This post is the fourth in a series exploring the practice of Drishti (focus on a particular point, traditionally in meditation or yoga poses). My fellow pop-culture preacher, Rev. Jeff Nelson writes about how he connects to his breath as a way to stay focused in anxious moments.
I’ve been taking karate for the past year. My wife and son started a few months before I did, mostly because I had no real interest in doing it myself when they began. But after finally giving in to their pleas to give it a try, I recently found myself standing across the ring from another student during my most recent belt test — orange, the fourth rank out of ten before you may test for black — getting ready for the portion where I have to spar with others for a certain number of minutes, a time that involves quite a bit of moving around and awareness of what the person across from you is doing.
As we waited for the signal to go, I took a few deep breaths, taking the briefest of moments to remember myself before getting wrapped up in the combination of adrenaline and anxiety that would threaten to overtake me the next few minutes. Seeing my small centering exercise, my opponent nodded in silent understanding.
In recent years, I have found that paying more attention to my breathing often makes a big difference in how I react to and interact with the world around me. In many of these karate classes over the past few months, for instance, the quickening of my breath sometimes results from physical exertion, but it just as often comes from my own inner panic.
Shorter, faster breaths signal a certain loss of control of the moment, in turn depriving my body and mind of the oxygen that it needs to function. From there, the cycle only worsens: the more I forget my breathing, the more my mental and physical states work against each other, and the more my reactions to the moment are based on stress rather than a true sense of what is happening.
One doesn’t have to be a part of karate to be familiar with this forgetting of breathing. It may come while inundated with demands at our job (and perhaps even worse if one is trying to juggle several jobs). It may come while trying to maintain the balance of a busy family schedule. It may come during times of coping with health issues or grief. It may come while we are lying in bed wide awake in the middle of the night going over what we’ll need to do the next day. Each of these scenarios, and so many more, present tremendous potential for our anxiety levels to rise as we seek to do our best to see ourselves or others through them.
And during these stressful moments, have you ever stopped to notice your breathing? Times like these often induce shorter, shallower breaths as we struggle to give them adequate attention. But this type of breathing only adds to the panic, depriving us of such a basic need and only compounding our problems rather than centering us in the midst of them.
On the other hand, turning our attention from those outside factors to how we are breathing may alter our view of them. We first remember ourselves, that we are alive and in need of more air than our inner disquiet is allowing, before returning to the outer concerns of the day.
In the Bible, the word for both “breath” and “Spirit” come from the same root. So often, God’s Spirit and breath are one and the same, both leading to new or renewed life. In Genesis 2, God’s breath is what finally gives life to the first humans. In Ezekiel, dry bones are sewn back together and made into people, but it takes God’s breath to finally make them alive again. Near the end of the Gospel of John, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on the disciples, empowering them to meet the world’s needs.
Breath is Spirit is life. To breathe is necessary to live, but to breathe deeply is to renew our sense of self in the world, remembering we cannot meet life’s challenges or enjoy life’s pleasures if we don’t slow down and first notice the life within us.
Jeff Nelson is a pastor, spiritual director, and writer. His latest books, both published this summer, are Wonder and Whiskey: Insights on Faith from the Music of Dave Matthews Band and Prayer in Motion: Connecting with God in Fidgety Times. He lives with his family in Uniontown, Ohio, where he serves as pastor at Grace United Church of Christ. He regularly blogs about ministry, spirituality, and pop culture at coffeehousecontemplative.com.