By Kathy Quinn Anderson and Susan Flynn Boruff
“Breathe God in, breathe God out; breathe God in, breathe God out.” Chances are if you ever attend one of our retreats, you will hear these words and put them into practice. We have been teaching the power of the breath prayer for many years. Our ministry, Take Twelve Today, encourages all Christians to stop, breathe and listen for at least 12 minutes a day. Why? To take time for God, to take time for silence and to take time to listen for God’s direction in your life. It has been said that “silence is God’s first language.” The breath prayer is an essential practice for spiritual wellness as it cultivates silence and brings our focus on God. According to the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the breath prayer is the foundation for all other spiritual practices. In our experience it is the one practice that makes the most difference for the people who attend our retreats. Not only does it bring the sense of peace and stillness that we are all seeking, it also teaches us how to focus on God. It is a way to pray without ceasing. It is spiritual nourishment. With every breath, we can breathe God in and breathe God out. Prayer is our relationship with God, and when we adopt the breath prayer as a spiritual discipline, our relationship with God can deepen. As we draw nearer to God daily, our spiritual wellness improves.
God has designed our brains to become like what we focus on. When we focus on our anxieties, worries, and fears, we become fearful and anxious. According to Deepak Chopra in his book “Super Brain,” our brain is always eavesdropping on our thoughts. We are our own movie production company with little or no direction. Our movies are full of action, drama, tragedy, comedy and romance. Unfortunately we tend to keep replaying the dramas and tragedies in our lives over and over, and this contributes to our suffering. St. Augustine put it this way: “All the time I wanted to stand and listen. To listen to Your voice. But I could not, because another voice, the voice of my ego, dragged me away.”
Cut! This is where Take Twelve comes in. We are invited to become the “director” of our movies. We can become aware of our tendency to rerun the negative tapes, we can edit our tapes and we can practice letting go. This is what we learn in the breath prayer. Recent science has shown that as little as 12 minutes a day of meditation is enough to rewire our brains for more love, compassion, tolerance, and acceptance. By focusing on a loving God in meditation, we can develop the mind of Christ who set his “mind on things above, not on earthly things.” (Colossians 3:2).
God wants us to use the wisdom of our body, not let our bodies use us. The breath prayer teaches us how to slow down our body. As we breathe slowly and deeply, our heart rates slow down and the body stops releasing anxiety-producing harmful chemicals. Deep breathing deactivates the limbic system in our brain where fear, anger, anxiety and other negative emotions are generated. It helps us become less reactive and more receptive. Many of us have heard the term “monkey brain” to describe how our minds tend to jump from thought to thought just as a monkey jumps from limb to limb. We need a method to slow down and let go of these thoughts. The breath prayer trains us to focus on one thing, our breath, as we breathe in and out a scripture, “For God alone, my soul waits in silence.”
The more we practice, the more it brings us out of our suffering and into a loving awareness of God’s presence. We become less reactive and more receptive and open to receive all that God has for us. This spiritual training allows us to follow St. Paul’s invitation in Philippians 4:8-9: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me — put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”
The following are some examples of people who have put it into practice. They have learned to quiet the world of inner chatter and open their listening hearts.
- Janet, who is going through a difficult divorce and uses the breath prayer to keep her emotions in check and lessen her anxiety,
- Ginger, who has a devoted meditation practice and notices that she feels more peaceful and calm and is able to live more in the moment,
- Emily, who has been suffering from insomnia and after learning and practicing the breath prayer, has been sleeping through the night for the first time in months,
- Kallie, who as a mental health clinician uses breathing meditation to help her patients through panic attacks,
- And John, who suffers from PTSD, and has learned through scuba diving the power of silence and deep breathing for his healing.
All of these people understand the power of a regular practice of meditation. And it all starts with the breath prayer; a life practice that is: free and always available and works almost immediately. Just like God.
Kathy Flynn Anderson and Susan Boruff are retreat leaders in northern Virginia who led the NACC’s pre-conference retreat earlier this year. For more information, visit their website, www.taketwelvetoday.com.