No wonder breathing — the simple act of drawing air in and letting it out — is a recommended spiritual practice in all the great religious traditions. Breathing is fundamental to human wellness and a symbol of the spirit’s dynamic presence.
Lately, a lot of us have had breathing trouble. A viral pandemic has made it literally impossible for infected COVID-19 patients to breathe freely, and left the rest of us fearful we could be next. For centuries, African Americans have lived with the awful burden of trying to live, shop, jog, and drive “while black” — never sure they won’t be the next victim of racist brutality. George Floyd was not the only person of color to die because his “I can’t breathe!” cries went unheeded. The earth itself — in spite of our temporary pause in pollution-generating activity — has been showing signs of significant biological distress.
Yet We Belong to Each Other
Meanwhile, I’m holding my breath to learn the direction our country will take in the coming months and years. Will we choose leaders at multiple levels of government who further polarize our nation — making it harder to speak freely to neighbors and family? Or will we elect officials who govern in light of the truth that we belong to each other, regardless of our many differences?
In sum, I think my “breathing trouble” is intimately connected to the world’s breathing trouble.
What, then, is a spiritually-minded person to do?
One Breathing Practice: Yahweh Prayer
My primary recommendation is to learn and practice a method of deep breathing you can make part of everyday spirituality. Decades ago, I learned about “breath prayers” that use brief phrases repeated silently on each in breath and out breath. I almost always begin my meditation practice with some minutes of breath prayer.
Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest, teacher, and author, recommends using “Yahweh” — a name for God sacred to both Jews and Christians. With open mouth & lips and a relaxed tongue, say the first syllable on the in breath and the second on the out breath:
Inhale — Yah
Exhale — weh
Releasing Cares & Concerns
Rohr recommends breathing “naturally, slowly, and deeply” as you engage this simple practice. You might also try imagining that you’re receiving divine love on the in breath and letting go of personal concerns on the out breath — as if you’re releasing them into God’s care.
Does a practice such as this immediately solve a person’s “breathing trouble”? Unfortunately, no. Never forget, however, that every thing you do — however insignificant it may seem — does affect you. And when you begin breathing more deeply and freely, the world within and around you can do the same.