Saturday, March 12, 2016

A Spirituality of Breathing

"A Breath of Fresh Air"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

It was about 2 a.m. last night when I was jarred out of a sound sleep by the sound of the wind rushing through the desert valley where we live.  It was so loud as the wind gusted through the canyon that I thought we were having an earthquake.

At first I was somewhat disconcerted by those mighty gusts of wind –would they do damage to our home? Was all our outdoor furniture secured? But then I decided to embrace what nature was offering to me so I opened up my window and listened to all the sounds as the wind chimes and bells around my house rang out as if they were dancing to the melody of rushing wind and I joined that dance as I took deep breaths in harmony with the wind and the ringing bells. It was a beautiful moment and it taught me a powerful lesson about the spirituality of breathing.

In the ancient Navajo language, the word for “breath” is “Sacred Wind.” A more full rendering of this definition is: “The wind of creation that pervades the cosmos.” Maybe that’s what was going on as I woke up in the middle of the night- I wasn’t just hearing the sounds of a powerful wind gusting in the canyons, I was hearing the sounds of “Sacred Wind – the wind of creation that pervades the cosmos,” and with every breath I took,  I was inhaling the cosmos and exhaling something of myself back into it.

On the surface, this idea of breath as “Sacred Wind” may sound far too poetic for some people, perhaps some kind of “new-age mumbo jumbo” for those who are more scientifically rigorous.  However, a while ago I came across an article in a journal that reported on what some contemporary scientists have discovered regarding the atoms in the atmosphere. They concluded that, in a very real sense we are connected to the entire universe with every breath we take.

Every time we inhale, we “take in” what scientists call “argon atoms,” tiny atoms that have actually been around since prehistoric times; and then we breathe out our own argon atoms as a cosmic contribution for those who will come after us:

Every saint and every sinner of earlier days,
and every common man and common beast,
have put argon atoms into the general scientific treasury.
Argon atoms are here from the conversations at the Last Supper,
from the arguments of diplomats at Yalta,
and from the recitations of the classic poets.
The next breath we take will sample the snorts, sighs, bellows,
shrieks, cheers and prayers of all who came before us
as far back as prehistoric times.

It’s no wonder to me that so much of the ancient wisdom of all people of many different spiritual paths throughout time has venerated the “sacredness” of the air we breathe and focused on breath awareness as a spiritual discipline. 

In the Christian scriptures, “God” is referred to as “spiritus” which in Latin is the word for “breath.” The Hebrew word for breath is “Ruah” and in the Hebrew scriptures “God” is often refereed to as “Ruah.”  

God is Breath, God is sacred wind.

Buddhists also focus on breath and awareness of breathing, however, this is more than a technique to help keep people focused while meditating. For Buddhists, when we are aware of our breath we are aware of our cosmic connection to all that “is.  Awareness of breathing is a spiritual discipline.

When I got up this morning I went into my files and looked up this little Taoist poem.  It seems so appropriate:

A lifetime is not what is between the moment of birth and the moment of death.
A lifetime is that one moment between my two little breaths.
The present, the here, the now.
That’s all the life I get.

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