I found the deepest healing in the breath, and my first inkling of the centrality of breathing in life and in the recovery of life after great loss came to me from Buddhist meditation. A lot of Buddhist meditation styles exist, but my favorite Buddhist meditation was always returning to the breath, focusing my mind on my breath every time I noticed it had wandered.
Interestingly, I didn’t always find great peace by doing this. Usually when we think of meditation we think of meditating to attain peace or enlightenment. No, I found none of this. Instead, I found a reminder that I was bigger than my thoughts and that my thoughts were temporary. Even the most persistent, recurring thought.
And over time I began to notice that my breath was with me always.
It seems obvious, but this had not fully occurred to me. Has it ever occurred to you? Really think about it. No matter how we are feeling we are always breathing. And, after years of practicing meditation, I have found that I can access my deepest self through the breath. It is unfailingly there for me.
Breath is what gives us life. Not our thoughts. But you don’t have to be Buddhist to focus on the breath.
And I never would have fully recovered without Christianity’s insistent and persistent hope: as Christians we don’t just accept the world as it is and surrender to our suffering. We hope.
“Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.”
The very essence of Christianity is the breath. It is the breath, as it is breathed into the nostrils of Adam, that gives life to the whole human race. Christians, when we are struggling, are to return to the breath and remember Genesis, which is the first book of the Bible, where we hear about Adam and Eve. In Genesis 2:7, God breathes breath into the nostrils of Adam, filling him with the “breath of life”:
“Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”
Scripture describes our bodies as clay vessels (St. Paul’s expression). And we are called to fills those vessels with the breath of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. The breath links our soul with God, and through the breath we access the mind and heart of Christ. To accelerate this process we read Scripture with mature believers who are compassionate and committed to not lecturing us. Who are not judgmental and yet not afraid to be assertive and shepherd us into the Christian way.
In Romans 5:12-21 St. Paul frames the arc of the Bible story like this:
“For if the many died by the trespass of the one man [he is speaking of Adam], how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!”
In other words, Adam brings sin into the world, and as a result of this, life becomes impossibly difficult for humans. After Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden, the Law becomes central. Religious laws of Israel were overwhelming, and priests were meant to connect God’s people, who sinned despite their best efforts, to their God who longed to forgive them. It was not working out. People and God became miserable. Both sides knew that we would never be as perfect as God wanted and needed us to be. And there was much suffering. God’s people were falling short.
This falling short, the idea of missing the mark, is the heart of what sin is. To sin is literally to fall short or to miss the mark in the original language. And until Christ died for our sins we had no way to move forward after failing or falling hard. St. Paul teaches us that, while we live in a broken, fallen world of Adam, we now have a Savior in Christ. Therefore, no matter how hard it is right now, all is not lost. Some churches forget this and their congregations continue to suffer in spite of Christ. When we are suffering we need compassion.
Just as the Lord breathed breath into Adam, the first human, so Jesus breathed upon his disciples the breath of the Holy Spirit after his death and before rising to the heavens:
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” 23 (John 20:21-22)
We can always reconnect with Christ and the Christian tradition through the breath. Breathing into my suffering as a Buddhist kept me alive through great hardship, but welcoming in the breath of the Christian spirit through Jesus renewed me and healed me. My goal is to bring this to readers.