One of my clients became so anxious they could not drive to work. We began collecting tools to put in their “go bag” when they felt the symptoms of panic rising up in their body. One tool was simply being aware of their breathing. Turning our attention to the rhythm of our breathing almost always settles us down. If we can concentrate on nothing else but the movement of air going in and out of our nose, moving way down to the deep parts of our lungs and out again slowly, our heart rate is likely to go down and the adrenaline will recede. This kind of disciplined breathing works well with several of my dear, anxious clients.
Others, and this might be you, never get into it. When elementary school teachers ask their classes to do a breathing exercise, quite a few kids just might refuse or might feel unable. Calmness can feel like a straight jacket to people used to chaos. Being told to “calm down!” often ramps up people who lust for freedom. If you are accustomed to controlling things with aggression or being controlled by it, a breathing exercise might seem unbearably passive. Terrified people in Ukraine would think more clearly if they at least “took a deep breath.” But I suspect a lot of them won’t ever think of doing that.
How is it with you? Most people who read this blog are Jesus followers to some degree. Does the breathing that brings peace to your body also bring peace to your soul?
Breathing is a basic way we connect with God
I think attending to how we breath should be elemental to how we go about our day. Especially if you are a Jesus follower, you should see breathing as a basic way you connect to God. You’ll remember how Jesus, after he rose from death, surprised his anxious and grieving disciples when they were locked away for fear:
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. — John 20:19-22
Jesus breathed his Spirit on them. I don’t think they imagined that happening before it happened. You might not know what to expect before you attend to the possibility that Jesus might breathe on you and you breathe him in!
Breathing is not just a way to calm down, it is a way to commune. For me, the communion starts with turning away from what preoccupies me, like climate change, relationship issues, or that unattached anxiety and attending to what is happening in my body and soul in this very moment.
There are many ways to learn to breathe
Many people around the world know a lot about how such disciplined breathing works. I began to think about breathing by Googling “breathing” (of course). Sure enough, this is what came up.
We’re all about breathing exercises these days. Somehow, we all got stuck on the left-side of our brain, for the most part, and are terribly inept at basic human functions, like having a holistic view of what is happening at any given moment. We need to learn about breathing, live in the present, and settle down. All sorts of people are teaching us. You can get apps to help. [Here is an exercise I have used: Anxiety: A letting go exercise with Jesus].
[I did not snip off that last Google entry because I was so happy to discover a foundation based in Elkins Park devoted to helping people get through their cancer treatments. These folks raise money and offer other support to give victims some “breathing room” during one of the most anxiety-provoking experiences we can have. Look them up, they might encourage you.]
I find apps to be distracting, so I still use books, which I find a lot less controlling. I have been slowly working my way through Soulful Spirituality by David Benner (when I am not mastering Wordle and other apps :)). He offers another example of how many people know about the basic spiritual discipline of turning into our breath, which many Christians think sounds kind of “new agey.”
Benner had an opportunity to spend a considerable amount of time with a Taoist professor in China who used attention to his breath as a central feature of his mediation. He writes:
I was struck by how important paying attention to his breath was to his practice. More striking was his surprise that I, as a Christian, did not make this a central part of my own spiritual practice. He asked, “Am I not right that Christians understand their origins to lie in the infusion of divine breath into the dust of the earth?” I assured him that was correct. “And,” he continued, “am I not right that you understand each breath to be a gift from God?” Again, I said he was. “And,” he pushed on, “am I not right that you understand that the Spirit of God is with you, moment by moment breath by breath?” Again I agreed. “Then how can you fail to see,” he asked, “the immense spiritual value in attending to those moment-by-moment expressions of the presence of God?” I was convinced, and soon found ways to make this a regular part of my own practice.
Disciplined breathing may already be part of your practice and this post feels like a Taoist professor assuming you are stupid. I’m mainly talking to Jesus followers who carry a principle of faith in their brains somewhere and have very little expression of it in their bodies. You might not have any kind of prayer happening every day, much less moment by moment! Like Benner discovered, Christians may believe Jesus breathed on his first disciples, but they have yet to open up to breathing in the reality of that themselves — as in right now.
Prayerfully making each breath an act of drawing God in and breathing God out onto the world is an ancient Christian practice. I go with my ancestors who call it “breath communion.” [Try this recent liturgy]. Just as Jesus followers open themselves to God through eating the bread and drinking from the cup during our special meal, so each breath provides an opportunity to receive the Spirit.
When I attend to my own breath, and attend to the breath of God moving in and out of my body, nourishing me with life from my toes to my heart to my brain and on into eternity, I not only settle down and become grateful to be alive, I make space to be aware of God and my true self. I relate Spirit to spirit, Savior to saved. Parent to child, Creator to creature. From that place of peace I will find whatever resources I dare to bring to the work of making peace.