Friday, December 1, 2017

Catch a Breath

"Stillness"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

At the supermarket yesterday,  I overheard a conversation between the cashier and the person ahead of me in line. The cashier said something like, “you look kinda frazzled” and the person responded, “Yea, I’ve been running all day, I haven’t even had a moment to catch a breath.”

For some reason that phrase “catch a breath” really struck me. When we are overly busy or stressed out, we feel that we need to “catch a breath” or that we need to stop and “take a breather.”

As I heard the person in front of me talking about “catching her breath,” I thought about my Apple Watch. I have it programmed to periodically remind me throughout the day to stop and "Breathe." 

The first time I ever saw this “Breathe” notification on my watch, 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 toward 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 breath awareness, the discipline of mindful breathing has been a fundamental practice of most world-wide spiritual traditions since ancient times. Prayer, meditation, and various contemplative practices have all included “focused breathing” 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 of the 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 Ruah: a breath of air, a holy wind, sometimes mighty, sometimes gentle. Similarly, a Navajo word for “God’ is Holy Wind: “the breath of creation that pervades the cosmos,” and over the ages, Buddhists have concentrated 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 I can be still and feel confident even in the midst of chaos.

During this very busy time of the year we might all do well to stop and “catch a breath,”  “take  a breather.” A minute or two of deliberate, focused, deep breathing in the midst of a very busy day can make all the difference in the world.

The poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, once wrote:

Whoever breathes the most air lives the most life.

I agree.

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