Home Essays Articles by Michael Whelan SM, PhD Spiritual Practices and Attitudes 2 – Breathing as a way into Contemplation

Spiritual Practices and Attitudes 2 – Breathing as a way into Contemplation

In the Book of Genesis we read: “then the LORD God formed man (adam) from the dust of the ground (adamah), and breathed into his nostrils the breath (nâshamah) of life; and the man (adam) became a living being (nephesh)”. (2:7) (In Hebrew thought, there is no “body” distinct from “soul”. Nephesh means literally “a being animated by the breath of life”.)

The “breath of God” is also referred to by the Hebrew word ruah and is generally translated as “spirit” – see for example Genesis 6:3, Psalm 104:30 and Job 33:4. Ruah – meaning either wind or breath – is generally used in both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures when speaking of the Spirit of God. In Greek the word becomes pneuma and in Latin spiritus.

In the Gospel of John we read: “(Jesus) breathed on (the disciples) and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’”. (20:22) This is the new creation!

We breathe because of God’s breathing.

My breathing – typically – has a quiet, persistent rhythm to it. When it ceases, my life ends, when I exert myself or become agitated, the rhythm quickens, when I rest or sleep, the rhythm slows down. My breathing is a constant reminder to me of who I am – one breathed into existence by the breath of God. God’s very loving and creating Presence is in my breathing – if I care to pay attention.

Two exercises

Exercise One

Find a quiet place where you can sit and be still for a couple of minutes. Sit more or less symmetrically – feet flat on the ground, hands apart in lap or on thighs, back and neck gently straight.

Become conscious of the muscles in your face. Gently and deliberately let those muscles relax. Let go of any frowning, the tightness around eyes or mouth. Feel the muscles become limp.

Then, become conscious of your outward breathing. Feel each out-breath, hear each out-breath. Do not try to breath! Just let the breathing absorb your entire attention. Count off 10 out-breaths in this way.

Now become aware of that “space” at the end of each out-breath. There is stillness, peace there. Gently wait there a little longer than you normally would if you were not conscious of your breathing. Feel what it is like to be in that stillness and peace. It is potentially a contemplative “space” where you are present to the Presence. Wait there for a moment after each of 10 out-breaths. Yield to it. Savour it.

Exercise Two

Follow the procedure as for Exercise One but this time add some words. For example, you might take Psalm 46:10 – “Be still and know that I am God” – and gently say that verse in three phases on three successive out-breaths, waiting in that “contemplative space” for a moment each time. Thus: First out-breath accompanies the words “Be still”, second out-breath, “and know”, third out-breath, “that I am God”. This combining of words and out-breath and waiting in the “contemplative space” can be done once or twice or as many times as you care to do it.

When you are distracted, gently focus again on the out-breaths, then the “contemplative space” at the end of each out-breath. Sometimes it might help to go back to the beginning of Exercise One and gently work your way through to picking up the rhythm of the words with the breathing again.