July 30, 1995
The Breath of Summer, Minding the Moment
Prayer: Playing with Possibilities
"Teach us to pray, like John taught his disciples." This is an odd request. Jewish life is full of prayer. The Old Testament itself has seven major traditions that deal with the subject. Many consider the Psalms a prayer book. It is highly unlikely that these followers of Jesus needed to know more about this matter. Why would people familiar with the practices of Jewish piety make such a request?
How does this relate to the breath of summer and minding the moment? My initial work with this lectionary did not yield much. I did not find more than the obvious meaning in Luke 11; I returned to it several times. I needed help hearing its message. As often the case, I found it in a story.
A teacher asked a first grade class, "What is the color of apples?" Most of the children answered, "Red." A few said, "Green." One said, "Yellow." Kevin raised his hand and said, "White." The teacher tried to explain that apples could be red, green or sometimes yellow, but never white. Kevin was insistent and finally said, "Look inside." Often surface perceptions hide other levels of reality. Like Kevin I need to look inside, especially when I encounter lectionaries that don’t inspire me.
As I tried to get beyond the surface of Luke 11, it occurred to me that the disciples’ questions aren’t really about prayer. They don’t simply want to sound more impressive than the Pharisees. They wanted to know how a person could do amazing things, forgive sins, and heal the sick. They aren’t really asking about the mechanics of devotional practice. They want to know how to tap the source of power Jesus uses in his life and work.
It makes sense that the Incarnate One refers his disciples to their bodies. The phrase that opened up this text for me is, "how much more will the Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him." Spirit and breath are intimately connected. Here is a suggestion to mind the moment and welcome the breath of summer. In so doing, discover the power to perform, the power to forgive and the power to heal. Aspire to the power that inspired Jesus.
The key is breath. Jesus knows humans are body bound. People are the dust divinity chooses to make things happen in the world. To get good at it they should pay attention to their breath. Too often many are guilty of a celibacy of the intellect. Rather than explore their organic wisdom, they are busy constructing rational solutions to their problems. Rather than listen to their bodies, they pass judgment on them. This is a call to move from being monks of the mind to being good animals. Jesus invites a more promiscuous use of the Holy Spirit.
Since we will keep breathing, why not teach ourselves how to do it with extraordinary skill? We eat food, drink water and breathe air. We think a lot about what we eat, less about what we drink and hardly at all about how we breathe. The more important it is, it seems the less attention we pay it. Today we will breathe 26,000 times on the average. Doing it well allows us to live much more effectively. The more oxygen we bring into our body, the more life we can enjoy. This can help us turn an unconscious process into a personal skill. As Jesus reminds us, the Holy Spirit is very much available to those who ask. This practice can put us in touch with the source of power that intrigued the disciples.
Most of my life I have paid little attention to my breathing. The notion that minding my breath might put me in touch with the Holy Spirit surprises me. On the one hand, it seems too simple to be true. On the other, I have not received much useful advice on how to work with breath. It is curious then that in the past several weeks, three very specific and interesting suggestions on breathing caught my attention.
What I propose may or may not flow from the lectionary. If there is a connection between spirit and breath, the stretch is not that far fetched. These are not revelations. They are an invitation to play with the possibilities that breath and attention may put us in touch with spirit. First, breathe through your nose. Cultivate the power of enhanced performance. Second, practice Upside-Down breathing. Allow the active out breath to teach the power of forgiveness. Finally, Body-Mind breathe. Connect mind and imagination with muscle and discover the body’s capacity to heal. I want to play with these possibilities as a way of testing the proposition that the Holy Spirit is abundantly available to those who ask for it.
The Power of Enhanced Performance
For the past thirty days I’ve switched to nasal breathing. Like many of us I learned to breathe through my mouth. Some say it is 150 times easier than breathing through your nose. It’s no wonder we do it. I’ve switched back to see if this makes relaxed concentration and easy effort possible on a more regular basis.
Over twenty years ago I went for a run on Philadelphia’s Forbidden Drive. This tree lined path meanders for five miles by the Wissahickon River. I was just beginning to explore distance running. On this day everything fell into place. I don’t know if I was breathing through my nose, but I did fall into a relaxed rhythm and I doubled back to add five more miles to my first trip on the path only to discover that a third time proved as easy and effortless as the first. It was one of those memorable occasions in which my body seemed fully functional, totally engaged, and capable of much more than I realized. I had never run 15 miles before, and though it was the longest distance I had run it seemed easier than many of my shorter efforts.
Much to my surprise after my last marathon I stumbled on the suggestion that breathing through the nose can make this experience more readily available. People, like most mammals, are designed to breathe through the nose and eat through the mouth. Humans come into this world as nose breathers. Mouth breathing is a learned response triggered by emergency stress.
