catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 10 :: 2005.05.20 — 2005.06.02


Learning to breathe

You wouldn’t think you’d need to teach a person how to breathe. Most of us have been doing it since the day we were born, with very little training. But the more I experience of the world, the more I realize that I could use lessons. I need to learn better how to breathe.

I’ve been taking many adult education classes since I left college, and I’m surprised by how many of them consider breathing to be an essential element of whatever it is they’re trying to teach. In my public speaking class, we practiced taking long, slow breaths before we began and continuing slow breathing throughout our presentations. In my self-defense class, we learned that most people panic when they are attacked, forgetting to breathe and cutting off oxygen to the brain. When I spent some time lifting weights, I was told how it was important to exhale during the lift, which wasn’t what came naturally to me. In my snorkeling class, I found it difficult to get used to breathing only through my mouth; the teacher had to tell us over and over, “Remember to breathe!”

If you are going to push yourself, to learn to act against instinct, it seems you have to start with breathing. This seems to be true in the spiritual realm as well. I keep finding that my breathing instincts act against my Christian conviction. Our church is heavily involved in ministry to the homeless, and we often have homeless people join our services who haven’t washed in a long while. I find it hard to engage in conversation with them when my nose-breathing instincts tell me to get away. Or consider praise and worship; as much as I enjoy making a joyful noise to the Lord, it’s not a particularly beautiful noise. It’s not something I initiate on my own. The few times people have attempted to help me improve my singing, I have been told that I breathe during the wrong places in the song, or from the wrong places in my body.

Certainly the Biblical commands to be slow to anger, and to bear the fruit of peace, gentleness, and patience, are counterintuitive to a body wired for fight-or-flight reactions. I tend to bottle up my frustrations inside, and I can get physically exhausted from being tense and forgetting to breathe. Taking deep breaths and counting to ten is not necessarily a crutch for those without a pure heart; it might just be a key to developing one.

The one area in which I have experienced a real victory with my breathing is in prayer. In my college theater class I learned about Christian meditation, which, as the monks have practiced for centuries, involves the repetition of a short prayer in time with our breathing. “Jesus Christ, Son of God,” we prayed on the exhale, and on the inhale, “have mercy on me, a sinner.” This made for an interesting class session, but my mind wasn’t disciplined enough to stick with it. I would forget my breathing, or forget the words, or drift my thoughts over things that needed to be done. It wasn’t for me, I said, which seems to be my reaction to most things that don’t come naturally.

But years later I was taking a yoga class, and we were encouraged to come up with a meditative phrase to focus on as we breathed. I thought again of the Jesus Prayer decided to give it another try. I don’t know what the difference was, whether it was just being older, or having a teacher set aside time for me week after week, or whether the yoga poses connected me more strongly with my body. But in that class, given the time to let my thoughts evaporate and my stillness invade me, I was able to actually pray. It wasn’t continuous, it wasn’t perfect, but the simple prayer, which I sometimes shortened to just “Jesus Christ/have mercy,” took on so much significance. I was able to reconnect to the miracle of a God who knows us and has made himself known; I was able to marvel at the idea that God grants me mercy every day, with every breath I am granted.

Ultimately, our breath belongs to God. He is the one who animates us, who gives life to the dust we are made from. To breathe is to celebrate God. To notice the breath of others is to see God in them; it prompts us toward love. To see an old person struggling to breathe elicits our compassion; watching an infant’s chest rise and fall moves us toward wonder; snuggling next to a spouse and feeling yourselves breathe together strengthens our connection. Whenever we are aware of breath, our sense of the fragility of life and its preciousness is heightened. Whenever we can learn to use our breath wisely, we bring glory to the God of life.

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