The Spiritual Practice of Breathing
Spiritual rhythms are like bodily rhythms: respiration requires both inhaling and exhaling, taking in and letting go. – Margaret Guenther, Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction
Breathing is perhaps the oldest and most widely accepted spiritual practice that involves the whole mind-body-spirit being. Aside from Buddhist and Zen uses of focused breathing to enhance mediation, Christians have long used breathing as prayer practice, perhaps the most well known of which is the Jesus Prayer.
The Jesus Prayer is a simple, repetitive prayer to be used as you breathe in and out:
Inhale: Lord Jesus, Son of God,
Exhale: have mercy on me, a poor sinner.
A simple Google search of “Jesus Prayer” pulls up a number of very helpful descriptions and guides for breath prayer, so I won’t reinvent the wheel. What I want to point out is this:
We have been created for rhythm and ritual, repetition and regularity. Just as our bodies depend on the pattern of heartbeat and inspiration/expiration to function and remain alive, so our spiritual selves depend on patterns of spiritual practice to function and remain alive to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
This is who we are. We are mind-body-spirit beings. We are creatures of habit. We are soothed by the rhythmic sound of rain or waves. We reduce stress with slow, steady breathing and periodic times of quiet.
We meet God in the most ordinary, uninspired moments. We come alive with the breath of God. God comes to walk with us in the garden, to enjoy our company in the cool of the evening. All we have to do is be available and attentive, recognize the presence of God in our daily experience, and open ourselves to the tingly rinse of the Holy Spirit within us.
It’s as easy and natural as breathing in and out and in. It’s who we are. It’s who we’ve been created to be.
Next time the world feels like it’s crashing in on you, next time you’re stressed out and rushing, next time it all feels like too much — take a moment, and breathe.
On Obeying the Traffic Signs (Part 2)
When we get into this kind of frame of mind, this need to hurry up and rush and get there, we miss everything that happens in between “here” and “there.”
In school, we cram for tests and immediately after forget everything we learned. In relationships, we force people into the expectations and assumptions we already laid out for them. In our spiritual lives, we speak and act according to the authority we recognize without ever considering for ourselves what we really think, how we really feel, and who God really is in our own experience.
Culture doesn’t help. We’re encouraged and even required to fill up our lives with busy-ness, productivity, activity, movement, achievement, and DOING without allowing for any space of quiet, rest, stillness, or being.
But sometimes, if we are attentive enough in the moment, we might notice signs alerting us that we are soon to be driving through a construction zone. We might be able to justify breaking the speed limit (just a little) in construction-free areas, but now the signs warn us of an extra consequence: traffic fines are doubled in construction zones.
Now we have to slow down.
As we begin to pay attention to the traffic signs in our lives, learn to slow down, and sometimes even stop altogether at the roadblocks in our lives, we may recognize — as I did — that we are being routed a whole new way.
My detour has been neither the shortest distance nor the fastest route to my destination. Rather, this detour I am on is the only way to the place where I am going. Without this detour, I would still be spinning my wheels at the roadblock, intent on taking the road I had chosen and ignoring all the signs around me telling me it was not the way.
In The Way of the Heart, Henri Nouwen talks about the phrase, Peregrinatio est tacere: to be silent keeps us pilgrims. Ironic that just at the time that I am finding my voice and learning to use it, I am also learning the value of silence in my own life as well as the value of my own silence in the lives of others. Silence keeps us moving down the path, keeps us walking toward God. In silence we learn the value of our words; we learn wisdom; we learn purification of the heart. To walk this path, the path toward God, we must be silent.
Nouwen also talks about the Greek word hesychia, meaning “the rest which flows from unceasing prayer, needs to be sought at all costs, even when the flesh is itchy, the world alluring, and the demons noisy.” Nouwen describes this kind of prayer as the prayer of the heart, “a prayer that directs itself to God from the center of the person and thus affects the whole of our humanness.”
The prayer of the heart, then, is prayer born out of silence and solitude, defined by a rest that keeps us moving forward toward God, and encompassing our whole selves — mind, body, and spirit.
This is what creating a holistic body theology is moving us toward: a full integration of our whole selves in pursuit of the God who created us a mind-body-spirit beings.
Over the next few months, I’ll be moving toward creating a more intentionally spiritual component to Holistic Body Theology Blog. While there will still be an emphasis on the categories of body theology as defined here, the blog will also be a work in progress toward fuller integration.
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I invite your thoughts, perspectives, and ideas along the way. You can always reach me in the comments section, on my Facebook page, or by email at bodytheologyblog at gmail dot com.