On average, a person takes 16 breaths a minute, 960 breaths an hour and 23, 040 breaths a day. Like most people, I have spent my life oblivious to this ordinary human act, until recently.
I was sitting in my backyard reading a book and closed my eyes for a few moments of reflection. Suddenly, my thoughts disappeared. The ideas I was meditating on had reached their limit. Out of that silence I felt my chest expand as I inhaled fresh air. I calmly listened as I exhaled and continued to watch, in almost childlike wonder, the sound of each inhale and exhale.
I put the book down and remained sitting, paying attention to my breathing. After about 20 minutes or so had gone by I opened my eyes and almost didn’t recognize where I was. I hadn’t moved yet something was different. The pine trees I see everyday as I look out my window were still there. The neighbors’ blue truck had not moved from their driveway and the pond a few hundred feet away from my house was still resting in its usual place. Externally, life was normal, but, internally, a shift had occurred. It was as if I were looking at the world around me, not with the familiar eyes that tend to gloss over each moment, but with the eyes of a child, in whom everything is fresh and exciting.
What amazed me was not that I was breathing, but that I had never paid attention to it before. How have I lived 38 years and never reflected upon this ordinary human act? Perhaps what is ironic about this experience was that paying attention to my breathing was not simply a physiological or psychological experience of myself. It was an experience of God, who felt closer to me than my own body. It was as if God were breathing inside of me.
Many of the world’s religions speak of paying attention to one’s breath as a valuable spiritual practice. It is used, not as a tool to escape reality, but as a way to transcend the endless dialogue that occurs in our over active minds. Once we can move beyond that chatter, many religions say, we see things in a purer light. The reason is because breathing lacks the rigidity of an overly rationalistic outlook that many of us in the West seem to possess. One stands then, from this perspective, before reality, not as a teacher, but as a student. It is this posture that allows one a more genuine experience of the Ultimate Reality that we call God.
Some people can be uncomfortable or suspicious speaking about the spirituality of breathing because they associate it with Eastern meditation practices. However, breathing has been an essential part of Christianity from the beginning. The book of Genesis tells us that, “The Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). On Easter night, after Jesus “recreated” the world by his Passion, death and resurrection, he met his fearful disciples and “breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). It is the breath of God that gives us life, both physically and spiritually. Every breath we take then is a reminder not only of our dependence on God but also of our union with him.
As a priest I often find myself pulled in many directions. I am constantly juggling what I believe are three areas the Lord is calling me to: prayer, writing and preaching. Despite these activities, there is always somebody to help, there are many communal and familial responsibilities always at hand, and then there is just life, with all its surprises and annoyances. Lest anyone think I am walking around in the beatific vision, I, like the majority of people, spend most of my day without a sensible or consoling experience of God’s presence. In other words, I stumble around from one moment to the next, attempting to walk more “by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). Despite my best efforts, I often find myself bumping into everything around me because in reality I walk more by sight than by faith. Though I believe in God and know He is present to me, and providing me with every grace I am in need of, I often do not feel this in any tangible or sensible way.
Stopping, if only for a few moments, and becoming aware of my breathing has provided me an opportunity to ground myself in reality. On days when I try to control life this truth can be utterly terrifying because it reveals my own poverty and need, something all of us, including myself, would rather talk about than experience. On days when trust is greater and the desire to surrender myself to God permeates my heart, this truth is liberating because it enables me to place my hope where it belongs: outside of myself and onto God.
Paying attention to one’s breathing, I have realized, can also be a way of prayer. If the simple act of breathing can remind us of the reality of God, that same breath can also be a means of surrender to God. Through my breathing I am saying yes to life, not as I want it, but as it really is. This “yes” to our life is essentially a yes to God, since it is “the breath of the Almighty that gives me life” (Job 33:4).
+ Fr. Jeremiah Myriam Shryock, CFR
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