Chapter 4 - The Rest of Breathing Easily
When you are really tired, you tend to say: "I am out of breath." When you have been extremely busy, you may say: "I haven't had time to catch my breath." After severe exertion and uninterrupted effort, and when the job is finished, you sigh with a deep breath and say something like: "I'm glad that is over." When you want to interrupt your work and rest awhile, you are likely to say: "I'm going to take a breather." When you are intensely at work and your full attention is on what you are doing, you breathe more shallowly. When you are taking a brisk walk and paying attention to everything in general and to no one thing for very long, you breathe more deeply. When you go to sleep, your breathing drops into a long rhythm of deep breathing. Therefore, the connection between the way you breathe and the way you rest or do not rest is evident at every turn of your day and night.
Yet this gift of breathing is likely to receive little attention, discipline, and appreciation from most of us. Have you noticed what a remarkable function of your very life your breathing is? Let me in this chapter examine with you the way your breathing nurtures, rests, and renews your whole being and suggest some specific disciplines for enlisting your breathing in the resting and renewal of your life.
Breathing and Our Creation
In the earliest account of creation, found in the second chapter of Genesis, we are told: "Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being" (lien. 2:7). The King James Version translates "living being" as "living soul." Our word "soul" translates the Hebrew nephesh and the Greek psyche in the Old and New Testaments respectively. In the Bible, the word "soul" does not (except in rare instances) mean a separate entity from the living, breathing body of the person as it does in Plato, Plotinus, and other Greek philosophers. The word "soul" really means "life" or "living being," the "self" that is capable of hunger, anger, love, and sexual passion, and that has the power to make decisions and to act upon them. More concretely it means "breath of life," as in Gen. 2:7.
The breathing being, as portrayed in the rest of Scripture, always refers to the Creation story for its essential meaning. Let's look at some dramatic examples of this. Job makes elaborate reference to the "breath" of the "breather." In Job 27:3–4 he says: "As long as my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils; my lips will not speak falsehood, and my tongue will not utter deceit." Then again in Job 33:4 he says: "The spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life." In Job 34:14, the intimate relationship of breathing to life versus death is clear: "If [God] should take back his spirit to himself, and gather to himself his breath, all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust." Isaiah teaches the same thoughts as Job: "Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread forth the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: 'I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness'” (Isa. 42:5–7).
Here Isaiah not only describes the gift of breath in God's creation of us; he also gives the reason or purpose of our breathing—to open the eyes of the blind, to set persons at liberty, and to bring light to those who sit in darkness. In brief, you and I breathe more easily when we have a dear sense of purpose and are sure of our reason for being and breathing. I recall vividly a professor of mine at Wake Forest College who, in a gently humorous way when he met me on campus, would say: "Wayne, I want you to tell me in two or three sentences what you are doing today to justify the good Lord's wisdom when he gives you the air you breathe!" With laughter of good friends together, I would try to answer his challenge.
In the New Testament, the remarkable parallel to the Creation story is the gift of the Holy Spirit by the resurrected Christ:
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you." And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit." (John 20:19–22, italics added)
In the New Testament the word for "soul" is psyche, which comes from the verb form meaning "to breathe." It refers to the "life" or "vitality" of a person. God cares for our life (Matt. 6:30); our life can be saved or lost (Mark 8:35); and our life can be laid down (John 10:11). Our life can be sorrowful, even unto death (Mark 14:34); our life can magnify the Lord (Luke 1:46); our life can be troubled (John 12:27); and we can be anxious about our life (Matt. 6:25). In these last senses, the life or the soul is the very stuff of our emotional beings. Predominant among these emotions is that of fear or anxiety.
The apostle Paul uses a word for the soul or the spirit that you and I read in our English Bible as "body." He uses the word "body" to refer to the total person. Shakespeare and the translators of the King James Version of the Bible used the word "body" in the same sense. I can recall my grandmother, who taught me to talk as an infant, referring to herself and any other person as "a body" in the way the lyric does: "When a body meets a body coming through the rye." In a sentence, you do not say, I have a body, but, I am a body. In this perspective the apostle Paul says: "I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship" (Rom. 12:1).
You do a spiritual service when you present your very breathing body to God as a temple of the Holy Spirit in response to Jesus Christ's having breathed upon us and urged us to receive the Holy Spirit. What is the practical meaning of this?
The Function of Breathing in Your Body
All that has been said thus far means that the "breath of life" in your body is a spiritual force, the agent of your consecration to God. Therefore, you can profit by a practical knowledge of how your breathing works in your body, because you take your body seriously. How is it related to your rest and restlessness?
Respiration, or breathing, is the process by which sufficient oxygen for the needs of body cells is supplied to them and by which most of the waste carbon dioxide is eliminated into the atmosphere. The air is pumped by the lungs, chest, and abdomen. Minute air sacs in the lungs provide a surface for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. The blood transports oxygen and carbon dioxide as it is pumped by the heart. All organs of the body are thus sustained. However, your brain, which constitutes only 2.5 percent of your body weight, receives 15 percent of the output of blood from the heart and uses 25 percent of the blood oxygen in the process. The brain can tolerate only a 10 to 20 percent drop in its oxygen supply without causing an undersupply or no supply of oxygen (hypoxia or anoxia). Your total function mentally, physically, and spiritually, your very life, then, depends upon regular, complete, and healthy oxygen supply in your blood to your brain. The words of Leviticus 17:11 and 14 are literally true: "For the life of the flesh is in the blood. . . . The life of every creature is the blood of it."
The practical question then is: What increases and enhances that life, and what destroys it?
