Our breath is a gift from God. It is what gives us life. It is how we commune with the created world. With each breath we breathe in, a little bit of the world around us becomes part of our physical body. With every breath we breathe out, a little piece of our physical body returns to the great circle of life. When our breath ceases so does our life on this earth. In the biblical tradition, the breath of God is what gives life to the universe. Breath, Spirit, and Wind are all synonymous. To breathe is to be filled with the Spirit and to be given the gift of life. It renews us and sustains us. God breathes in us. It means so very much. We are made of dust and to dust we shall return, but until that time comes it is the breath which God breathes in us that gives us life. What more tangible presence of God is there to be found than that which animates us and surges up the vital life force within us?
In many ways, the contemplative life is about a return to Eden. It is a homecoming to our true nature. Symbolically, we seek to be in the state Adam was in before he fell. When God first formed Adam out of clay, she breathed into his nostrils to give him life. The vacant clay of his body was filled with the spirit of breath and together these two elements made the human being. The breath is key in our return to Eden. If we wish to become a human being fully alive then it is the breath of life which we must seek. In the contemplative life the breath is one of our most important tools. We allow our breath to guide our prayer. By following our breath we simultaneously follow the wisdom of the ephemeral Spirit and our material body. We join our animal nature to our angelic nature and out of that unity springs forth a great well of possibility which flows freely into our lives and the lives of those around us. To follow our breath is to follow the Holy Spirit.
The Christian tradition historically understands contemplative practices as concerning both the outer person and the inner person. You can read more about that HERE. The key insight in this teaching is that we move from the outer person to the inner person. We move from action to contemplation. We move from our bodies to our minds. For the ancient monks, the contemplative practices of the outer person were usually fasting and other forms of asceticism. While those are still very good and helpful practices, many people today feel more comfortable with breathing practices.
In this article I will share with you a simple breath prayer and grounding practice. It is helpful to first find peace in our bodies if we wish to find peace in our minds during meditation and prayer. If we submit our thoughts to the rhythm of our body and trust it to lead the way, we are blessed by its wisdom. Our breathing should be an act of devotion. Allow your breath to wash over your whole body, mind, and spirit. Allow it to refresh you and to bring harmony to that which is chaotic within you.
Begin by finding a comfortable position. Ideally seated with your back fairly straight but not overly so and both feet gently on the floor. Breathe in for three full seconds, gently hold your breath for three seconds, breath out for three seconds, and hold it for three seconds. The best number to count to will be different for everyone and depend on how quickly you count. Listen to what your body is telling you so that your breath feels relaxed. Alternatively, the words, “Mother, Son, Spirit” can be used instead of counting to orient your prayer towards the One who is Three. You can do a few rounds of this, maybe four or five times, to help settle you into the space where you are. Listen to your body and it will tell you when you have done it enough.
At times we struggle to find a peaceful rhythm for our breath. We can get too caught up in trying to do it right and our techniques can end up getting in the way. If you are struggling in this manner, try doing a deep yawn. The kind of yawn which uses your whole face, makes a cute little sound, and includes a deep sigh of relief at the end. It sounds silly but it really helps. Animals do this too. Have you ever noticed that a dog will yawn even when you know she isn’t tired? A yawn resets our body from being on alert to being relaxed and safe. That’s why a yawn is contagious, it is how the pack passes along the message that things are safe and we can relax. Our animal nature understands this and responds well to it.
After you have gathered your breath in this way, return to a normal breathing pattern. Your breathing should be sustainable and not feel forced. Allow your out-breaths to be a little slower and longer than your in-breaths. The idea is to relax the body and soothe it into peaceful rest. With each in-breath imagine the peace of Christ pouring into your body and with each out-breath imagine all the stress you carry in your body dissipating. With the first breath feel the stress in your head dissipating. Let your eyes become softer and your jaws release their tight grip. With each following breath move down your body relaxing your neck and shoulders, chest and back, arms and legs, fingers and toes, etc.
After you have shone the light of Christ’s peace all through your body, return your focus to your head and release all the chaotic thoughts carried there. Then return your focus to your heart and release all the chaotic feelings carried there. Once you have finished this prayer, and found peace in your body, the ground is prepared for contemplation and mental prayer. The peace of the outer person paves the way for the peace of the inner person.
By grounding our practice in the breath, we are submitting to the sacred ebb and flow of the circle of life. We are acknowledging our place within creation and allowing our being to mingle freely with the rest of God’s creatures. We are intertwined with all of creation because our breath is one and the same as the breath every other person in the past, present and future has breathed, is breathing, or will breathe. It is also the same breath that the trees and animals breathe. There is no greater form of communion than that which God has created us to partake in without ceasing. We need only recognise it, bless it, and use it to praise our God.
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