Monthly Archives: August 2019

The Breath of God, 3

Conscious or mindful breathing fills us with the breath of God and the reverse is true. Sandra Sabatini writes that during the day we shrink from the lack of awareness of our breath – because of a lack of time and attention which she thinks is ultimately a lack of love:

‘as you get into contact with the breath

You are able to reverse this process

And obtain more space, more roots into the ground’

Inevitably as we breathe in a more natural way – no holding or cutting off our breath here – then the body becomes more open and lengthens – so that even psychologically we are able to be more flexible and open to new thoughts.

Eastern spiritual practices such as Zen and Taoism offer breathing techniques as an essential grounding and often as a way into meditation, why doesn’t Christianity? Ten minutes of conscious breathing as part of liturgy with emphasis on the breath body would surely ensure that we are grounded in our experience of the lived body and world, yet also tuned to our spirituality.  An essence of this body awareness is the comforting presence of our breathing, which is seen as a precondition for transcendence in terms of liberating spirituality. There can be a rhythmic regularity in our breathing that is in harmony with the bodily phenomena that appear to our consciousness.

‘following the rhythm of the breath

the body is put in a situation

where is only healing

opening and space.’

Breathing techniques allow for the experience of emptiness as the exhalation leaves the body ‘a clean inside’: ‘you can create a space and then what comes in is a gift’. The emptiness is here the ground for resurrection and all new possibilities which with the new breath comes in completely naturally:

‘when the old breath has left you forever


To enjoy this emptiness

When the new breath has filled you up


to enjoy this fullness’

The breath of God gives us the experience of God – emptiness and fullness and in the space in between there is silence – silence and space.

Thomas Merton writes:

‘The reality that is present to us and in us: call it Being, call it Atman, call it Pneuma … or Silence. And the simple fact by being attentive, by learning to listen … we can find ourself engulfed in such happiness that it cannot be explained: the happiness of being at one with everything in that hidden ground of Love for which there can be no explanation.’

The breath of God 2

Use of the breath has been advocated as part of spiritual healing throughout different civilisations and used since ancient times by indigenous healers in Africa, India, China and other parts of the world. In essence the healing task has been described as aiming to balance and harmonize various patterns of energy flow within and without our physical and subtle bodies. This also extends to  our relationships with one another and the wider community and within nature through tuning in to the rhythms/vibrations of the cosmos, nature and humanity.

This healing energy is typically experienced through the life-breath as a form of bridge between nature, God, ancestors, body, mind and world.  Breath-based spiritual healing may be viewed as holistic, contextual and essentially psychological, in the original and literal meaning of this term, in its concern with the logos (study) of the psyche (breath, energy, consciousness, soul, or spirit of life that leaves a person at death and continues in some other form).

In Christianity in John’s gospel we read: ‘Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.’ This surely is an echo of God breathing life into Adam but here the disciples are empowered by the breath to become alive and do the will of God.

In Buddhism the practice of breath control – pranayama is a way of focusing on the breath. Sandra Sabatini writes that all you have to do is to ‘breathe and be aware of how you are breathing. Breathe through the nostrils easily, naturally’. Here the emphasis is on the level of attentiveness:

‘notice how the breath comes in and goes out

notice what happens at the end of an exhalation

notice what happens at the end of an inhalation

notice, listen, observe

by putting your attention on the breath

and just being aware’

 This is the start of healing and removing the physical and psychological toxins that have built up in the body. She says it may appear that this is nothing much but ‘minute rearrangements have taken place at a very deep level and …their echoes like a ripple, will go on resounding inside you for hours, for days.’ Following this practice breathing (the breath of God) then becomes a magic event, ‘delicate and exquisite.’

‘You will find that this increasing observation of your breath opens a door to the unexpected. This simple instrument will lead to infinite discoveries. When you are in a difficult situation, if you are in pain, or when everything seems to fail, you can reconnect to your breath and find relief. As you learn to be in its company all the time, you wonder how you could have forgotten about it for so long.’

In other words – just keep breathing…but sometimes mindfully…

The breath of God

The idea of the breath of God is sometimes seen as the life force, the spirit of God that led to creation and to all creatures. In the Hebrew Scriptures we read that God formed us from dust and breathed into Adam the breath of life so that he became alive. Breath is what unites all living things and is the environment in which we stay alive. The spirit is ‘ruah’ and ‘pneuma’ a current of air, breath or breeze. John 3 ‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’

In Carl Jung’s memoir he describes one of his journeys in Africa where he visited with the Elgonyi in Kenya where the sun is worshipped from the mountains at the moment of rising as at that moment the sun was God and an offering was made by spitting or blowing vigorously on the hands before holding them up to the sun.

‘If the gift was spittle, it was the … personal mana, the power of healing, magic and life. If it was breath, then it was roho – Arabic, ruch, Hebrew, ruach Greek, pneuma – wind and spirit. The act was therefore saying: I offer to God my living soul. It was a wordless, acted-out prayer which might equally well be rendered: “Lord into thy hands I commend my spirit”.’

