This Week’s Contemplative Practice: Breath Prayer
Christian Practices should not teach us to escape the world, but rather to inhabit this life more abundantly.
My son has ADHD, plus he’s on the spectrum and hard of hearing. There are days he’s his adorable and brilliant self, but there are days I wish I had a store to return him to. So, let’s just say my decision to homeschool for the 1st time ever… in a run-down, tiny hotel room… on a 6 – week outreach trip to Cambodia… during the HOT season… may have erred more toward the side of insane than courageous. I thought: “How hard could it be?” (Insert deranged laughter.)
Somewhere around week three, I feared I was losing it in ways that would alert Social Services. We’d given up on reading (again) as he bounced from bed to bed… back and forth… intermittently emitting shrill noises to annoy his sister for sheer entertainment. So, I grabbed my bouncing, baby boy and ushered him down to the pool. Once we got there, he tackled me, and I got a bony elbow to the nose. Smoke may or may not have been steaming from my ears at this point. I pushed him away and sunk under the water (it was the only quiet space I could find) and swam away, desperately seeking sanity.
Now, let me back up. Every day before my husband left, I swam for twenty minutes. As I swam, I practiced Breath Prayer. With each stroke and breath, I silently prayed: “Be Still and Know that I Am God… Be Still and Know that I Am…. Be Still and Know…. Be Still… Be.”
So, as I retreated full-steam away from my progeny, muscles in my arms pulling through the quiet water, I automatically began to pray this Breath Prayer. “Be Still…” I wasn’t conscious of it. I didn’t try to do it. But, because of habitual practice, this Breath Prayer had ingrained itself into my muscle memory and was now a part of me… like breathing. Instantly, I felt the presence of God. Tears and chlorine mixed… tears of relief and intimate connection. God was with me. I was not alone in this. I was not by myself in Cambodia because I was more than myself; I am connected to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This horrible (yet so ordinary) moment became divine, and I knew I could choose, once again, to show love to my son.
“When it comes to the presence and love of God, we are often like a ﬁsh swimming desperately through the ocean looking for water, unaware we are already in it and always immersed by it. What is lacking is our awareness.”
(Dr. David G. Benner)
What is Breath Prayer?
Breath Prayer is an ancient Christian practice dating back to the sixth century. Known as “the prayer of the heart”, its aim is to practice God’s presence amid ordinary, daily life. Early practitioners would repeat to the rhythm of their breath a short Scripture or phase, like this one: (Inhale) “Lord…” (Exhale) “Have mercy.” But, your Breath Prayer can be any truth of God you want to seep into your soul: “Be still. I Am.” Or, “Father, I’m in your love.”
This life is filled with a thousand common and easily over-looked ways to commune with our Creator. Breath Prayer wakes us up to the Divine-soaked life we already live inside.
Is it Transformational?
Breath Prayer trains us to be aware and present to God, to others, and to ourselves. It shows us when we’ve forgotten we’re in communion with God. It requires observation of our moods, stress, peace, laughter… growing our self-awareness. In his book, Anatomy of Soul, Dr. Curt Thompson goes into great detail to show us how, engaged habitually, contemplative practices can rewire our neural pathways toward love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control.
Is it Biblically Sound?
God’s inspiration of breath into Adam, and Job’s declaration of “the breath of God in my nostrils” (Job 27:3) both give evidence that breath, life, and the holy connection between body and God does, indeed, have a place within the biblical framework. But, it’s even more than that…
God has always been greatly involved with human bodies… so much so, His Son got one! We need to pay attention to God’s methods of discipling His people as much as we do His directives for them.
Dr. J.K. Smith says that you are not a brain on a stick. You will not be changed by information alone. This is why, every step of the way, God commanded humans to practice truth with our bodies. The Jews built altars and celebrated annual festivals to experience the Story of God within their bodies. Jesus washed feet. He got baptized. He broke bread and served wine… and commanded us to practice these embodied truths, habitually. If this is how God has always discipled humanity, does it not make sense that this is how Holy Spirit also wants to disciple you?
“When you pray, pray with all five senses.” St. Ignatius
Good contemplative practices include our bodies and senses while soaking our imaginations in the love and presence of God. Good contemplative practices use biblical symbols and imagery to ground our identity in the great and redemptive Story of God. Slowly, this form of prayer exposes the toxic, subconscious stories we all live in, rooting them out. “I am unlovable” is gradually transformed as this prayer seeps into our breath and bones. Then, one day, in a surprising place… like the swimming pool with your ADHD child… it dawns on you that you’re witness to a miracle: Your inner-narrative has now become: “I am one with Love.”
“Only contemplative prayer touches the deep unconscious, where all of our real hurts, motivations and deepest visions lie. …We must learn and practice this new mind or there will be no real change, no authentic encounter with ourselves, God or anybody else… Contemplation really is the change that changes everything”
Craft Your Own Breath Prayer:
Breath Prayer is not glamourous. However, practiced faithfully it is life changing. The hardest part is simply remembering to do it! (I tacked up reminder notes when I first started.) The key to Breath Prayer is it must always begin with awareness of your daily, ordinary routines that need redeeming. (Like the day I realized I silently scream at my family every time I clean the house.)
- Write: What spiritual truth do you want to become a part of you? Write this truth in the form of a Breath Prayer – a simple, short phrase which can be expressed in one inhale and exhale. (Examples: “I am alive… in you.” Or, “Be… still.”)
- Imagine: What mental picture do you want to hold in your imagination as you practice your Breath Prayer? I’ve found it more impactful if I engage my imagination. I call this Wordless Prayer. (Examples: The Trinity or God’s loving gaze, etc.)
- Redeem A Routine: What’s one routine you perform every day in need of redeeming? Maybe you know your chosen routine right away, or maybe, you want to spend a few days paying attention to your attitudes and emotions as you go about them. (Examples: Sitting in traffic. Getting your kids to school. Waking up to social media.)
The most mundane and ordinary moment can become divine when done in the company of our Heavenly Family.
- Practice: Spend a few minutes praying your Breath Prayer as you inhale and exhale while you hold your Wordless Prayer in your imagination. Do not rush. Feel the fullness of your breath. Give it your full awareness. Embody this prayer.
- Commit: Breath Prayer is a transformative tool… if practiced until it becomes a near-effortless, bodily rhythm. At first, the hardest part is simply to remember to do it, but you’ll know you’re on the right track when you find yourself practicing Breath Prayer in other arenas of life such as with your spouse or in stressful moments. (Give yourself 4 faithful weeks before this begins to happen.) You’ll know it’s taking root in your soul when you discover you’re growing in self-awareness and God-awareness.
- Rinse and Repeat.
Spiritual disciplines could, perhaps, be renamed spiritual rhythms, deﬁned more as an adopted beat by which you walk until that rhythm is like your heartbeat… simply a part of you.
- Soulful Spirituality: Becoming Fully Alive and Deeply Human by Dr. David Benner
- This is an adaption of a blog originally written by Tonya Stanfield for Wholly Mother blog, called The Busy Mom’s Guide to Contemplative Prayer.
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