When our mind wanders in meditation, we bring our attention back to our breath, the life force that carries oxygen to the lungs where it passes through the alveoli into the blood and is carried throughout the body. But breath is more than a biological phenomenon; it also is spiritual. With each in-breath, we open to the Spirit of God in our being. With each out-breath, we draw closer to God’s creation through all time.
Breath Is The Spirit Within
Biblical references to this mystery are many. The feminine Hebrew word for breath — ruach — also means spirit and wind. Ruach YHWY (Isaiah 59:19) is one of many references to the Holy Spirit. YHWH is comprised of unpronounceable consonants that, spoken, are the aspirated sounds of the in-breath and out-breath, recognition that the name of God is so sacred that humans should not even utter the name.
In the Bible, breath conveys the essence and power of the indwelling spirit of God within us, unseen except in its effects. Ruach as breath gives life itself. And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (Genesis 2:7). Ruach as breath is creative (Psalm 33:6), enlightening (Job 32:8), regenerating (Ezekiel 37:4-14) and empowering (Acts 2:1-4). The Bible attributes other qualities to ruach as spirit, including inspiration, instruction, revelation, interpretation and wisdom. Is it any wonder we use the breath to anchor our prayers of the heart?
We Find The Spirit in the Silent Spaces
Stephen Levine, a favorite teacher who while he lived helped the dying meditate to ease their passing, describes the silent space between breaths in this beautiful poem.
THERE IS A SILENCE BETWEEN BREATHS
There is a silence between breaths
when the heart becomes a sacred flame
and the belly uncoils which reminds me
how remarkable it is to wake
beside you another day.
Between deaths we dreamed together
between breaths, in that stillness,
which has joined us ever since.
In that first breath
we step onto the dance floor,
and waltz unnoticed through the void.
The sacred everywhere we turn
and turn again, as form so generously dissolves
and only the Beloved remains.
In this moment which lasts a lifetime
there is nowhere to stand
where you are not beside me
where you do not accompany me within.
Silent Spaces in the Everyday
Viktor Frankl, concentration camp survivor, psychiatrist and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, also talks about this silent space. Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
University of California – Berkeley researcher Matthew Killingsworth indicates we spend about 57% of our time on autopilot, When we are on autopilot and a stimulus occurs — a thought, an emotion or something external — we react immediately without creating space to mindfully think how we want to respond. As humans, we also have a negative bias. When we are on autopilot, we tend to interpret stimuli as more threatening than they are. As a result, our autopilot responses are likely to be more judgmental, less kind or less effective than we hope.
When there is a silent space between stimulus and response, we encounter the spirit within us. We have time to mindfully consider our options and choose a thought or behavior that is consistent with our faith and meets our needs.
I have a feeling Levine and Frankl are talking about the same sacred, silent space, that brief moment when we pause to make space for the divine, whether to rest in the mystery or to make mindful choices consistent with our faith. Over a lifetime, we discover growth and freedom in the pauses, the millisecond moments when we mindfully choose how to respond as well as the brief still spaces when we rest in God’s presence, strengthening our relationship with God who abides within us and among us through time.
Expanding the Silent Space
When we are mindful in the everyday, God is present in our decision-making. We develop a practice of expanding the silent spaces between stimulus and response. As our practice becomes more habitual, we live into the command to Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances(1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
Making our lives a prayer requires us to slow down and expand the silent spaces. To do this, all situations require three practices: breathe slowly and deeply, be mindful and notice urges. Otherwise, we do not notice the stimulus and our need for space goes unrecognized.
Breathe slowly and deeply. This slows your heart rate, which in turn slows the flood of stress hormones coursing through your body, allowing you to think more clearly.
Be mindful. Focus on the situation at hand. If you are thinking, I don’t like what’s happening or why me/why now, you are squandering the time you have.
Notice urges. Urges come to us unbidden in response to stimuli. Most (but not all) urges are negative or even harmful to ourselves or others. An urge can be a body sensation craving a smoke or a thought urging us to lash out at someone. Noticing urges requires mindfulness. On autopilot, we feel powerless to our urges and find ourselves acting on the urge before we know it.
Beyond these three, we have a menu of practices to expand the silent space by slowing down, using the time available more effectively or lengthening the time available.
Pray. Often, the best we can do is to pray a quick prayer for wisdom, patience or calm. Pray may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight. Pray for compassion for yourself and others. Pray loving kindness for yourself or others. Visualize the person and pray May you be safe. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you live at ease.
Meditate. If you have time, do centering prayer or some other type of prayer of the heart. You don’t need a long meditation. Three to five minutes makes a difference if you don’t have longer.
Relax. Ask yourself – what’s the rush? Intentionally open your clenched fists, soften your eyes, drop your shoulders, relax your jaw, breathe into muscle tension. Softening and opening your body subtly changes the biochemistry of your brain, making you more accessible to others and receptive to ideas different than your own.
Pause. Even if it’s necessary to respond right now, pause. It’s rare that a one or two second pause to think will cause you to fail. In fact, a brief pause may improve the outcome. A championship high school basketball game is tied. With seven seconds remaining, you get the ball. You see an opening. Seems like you are more likely to make the shot if you pause to set up the shot than if you focus on the pressure to get the shot off now.
State your needs. Just because someone expects an immediate response, you are not always obligated to respond in their time frame. It’s okay to say, I need to think about this before I respond. Give me a minute.
Ask yourself five questions. Whether it is an internal dialogue with yourself or an interaction with someone else, ask yourself about whether to act on your urges: Is this kind? Is it true? Is it necessary? Does it improve on silence? Is if consistent with my faith?
Exit gracefully. Sometimes you feel an urgency that isn’t there. In these moments, you may create space by taking a longer break. Kindly say you need some time to think before you respond and give them a time when you will come back to the discussion whether it’s a day or a week or a month.
Move. Five to ten minutes of fast paced movement will clear your mind and give you space to think. If you’re obsessing about something, count your steps or reps while you walk, climb steps, do crunches or whatever. When you’re counting, you can’t obsess.
How’s It Possible To Do All That in a Brief Moment?
The average person has some 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts a day according to the Laboratory of Neuro-Imaging at the University of Southern California. That’s roughly 35-50 thoughts a minute.
As I type this sentence, I’m aware of the microwave beeping that my water is hot. I will finish writing this paragraph first. My partner is washing dishes and I have a pang of guilt. Tonight it’s my turn to do the dishes so it’s OK. There’s a train whistle in the distance and my feet are cold. The furnace just turned on. I wonder if I should get up and check the thermostat. All this is going on as I try to write a succinct paragraph to make the point there’s a lot more going on in our minds than the mindful act of thinking.
And all this happened in a matter of seconds. So if we’re mindful, the steps above will replace the kinds of random thoughts I had while writing the last paragraph. I can slow down and extend the time, giving me more space to think, increasing my freedom and growth and drawing me closer to God’s spirit within me.