a unique experience, newly arising moment to moment. In seeing this, there is the potential to gain insight into the changing nature of reality, and also to lean into interconnected nature of our beings. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr.,

All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.

When we breathe in, we take in what was previously perceived to be external, and when we breathe out, we disperse what was just part of an internal experience.

In this full-bodied approach to ethnographic research, the breath is a way into allowing our intentions to guide our research. Mindful intentions are not about setting goals, nor are they about constructing research questions or developing collaborative research projects. Intentions are much larger: they point to how we want to show up in the world to meet our experiences. For the past five years, my intention was to be open and kind. When situations of sorrow or joy arose, I found myself trying to regulate the flow of emotions and my feelings. To hold the intention of being open and kind meant being available to the external and the internal experience while not judging myself when I did not live up to my intentions. It also meant cultivating the willingness to listen and receive new information when I was in relationship with others.

While conducting ethnographic research inside midwestern prisons from 2011 to 2013, I found myself leaning into my breath—that is my meditation practice—and thus leaning into my intentions to be open and kind. As I sat across the table from Editha, a white middle-aged woman with short black hair, I went through the normal procedure of setting out the recorder, explaining the project, and handing her a consent form. Without looking at the form, Editha leaned back in her chair, cocked her head sideways and asked, “Why are you doing this work?” Startled because I had just explained the project, I quickly realized that she was not interested in the research summary. Editha wanted to know what drove me to do this research.

When Editha refused to look at the consent form, I became uneasy, annoyed, and fearful about not getting the data. Yet, her resistance reminded me to choose the breath and fully acknowledge her concerns. Leaning into my fear, I took a breath, and then further leaned into being open and kind.

I sat the digital recorder to the side and explained that I approached this project as a person whose family has an intimate relationship with the criminal justice system. When I was in elementary school my father was charged with murder. Although he was never convicted, I vividly remember the financial struggles and stigma my family faced while he was in jail awaiting trial. My father, I told Editha, was not the only family member who was imprisoned. My family mirrors other Black and Latinx families with family members who cycle in and out of the prison system. I have a half-brother who will die in prison because he is serving two life sentences. After I finished, she nodded and replied, “Okay, you get it.” Keeping her laid back but serious attitude, Editha signed the consent form. I turned on the recorder and we began the interview.

In thinking about anthropology otherwise, we must tune into a deeper listening in order to hear what is underneath the questions being asked. When our interlocutors ask why we do this work, it is an opportunity to reconnect with our deepest intentions and answer from a space grounded in values. How often in our ethnographic research do we race through the questioner or frantically write down information without listening to the truth of our interlocutors? This repositioning is an opportunity to strengthen the interconnections of our lives and turn toward the unpleasant feelings and/or encounters that arise in ethnographic research. Each time we enter into relations with our interlocutors we can ask ourselves, how can we develop a mindful practice of ethnographic research? How do we push to create a seamless practice between our academic scholarship and our inner values/intentions?

In the book Practicing Peace, American Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön (2006, 44–45) reminds us that

[m]editation teaches us how to open and relax with whatever arises, without picking and choosing. It teaches us to experience the uneasiness and the urge fully and to interrupt the momentum that usually follows. We do this by not following after the thoughts and learning to return again and again to the present moment.

Returning our focus on the breath again and again builds our capacity to be more spacious. And this spaciousness in turn enables us to ground our responses not in goals but intentions, the first step of full-bodied ethnographic practice.


Chödrön, Pema. 2016. Practicing Peace. Boulder, Colo.: Shambhala.

Crawley, Ashon T. 2016. Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility. New York: Fordham University Press.