Why do I meditate?… Because I am a Christian.
~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer
You’ve noticed. When people lead meditation sessions, they usually begin by telling us to take a deep breath, or maybe a few. They may continue to invite us to be aware of our breathing throughout the guided meditation. What’s the deal with all this breathing?
Breath holds a special place in Scripture, in science, and in our human experience, which makes it the perfect bridge activity in meditation. Let’s start with our human experience.
Our bodily functions are divided into two categories: automatic and voluntary, or autonomic and somatic.
Our autonomic nervous system refers to those aspects of our bodily functions that happen automatically. Thankfully, most of the organs of our bodies do what they do without our minds having to consciously control them. (e.g., our heart or digestive system). Can you imagine if every beat of our heart and every ounce of blood filtering by our kidneys and liver had to be consciously directed by our brains? How would we get anything else done in life! Thankfully, our autonomic nervous system takes care of all of this kind of stuff for us.
Our somatic nervous system refers to those bodily activities that happen under our conscious control, like moving our muscles. We can walk and run and dance because of our somatic nervous system. Can you imagine if our bodies got these nervous systems reversed? Now that has me giggling.
So now, here’s the question: what category would you put breathing into?
Exactly. Breathing is that strange thing we do that can fall into both categories. Most of the time our breathing is an expression of our autonomic nervous system. And for that we are most grateful. But when we choose to, we can take immediate control of our breathing as part of our somatic nervous system. If this wasn’t true, we couldn’t hold our breath, for instance, making our time at the beach or local swimming pool a bit of a drowner.
Breath is the boundary between what happens beyond our control and what happens within our control. So when we centre our minds on our breathing, we are tapping into a terrific tool to help us focus on what is most important – our intimacy with and dependency on God’s very own life-giving Spirit.
Deep breathing is also proven to help reduce stress. When anxiety takes over, our body begins to shallow breathe, as part of the fight or flight response. Taking over our breathing and intentionally breathing slowly and deeply is something within our power that we can do to push back against our growing anxiety, fear, panic, or worry.
By voluntarily changing the rate, depth, and pattern of breathing, we can change the messages being sent from the body’s respiratory system to the brain. In this way, breathing techniques provide a portal to the autonomic communication network through which we can, by changing our breathing patterns, send specific messages to the brain using the language of the body, a language the brain understands and to which it responds. Messages from the respiratory system have rapid, powerful effects on major brain centers involved in thought, emotion, and behavior.
~ Richard P. Brown, M.D. and Patricia L. Gerbarg, M.D., “The Healing Power of the Breath”
If I’m understanding this right, our brains can tell our bodies that we are anxious and filled with worry, so our bodies respond with muscle tension, accelerated heartbeat, and more rapid, shallow breathing. But we can fight back against this through our ability to take charge of our own breath. When we breathe slowly and deeply we send a signal back to the brain that tells it that everything is okay and it needs to calm the heck down.
So, for instance, when I read through the teaching of Jesus about worry, anxiety, and stress in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:25-34), I want to read it while breathing slowly and deeply. That way I am intentionally partnering with what Jesus tells me, taking responsibility to cultivate my connection to and live out of the mind of Christ in me.
In the Bible, the Old Testament and New Testament words for “breath” (Hebrew, ruach; Greek, pneuma) are the same words for “wind” and for “spirit”. The “Holy Spirit” is literally the “Holy Breath” of God. In these ancient languages, to speak of the realm of the spirit was to simultaneously speak of the realm of the breath. Breathing, therefore, is a beautiful God-given gateway, a helpful symbol of a world beyond ourselves and, at the same time, intimately engaged with ourselves.
Breathing… It’s the first thing we do when we’re born and the last thing we do when we die. Jesus’ last words on the cross were, “Father, into your hands I give my spirit.” and he breathed his last.
The resurrected Jesus breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
~ The Contemplative Monk (thecontemplativemonk.com)
Becoming aware of our breathing is an opportunity to become aware of the presence of Yahweh, the name of God that was breathed more than spoken, like a whisper, acknowledging that our every breath is a gift from God.
So when you meditate, take time to breathe on purpose. Use your body to become a prayer, breathing deeply as a way of asking the Spirit fill you and guide you. Breath symbolizes the meeting place between the human spirit and the Holy Spirit, and between the conscious (voluntary) and the subconscious (involuntary).
Sometimes we Christians tend to think of ourselves as eternal spirits. Once created by God, we think we cannot cease to exist. (A belief which has contributed to the idea of Hell as eternal conscious torment.) But this is a mistake. The Bible teaches us that only God is intrinsically eternal.
He alone possesses immortality.
~ The Apostle Paul (1 Timothy 6:16)
As for us, we humans depend upon God’s life-giving breath to remain alive moment by moment. God not only sets us in motion, he keeps us in motion, moment by moment. Without God’s breath in our lives, we disappear.
The God who made the world and everything in it, who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives life and breath and everything to everyone. … For in him we live and move about and have our being.
~ The Apostle Paul (Acts 17)
Every day, every moment, through every breath, God is sustaining us by his Spirit. So, next time you meditate, start by taking a few intentional slow deep breaths. Let your whole body pray a prayer of gratitude for the life-giving Spirit of God. In fact, why wait. Let’s do that now. Take one long slow deep breath, and let your mind become aware of God’s presence, and his gift of life to you for one more moment.
Closer is He than breathing.
~ Alfred Tennyson
I would end this post by saying something like “chew on that,” but now I’ll say “breathe on that.”