Jung’s commentary on the Secret of the Golden Flower, refers to the Chinese alchemical metaphors of ‘diamond body’ or ‘holy fruit’ which refer to the purified, incorruptible breath-body or spirit-body sought by Taoist adepts in their search for spiritual immortality.  For Jung this also covered an essential quest for all humanity of special relevance in the second half of life; at this stage of life the goal of spiritual existence, is the birth of a “spirit body” or “breath body” which ensures the continuity of detached consciousness.” Jung was attracted to yoga but thought that Christianity might develop its own form of yoga in line with the traditions of the west; perhaps to some extent this has happened but I think that Jung would see now in the contemporary west how generally alienated we are from the breath-body or spirit-body; we have lost touch with the breath as Sandra Sabatini puts it: ‘We have moved so far away from ourselves that we have completely forgotten our closest friend’. She sees the possibility of healing through the transition from hectic, uneven breathing to a smooth, round rhythmic one; this happens’ gradually and slowly but once the healing process begins, it takes you by the hand naturally and leads the way.’ And this is the breath of God.



Thomas Merton on Chuang Tzu’s ‘Perfect Joy’

Perfect Joy is a short piece of prose writing by Chuang Tzu where he explores whether any of us can find ‘a fullness of joy’ while on earth or whether there is no such thing.

He begins with a series of questions about if there is such happiness to be found how do we go about finding it – in other words what do we have to do to attain this? Any search immediately raises the next question which is what is this ‘happiness’ and what is ‘joy’. Merton translates and interprets this into the values of the world: what does the world see as joy and happiness: ‘money, reputation, long life, achievement’ and joy is ‘health and bodily comforts with good food, nice clothes, beautiful things to look at and lovely music to listen to’. And so the reverse of all these things is what the world condemns or sees as misfortune, so we strive to keep our lives on track with these good things and yet even when we have these things we have anxiety that our health will be taken away or we worry that we need more money and more things to keep us happy.

Chuang Tzu on the rich:

‘The rich make life intolerable, driving themselves in order to get more and more money which they cannot really use. In so doing they are alienated from themselves, and exhaust themselves in their own service as though they were slaves of others’.

Similarly the ambitious seeking success: ‘are alienated from themselves, exhausting their real life in service of the shadow created by their insatiable hope’. As we grow older Chuang Tzu sees we become stupider as in trying to avoid death we become incapable of living in the present. He’s particularly interesting about the dilemma of leading a sacrificial life and so receiving honour for being a ‘good’ person and seen as upright which he writes still leads to unhappiness and or even ruin, disgrace and death. Is being ‘good’ really so good? Is it rather a source of unhappiness – perhaps to have to maintain such a reputation?

Chuang Tzu rejects all these definitions and standards – he sees no meaning at all in any of it. Instead he writes:

‘My opinion is that you never find happiness until you stop looking for it. My greatest happiness consists precisely in doing nothing whatever that is calculated to obtain happiness: and this, in the minds of most people, is the worst possible course.’

He holds to the saying that: ‘Perfect joy is to be without joy’ and ‘Perfect praise is to be without praise.’ He has the experiences that if he ceases striving what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ become apparent all by themselves. This is the idea of wu wei – non-doing and Chuang Tzu says that if we practice this we will have happiness and well-being but ends asking who is the person ‘who can attain to this non-doing’.

Thomas Merton – ‘The Way of Chuang Tzu’ 2

The essence of the Tao is precisely this idea of the balance of the coincidence of the opposites so favoured by Carl Jung and experienced and written about by amongst others Thomas Merton and Harry Williams. It seems as if it is a breakthrough into a realization of the whole where each part stands in relation to the other.

Part of the Taoist process is self-transformation; we accept that life is transitory and that in this light the pursuit of wealth or fame are vain foolishness; they are distractions from seeing and understanding the world and contemplating its meaning. Freed from delusions it is easier to be open to the flow of Tao in and through us.

As Merton writes in his ‘Note to the reader’ the ‘way’ is ‘a certain taste for simplicity, for humility, self-effacement, silence’ and alongside this a refusal to take seriously the aggressivity and the ambition and self-importance demanded to get along in society. This ‘way’ prefers not to get anywhere in the world, or even in the field of ‘some supposedly spiritual attainment’.  Merton sees echoes of this in the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible and especially in the Gospels – the ‘Little Way’ of Therese of Lisieux encapsulates this too where to ‘lose one’s life is to save it, and to seek to save it for one’s own sake is to lose it’. Merton explains that the ‘way’ of Chuang Tzu is mysterious precisely because it is so simple – so simple that it can get along without being a way at all.

Merton writes: ‘Least of all is it a ‘way out’. Chuang Tzu would have agreed with St John of the Cross that you enter upon this kind of way when you leave all ways and in some sense get lost.’ This is the letting go of all concepts and assumptions – as in contemplative prayer but here it is a way of being – totally present to what ‘is’, seeing without adding to what we have seen – how hard is that…

Here are a couple of stanzas from Tao from translations as interpreted by Merton:

To name Tao

Is to name no-thing.

Tao is not the name

Of an ‘existent.’

‘Cause’ and ‘chance’

Have no bearing on Tao.

Tao is a name

That indicates

Without defining.

Tao is beyond words

And beyond things.

It is not expressed

Either in word or in silence.

Where there is no longer word or silence

Tao is apprehended.