Saturday, December 3, 2016

A Minute to Breathe

"Morning Clouds"
 - At the Desert Retreat House -

I just got a new Apple Watch and now throughout the day I get this periodic reminder:

Take a minute to breathe

The first time I saw this notification I thought it was sort of silly and maybe a bit annoying - why would I need to be reminded to breathe? After all, if I wasn’t breathing I’d need a lot more than an electronic gadget to tell me to do so. But I quickly realized how helpful it was to receive this regular message throughout my routine of everyday life. The fact is that we all breathe yet most of the time we are very unaware of our breath; and yet, this simple act of regular, intentional focus on the air we breathe in and the air we breathe out can actually go a long way in improving physical, mental and spiritual health.

Interestingly enough today’s neuroscientists have now accumulated an abundance of evidence about the health benefits of “mindful awareness,” an awareness that can be triggered by simply focusing on one’s breath. A deliberate effort at stopping the normal pattern of thinking and simply being fully present in the moment elicits a “relaxation response” in the nervous system, suppressing what is known as the “flight or fight” response.” Taking a “minute to breathe” calms fearful, stressful emotions and chaotic thoughts. So it’s no wonder that the Apple corporation might build this feature into their new electronic watches reminding people to “breathe.”

While today’s contemporary scientists have confirmed the benefits of mindful awareness, the discipline of breath awareness has been a fundamental practice since ancient times in most spiritual traditions. Prayer, meditation, and various contemplative practices have all included “taking a minute to breathe” as a pathway to greater enlightenment.

I think of something Buddhist teacher and monk, Thich Nhat Hanh once said:

Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky,
conscious breathing is my anchor.

This all makes me think of how the word “God” is so often used to refer to a “man” who lives up in some distant place - a king, a judge or a ruler, a heavenly father. And yet, when I examine the images of “God” in many of the scriptures and teachings of most world religions, a common way of imaging God is: the air we breath.  

In the Christian tradition, after his resurrection, Jesus appears among his disciples as a Holy Spirit, the “Living Christ” is depicted as a powerful wind blowing through the room where the disciples are gathered together. In the Hebrew tradition, “God” is often referred to as Ruah: a breath of air, sometimes mighty, sometimes gentle. Similarly, a Navajo word for “God’ is Holy Wind: “the breath of creation that pervades the cosmos.”  Buddhists focus on awareness of one’s breath as a means of being grounded in and connected to the greater universe.

It seems to me that, taking a deep breath helps me to feel so anchored because with every breath I take, I am breathing in “God” who was, who is, and who is yet to come and so I can be still and feel confident even in the midst of chaos.

A little bell on my watch just sounded and a message came up on the screen telling me that it’s time to “take a minute to breathe.”  I think I’ll do that now.

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