Just Breathe.....

I had to do some "homework" this week, in response to one of our parishioners asking me to coach her in prayer and meditation, especially in relation to her breathing. She has been given a medical assessment that identifies breathing issues as playing a part in debilitating headaches she has suffered over considerable time. Headaches can often be managed by breathing in a certain way, to stimulate a relaxation response and reduce muscle tension, blood pressure, and other symptoms of stress.

I have known about this effect for years, because I am married to a GP who practises integrative medicine. But my motivation to "breathe well to be well" myself was catalysed last year when heard a presentation by Tania Clifford-Smith of "Breathing Works" here in Auckland. She teaches the Bradcliff Method to people who suffer physical and mental ill-effects because they don't use their lungs and diaphragm correctly. I had already read the book she coauthored with ENT surgeon Jim Bartley, and knew my own breathing is somewhat dysfunctional, and her presentation at a counselling workshop reminded me that sometimes stress is expressed acutely in our physical being.

So to do some thinking and reading about 'Breathing' was a welcome reminder to keep this matter in front of me personally, as well as professionally. I have started gathering material to put in one of the Spiritual Practice booklets that I occasionally distribute here at church. I will need to set the scene theologically. The Bible speaks about the Breath (Ruach) as the gift of life to the first human beings, and uses the equivalent Greek word (Pneuma) to describe the Holy Spirit present at Creation, in Jesus of Nazareth the incarnate Son of God, and as the energising motivating Spirit-life bequeathed by the risen Christ to those who receive him as Lord. There are dozens of references in Scripture connecting faith and breath.

For those about to be born, or in the process of dying, breathing is of the utmost importance, right now. But for or the rest of us it is also an indispensable factor in enhancing health, performance, and length of life. We can go without food for months, and water for weeks, but without oxygen for more than a few minutes, we die. Oxygen is our primary source of energy and the lungs are the primary way we get it. Our breathing patterns are quickly changed by intense emotions. Fear and anxiety may quicken our breath, and precipitate gasping, gulping and sighing or even hyperventilation - rapid shallow breathing - which deprives the body of calcium and magnesium and causes physical and emotional symptoms. Paying attention to our breathing and learning to use the nose and diaphragm more, can bring deep relaxation and improvements in health. "Life is in the breath. He who half breathes, half lives." (Chinese proverb).

What does this have to do with the godshaped life? Well for many centuries Christians have known that breath and prayer are connected. As they followed the injunction to “pray without ceasing,” they developed breath prayers, a form of contemplative prayer linked to the rhythms of breathing. Simple petitions that can be spoken in one breath, with an awareness of the in-and-out motion of breathing, are used. For example, (1) breathe in, calling on a Biblical name or image of God, then (2) breathe out, naming a God-given desire. These are simple, yet intimate prayers of invitation to the Spirit of God.

I think many of us have a problem becoming silent. That’s why thinking about our breathing, then focusing on the breath prayer are helpful. It forces us to go outside our busy thought process of all we have think about in our normal day. If we "anchor" the prayer to our breathing and return to it throughout the day, it can become a soul reflex.

The most famous of the breath prayers is the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (adapted from Luke 18:13, 39) It came together in its present form, and was used extensively in, the sixth century. In the fourteenth century it was revived in the Eastern Orthodox Church. I first read about it in a fascinating book called "The Way of the Pilgrim", which recounts the wanderings of a 19th century pilgrim from one holy place to another, in Russia and Siberia, in search of the way of prayer. The prayer can be shortened or lengthened but its form is not the critical factor. What is important is the intention and focus we bring to God. It was said that the breath prayer started as a prayer of the lips, then became a prayer of the mind, and overtime and extended practice, it became a prayer of the heart. It was believed that the prayer could become such an internalized part of the individual that each beat of their heart would be praying the Jesus prayer.

Other words can used as breath prayers. Make me be a channel of your peace; I surrender all; Loving Lord; Abba; Emmanuel; Come Lord Jesus. Some people use the dynamic of the breath to name what needs to be drawn in and what should be breathed out - for example, in, "your peace", out "my fears". The words must be brief and intimate, addressing God in a close, personal way. By allowing each word to sink deeply into mind and heart, the prayer becomes a place of connection with God, a means of centering on the person of Christ, a way of reminding me of my need for the Spirit, so that I might more fully alive in Him. Adele Ahlberg Calhoun who is well versed in the Spiritual Disciplines writes: “To practice the breath prayer, ponder the nearness of God. Settle deeply into the truth that Christ is in you.”

A word of warning - there is opposition to this practice, in the blogosphere and from some pulpits. Because of the link with Eastern spirituality, the practice is felt to be dangerous. Yet so many Christian leaders from Tony Campolo to Rick Warren to Rob Bell testify to its transforming power. I don't believe that just because something is practised in the East, it is spiritually sinister. Perhaps there are universal spiritual truths that are discovered independently, just as has happened in science. Certainly the many Christians over the centuries who have found breath prayer life-giving give credence to its authenticity. And the medical and counselling professions regularly recommend that people learn this or similar techniques. How amazing that I can practise a discipline that keeps me healthy and grows my faith at the same time?

To Chew Over: How is my breathing going? How can I use my breath in my prayer life?

This is the air I breathe
This is the air I breathe
Your holy presence living in me
This is my daily bread
This is my daily bread
Your very word spoken to me

And I, I'm desperate for you
And I, I'm I'm lost without you

I'm lost without you.

© Michael W Smith.