One way of working with spirit is to return to the nasal breathing. This involves our abdominal muscles. They help engage every square inch of the lungs’ capacity for oxygen exchange. It is the first step in high-level performance. The nose, with its intricate design, is the best choice for optimal respiration during both rest and exercise. Nose breathing lowers the heart rate, producing a calming effect. This yields a mild euphoria, a sense of relaxed concentration, that supports high quality performance with low quantity effort.
Don’t take my word for it. Try it. It will be more difficult initially. Simply slow down and try again. Expect to do less at first. Reconditioning ourselves to breathe as we did when children requires minding the moment. The possibility is that a higher quality performance of our daily activities can happen with a lower quantity of effort. Explore nose breathing as a way of tapping into the source of inspired power.
I don’t know that being full of the Holy Spirit is the same thing as "runner’s high", "being in the zone", or "being in the flow." I do know that I still remember that Philadelphia run. It makes sense to me that being full of spirit would enhance my ability to perform physical as well as other tasks. I have no way of knowing how Jesus breathed, but we do have fairly reliable reports that he performed amazing feats. If breathing through our nose can enhance performance, shouldn’t we mind the moment on the chance the breath of summer might fill us with the spirit that helps us do amazing things?
The Power of Forgiveness
A second possibility I invite you to play with is Upside-Down breathing. It is different from our usual practice. Instead of actively drawing air into the lungs, and then passively letting it out, Upside-Down breathing is a matter of actively pushing air out of the lungs and then passively letting it in. The standard breathing pattern is "Suck the air in and let it out"; the Upside-Down pattern is "Push the air out and let it in".
The active outbreath is more relaxing than the active inbreath because it gets the abdominal wall and the diaphragm working together. The passive inbreath is more relaxing than the active inbreath because it has none of the overtones of suffocation anxiety. There is a certainty in it that has much in common with religious faith. Don’t worry, say many of the world’s great traditions; God will take care of his creatures. Don’t work at breathing in, says this technique, it’ll happen if you let it.
The active outbreath fascinates me. It is an invitation to reverse attention, to focus on what I usually ignore. It is a change of perspective, a way to get beneath the surface of things. The words that Upside-Down breathing evoke are exhale, empty, clean, give up, create space, and make room. The choice to focus on the active outbreath is the choice to see things with fresh eyes.
Jesus invites an important change of perspective in this lectionary passage. He lived in a culture that taught an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. This was not a mean spirited formula. It was a progressive attempt to temper violence. Vengeance took such a high toll that to limit it to a proportional and a reciprocal action was a civilizing choice.
In spite of this step forward Jesus invites people to focus on what they had been ignoring. Instead of an eye for an eye, forgive others, not just seven times, but seventy times seven. If with Peter we ask when is enough enough, Jesus answers that he is unwilling to give us a way out of a continuing relationship with our neighbor. When someone offends me, I can mind the moment and as the breath of summer flows out consider the possibility and the power of forgiveness.
This is not copping out, or giving up. It is not allowing another person to get away with something. Forgiveness is not putting whipped cream on top of garbage. Nor is it forgetting. The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive and never forget. Forgiveness is an invitation to stand on the holiest of ground where ancient hatred becomes present love. For a woman named Susan it happened this way:
In an aikido class her teacher asked Susan, who had been sexually molested from the ages of five to fourteen by her father, to support her attacker. The instructor said, "You are doing the moves right, but you are not supporting me. You need to support your attacker. Are you willing to truly support me?" Susan did not like the idea. Her teacher would not budge. The instructor asked, "Are you willing to be hurt, for me to hit you?" As Susan struggled with this situation her teacher hit home with this bit of wisdom, "It’s better to love and to be hurt than to not love. It is better to be willing to love again and to be hurt again."
The active outbreath helps make forgiveness possible. Difficult circumstances and negative emotions are the raw materials for soul growth. Problematic relationships represent holy ground. If I am willing to do the work of emotional healing, those very people who injured me can turn out to be the transformers through which I find the richness of my humanity.
Upside-Down breathing is a powerful reminder that God loves. If I empty my lungs, the Creator will fill them. If I clean my heart of hatred, the Caring One will fill it with compassion. If I clean out my lungs I can more fully mind the moment. If I give up resentments I make room for a joyful life. If I exhale carbon dioxide I create space for the breath of summer. If I release judgment I make room for observation. When I want to invite the Holy Spirit into my life, Upside-Down breathing suggests forgiveness is a good way to do it.
Last summer I preached about loving my enemies. In that sermon I named Gordon Cosby as one of them. As I’ve worked with this presentation I realize I need to let go of my enmity with Gordon. He graciously invited me to do that several months ago. It feels appropriate to attempt this release from where I named him an enemy. Last fall as I co-taught a course on decision-making I found myself engaged in serious disagreement with several the core members. As I emerged from that experience I realized I could give up my need to be right. I could let go of my need to be included and appreciated. I could relax my need to exercise greater control in this community. I’m focusing on the active outbreath a little more these days.
