Breathing and Prayer
January 9, 2012 2 Comments
The breath, more than anything else, is one of those almost universal cultural constants between different spiritualities and philosophies. In almost all cases, the breath is what gives life to animate creatures and distinguishes them from inanimate things: God breathed in life to Adam, Heshket breathed in ka to all those born in ancient Egypt which left at the time of death, the primordial Pangu gave his dying breath to be the air for all other beings, and the word for “breath” in many languages has connotations of the animating force in something alive (Latin spiritus, Greek pneuma, Chinese qi, Tibetan lung, Hebrew ruach, Sanskrit prana). As far as the currency of ideas go, the relationship between breath, life, and spirit is a pretty big one. This isn’t even getting into the idea of spirits existing on their own without a host body.
Except for those afflicted with Ondine’s Curse, the breath is an involuntary action much like our pulse or temperature regulations; unlike most other involuntary actions, however, the breath can be quickened, slowed, or otherwise controlled, giving it an interesting point in opening up the rest of the body and mind to us (taking deep breaths to calm the mind or relax the body, taking quick short breaths to work the mind and body up to a tense state, etc.). It’s been said that the breath is like a mantra done 20,000 times a day, each and every day a person is alive, and mantras are powerful tools to influence the body, self, and world. Why not combine the two?
Breathing excersizes combined with mantras, prayers, visualizations, or thoughts abound; I’m sure, dear reader, that you could think of at least four you’ve come across so far, and anyone with a copy of Jason Miller’s “The Sorcerer’s Secrets” knows another half-dozen. One that I’m fond of was introduced to me by way of John Michael Greer’s “The Art and Practice of Geomancy” (a highly recommended text for anyone interested in that art of divination or magic), a technique called the fourfold breath:
- Breathe in for four counts.
- Hold for four counts without closing the throat.
- Breathe out for four counts.
- Hold for four counts without closing the throat.
Simple, easy, and clearing. Combining this with the Vase Breath technique (filling the lungs up from the bottom/diaphraghm up to the top of the chest, then clearing the lungs out from the top to the bottom), we get very slow, very deep, very strong breaths that help sharpen and focus the mind. One iteration of this kind of breath for me takes about 30 seconds. It’s a pretty intense breathing practice on its own, simple though it may be, and is a good start to a meditation or prayer ritual; I try to do it whenever I’m active to get more use out of my lungs and to gain better control over my breath and body.
But if the breath is a means of life and tool of the spirit, why not combine this kind of breathing technique with something else to get Work done? One idea I picked up was from a documentary on Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain in Greece filled with a variety of monasteries and enclaves in the Greek Orthodox traditions. That idea was to pray without ceasing (Thessalonians mumble:mumble), in that one should always be praying, always focused on matters of the spirit. Well, if spirit is breath, and breath is something we already do all the time, merely focusing on the breath is a means to holiness and enlightenment; indeed, this is how the historical Buddha became enlightened, by simple meditation using his breath, easier than the ascetic practices his fellow mendicants were doing.
However, the mind often wanders or is lead to wander, so it’s easier to have a mantra or short prayer in mind during breath to maintain focus. One prayer I’ve recently taken to is the Trisagion (Tersanctus, or Thrice Holy), a Greek prayer used since Byzantine times:
Ἅγιος ὁ Θεός, Ἅγιος ἰσχυρός, Ἅγιος ἀθάνατος, ἐλέησον ἡμᾶς.
Agios o Theos, Agios ischyros, Agios athanatos, eleison imas.
Holy God, Holy strong, Holy immortal, have mercy on us.
It’s a simple prayer that I like and found myself chanting almost naturally, and I use it to sanctify an area after banishing. The way I intone it, though, takes a bit of breath, and the pause for breathing kinda knocks me off my balance (more like a vibrated song and not doing mantra repetitions). I decided recently to combine the Trisagion with the fourfold breath as a meditation exercise:
- Inhale, from the bottom of the lungs upward, focusing on the phrase “Agios o Theos”. As you inhale, know and see the grace and splendor of the Divine surround and fill you, inspiring you (literally, “breathe in”) with holiness and union.
- Hold the breath, focusing on the phrase “Agios ischyros”. Just as the lungs are held and the breath sustained, so too does the force, might, and strength of God sustain the cosmos. It is by that cosmic, universal Will that all things survive and protected, and that all things are directed and controlled.
- Exhale, from the top of the lungs downward, focusing on the phrase “Agios athanatos”. As you exhale, consider that, although your breath passes out now as all things do when they expire (literally, “breathe out”), the One will always exist beyond all lifetimes and timeframes.
- Hold the lungs empty, focusing on the phrase “Eleison imas”. As mankind here on earth, we often consider ourselves without grace or somehow separated from the Divine and sorely seek to reclaim it. As natural as it is to breathe, though, the divinity and holiness of the One is always around us just as air and wind are around us, and all we need to do is do what is natural and take in that mercy and love of the Almighty.
- With an empty spirit and pair of lungs, repeat.
It’s only slightly more complex than the original fourfold breath, and goes more by the prayer itself than counting, but it’s a simple meditation I’ve been doing on the commute or in my room in the evenings. It’s a wonderful feeling, and helps absorb oneself in the eternal moment of now where we really are.