Dust and breath. I remember as a child pondering the relationship between these two qualities that couldn’t be more different from each other: the one visible and concrete, the other invisible and formless. Although we’re made from the elements of Earth, we’re also clearly different from the dust and particles of our planet and solar system. We live, we breathe, our hearts pound, blood courses through our veins, we strive to love and live and spend productive lives. Life comes from somewhere, and the explanation that God blew that life into us has always held a good deal of appeal to me, and this was especially true once I’d experienced in the world of Buddhist meditation how the initial awareness of the breath and the subsequent surrender to it can slowly, but radically, alter consciousness over time in a way that leaves me feeling so refreshed as to feel reborn.
As we spoke long into the afternoon, an idea took hold in my mind that this passage from the Old Testament was more than story, that it was not just an account of human creation but could be read as secret instruction for an esoteric breathing practice capable of taking us into the presence of God. Yes, God blew into Adam and brought him to life, but what about the breath I draw into my body right now? Am I breathing in the breath of God, recreating that seminal moment, that first breath, when humanity came alive through the grace of God’s breath? Or something altogether different and compromised? And might there exist for every one of us the possibility to recreate that moment, to feel the presence of God blowing life into us, to bring the dynamic fullness of that presence directly into our body as lived experience in every breath we consciously take?
The reality, however, is that we don’t breathe very deeply at all. We restrain our breath. We hold it back. We tense our bodies to form a kind of armoring wall that keeps the breath contained, shallow, held in. We take in just the amount of air we need for our body’s physical survival but not enough to experience the felt presence of what I believe God to be. Clearly, if we’re to recreate the original breath through which God created Adam, and to experience God’s life-giving presence through that breath, we would need to relax the containment, soften the constrictions, and bring breath back to vibrant and dynamic life. By resisting our impulse to breathe deeply and fully, we resist the felt presence of God in our lives.
In the teaching I do in the Buddhist world, I have mostly focused on a single passage of instruction from the Satipatthana Sutta, a very early text whose words were supposedly spoken by the historical Buddha himself. This passage expresses the Buddha’s culminating instructions on the awakening of the awareness of breath, and he tells us that as you breathe in, breathe in through the whole body; as you breathe out, breathe out through the whole body.
Now, every tenth-grade high school student who’s ever successfully completed a course in human biology knows that we don’t breathe through the whole body. We breathe through our nose and often our mouth as well, not through the whole body. The air we breathe goes only as far as the lungs, where it undergoes a transformation that, while it then does spread itself through the whole body, does so in a form that can no longer be viewed or understood as breath.
But the Buddha knew nothing about oxygen in the air and the exchange of gases in the lungs. He wasn’t speaking of what we now view as anatomical fact. He was pointing to spiritual reality and a strategy by which you can alter your consciousness through experiencing breath come so alive that it can be felt to stimulate sensation in every little part of the body. With this understanding, the notion of breathing God into your body with every inhalation you take sounded like a reasonable theistic possibility. Even though the Buddha never embraced the concept of God, the experience he was pointing to, and the shift in consciousness that it requires and elicits, amounts to much the same thing.
So much of our chronic discomfort comes from turning our back on our highest potential, sheepishly holding ourselves back from stepping out from the herd into the fullness of our life. We’re like caged animals who’ve been kept captive for so long that they’ve forgotten that the door to their cage has actually always been open. If the winds of breath, the agent of the healing power of God, might have the power literally to blow away the pain and suffering we so often feel in our body, our mind, our emotions, why not surrender to its highest potential?
Breathing as Spiritual Practice by Will Johnson © Inner Traditions. Printed with permission from the publisher Inner Traditions International. www.InnerTraditions.com