When I change perspective, when I pay attention to what I usually ignore, forgiveness is a possibility. When I mind the moment the active outbreath of summer can tap this amazing power. Few of us will manage this 26,000 times a day, but imagine how much more compassionate I will be if I allow Upside-Down breathing to serve me in this way. Perhaps I will at least manage seventy times seven.
The Power To Heal
Body Mind breathing is a third possibility I want to play with. It may provide a tool I can use to help myself and others deal with pain and illness. One way of describing it is to talk about what the mind doesn’t usually do. Our culture educates many to use the mind in dealing with language and numbers. What few learn is how to use the mind to deal with the body, and that’s what Body-Mind breathing is all about. It is the skill of using respiration to develop awareness and control of the body. Each outbreath focuses on a specific part of the body.
Belly Buttoning is a good example. You play it by imagining a real button at your navel — as big as a plate. Imagine that it’s sewn with muscular threads to your lower back region. Imagine with each outbreath that the threads shorten and draw that enormous button back. On each inbreath, let your belly go, let your air in. On each outbreath, see that button and use those muscles to pull it back. Get your mind into your muscles. It’s just one of many ways to use imagination to help the body work better. It won’t take long to develop some skill with this way of connecting breathing with imagination.
I’ve been reluctant to think I have the power to heal, and yet healers and healing fascinate me. Because of my marathon training I have a burning sensation in my left heel that verges on discomfort. It reminds me that I’ve used my feet more than usual. This past month I’ve focused my outbreaths on this burning sensation, soothing it as I exhale. I have found Body Mind breathing a useful tool in working with this discomfort. I’ve read of people who can anesthetize themselves for surgery this way. Lamaze breathing for natural childbirth draws on these insights in their techniques as well. I find myself more open to the possibility that when filled with the Holy Spirit, when using Body Mind breathing I too can access the body’s power to heal.
Play with these possibilities of breath and spirit. Breathe through your nose. Cultivate the power of enhanced performance. Practice Upside-Down breathing. Allow the active outbreath to teach the power of forgiveness. Play with Body Mind breathing. Connect mind and imagination to muscle and discover the body’s capacity to heal. These may give us access to the power Jesus used in his life and work.
This may seem trivial, simple, and obvious. Is it possible that how we breathe influences the power to perform, the power to forgive, and the power to heal? Is it possible that how we breathe determines how the Holy Spirit works in our lives? Stories often teach us about spirit. Let me close with this one:
An old man sat in his rocker day after day promising not to move until he saw God. On one fine spring afternoon, the old man saw a young girl playing across the street. The little girl’s ball rolled into the old man’s yard. She ran to pick it up and as she bent down to reach for the ball, she looked at the old man and said, "Mr. Old Man, I see you every day rocking in your chair and staring off into nothing. What is it you are looking for?" "Oh, my dear child, you are yet too young to understand," replied the old man. "Maybe" replied the young girl, "but my momma always told me if I had something in my head I should talk about it. She says to get a better understanding. My momma always says ‘Miss Lizzy share your thoughts.’ Share, share, share, my momma always says." "Oh well, Miss Lizzy child, I do not think you could help me," grunted the old man. "Possibly not, Mr. Old Man, sir, but maybe I can help just listening." "All right, Miss Lizzy child, I am looking for God." "With all due respect, Mr. Old Man, sir, you rock back and forth in that chair day after day in search of God?" Miss Lizzy responded, puzzled. "Why yes. I need to believe before my death that there is a God." I need a sign and I have yet to have seen one," said the old man. "A sign, sir? A sign?" said miss Lizzy, now quite confused by the old man’s words. "Mr. Old Man, sir, God gives you a sign when you breathe your next breath. When you can smell fresh flowers. When you can hear the birds sing. God gives you a sign when all of the babies are born. Sir, God gives you a sign when you laugh and when you cry, when you feel the tears roll from your eyes. It is a sign in your heart to hug and to love. God gives you a sign in the wind and in the rainbows and the change in the seasons. All of the signs are there, but do you not believe in them? Mr. Old Man, sir, God is in you and God is in me. There is no searching because he, she or whatever may be is just here all of the time." With one hand on her hip and the other hand flailing about the air, Miss Lizzy continued, "Momma says, ‘Miss Lizzy, if you are searching for something monumental, you have closed your eyes because to see God is to see simple things, to see God is to see life in all things.’ That is what Momma says."
If we are looking for something monumental in this text perhaps we have closed our eyes. Simply playing with these possibilities could make the Spirit more abundant in our lives. Let us mind the moment and allow the breath of summer to show us how to access the power Jesus used in his life and work.