Clean Air or Polluted Air
I went on an emergency call to the hospital where I work. A family had called me upon the death of the father, a 45-year-old man. He had died of emphysema, a disease in which the air sacs in the lungs are dogged or otherwise unable to exchange the oxygen and carbon dioxide. The man's brain had suffered such a loss of oxygen that on three occasions in the last five years of his life he had become severely mentally ill as a result. Finally, the disease killed him.
As I became better acquainted with his life story from his wife and children, I learned two very important facts. First, he had worked all his life in the dust and dirt of a large cement factory. Second, he had since his youth been a heavy smoker. The pollution of the air he breathed was directly related to the disease that racked his restless body with coughing, kept his brain from functioning, and finally killed him.
You can add to your ease of breathing, to the restfulness of your sleep, and to your total well-being mentally and physically by doing everything possible to clean up the air you breathe. You will think more clearly, make better decisions, and be a more serene person if you do not use tobacco or marijuana. If you do use either or both, then determine to break the habit as a way of "presenting" your body unto God. You will not break these habits without much encouragement and support from your family and friends. Ask for it. You will not do so without help from the Power that is greater than yourself. Ask for that help.
Furthermore, examine your living and working conditions and change them to the extent of your ability. If you must live and work in dust, fumes, and smog, then use filter masks, air conditioning, or even supplemental oxygen to offset their effects. Be a part of campaigns for clean air and water in your community. If you get a chance to move and choose the place to go, then include dean air and water in the factors that determine your choice.
Hope or Depression
Rarely do we associate the level of our hopes with the quality of our breathing. In Venice there is a bridge that led from the medieval courtroom to the prison. It is called the Bridge of Sighs. We do sigh when we are fatigued, exhausted, grieved, nostalgic, or depressed. A sigh is a deep, prolonged, and audible inspiration and expiration of air. You usually sigh involuntarily. Life begins to slow down for you and spontaneity slips from you. Your energy level is at a minimum. Your thought processes bog down and your interest in persons, things, and events dulls. Life becomes tedious and tasteless. Your outlook becomes hopeless. You are tired.
You might imagine that this is all mental or all spiritual (because you can't seem to think, and because you feel worthless). You might imagine that it is all physical (because you have a feeling of being choked up and beset by physical symptoms). None of these possibilities alone is the case. Your whole being is involved and your mental abilities, your capacity to perceive, and your bodily functions are intricately bound together. In mild depressions, you can deliberately take physical exercise, increase your heart rate, increase the depth and regularity of your breathing. Doing these with another person will inspire (breathe into) your efforts. If this does not suffice, then you need to see your doctor because he or she knows the kinds of changes that are going on in your blood chemistry. By now you may have become uncharacteristically sleepy or sleepless. The doctor can help you regulate this by medical means whereby your appetite, level of energy, and sleep routine can be improved. Buried under all this sighing is an indignation, an impatience, a feeling of injustice, even as Jesus experienced it when he found a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment. Mark 7:34 tells us that, "looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to the man, 'Be opened.’” His sighing was one of indignation that the man was suffering. Down under your sadness is some indignation and even rage. Talk these feelings through with a trusted confidant such as your physician or your pastor. Pour out your complaints in prayer to God for guidance. Then you will breathe more easily and the tide of life will return with fresh energy, new reasons for hope, and a calmer and more natural rest when you sleep. Depression is a part of your alarm system. It is a painful suffering that lets you know that rest and renewal are no longer act, option but an inescapable necessity. Pay attention to its message and give yourself some breathing time and space. You are a conscientious person and have earned the tight to test and renewal.
Security or Fear (Anxiety)
If depression is the great lion that knocks the breath out of you and destroys your rest, then fear, or anxiety, is the thousand mice that shorten your breath and cramp and restrict your chest, lungs, and stomach with fear, anxiety, or insecurity. The main fears that we struggle with are the fear of abandonment by those we love; the fear of separation both from those we love and from the job or other security upon which we rely; the fear of making a wrong decision; the fear of change; the fear of the condemnation of our own conscience; and the fear of losing control and becoming helpless. Some would say that underlying all of these fears is the one great fear of death itself. I agree with this. Robert Browning said it is his Prospice, written after the death of his wife, when he called death the "Arch Fear."
If you are breathing the restless breath of your fears, I have no way of divining or putting my linger on what your fear is. However, let me suggest an exercise for you. Here is a list of the fears I have named above. On a sheet of paper, write your answers to the following questions, giving specific events, memories, or things you face with dread. This will make it easier for you to turn my generalities into your specifics:
- The fear of being abandoned by whom?
- The fear of separation: (a) From whom? (b) From what?
- The fear of making a wrong decision about what?
- The fear of change: (a) From what? (b) To what?
- The fear of condemnation from your own conscience: (a) About something you have already done? (b) About something you are being tempted to do?
- The fear of losing control: (a) Over whom? (b) Over what?
- The fear of becoming helpless in what way?
- The fear of death?
Now ask yourself how well grounded in fact your fears are. We have realistic threats around us much of the time. In this age of psychological self-analyzing, we deny ourselves the right to be honestly afraid of what does and should scare anyone, and thus we avoid responsibility for taking well-planned precautions against the threats to our own best interests. Separate these fears from your groundless fears. These groundless fears arise from within your own thinking, from old scary messages that you remember ever so vaguely from past experiences, and from your need for presence and affection from those on whom you have learned to depend, maybe too much for your own good.
In any event, the fears—grounded or ungrounded—still provoke the same tenseness, breathlessness, and constriction of your lungs, chest, and abdomen. Fear is like electricity. If it is not grounded, it is not really dangerous to your safety and security. If it is grounded, it is very dangerous. In both instances fear is terrifying! Some of the same physiological and psychological costs tend to be exacted. Let me propose that Christian meditation is a way of release from these effects.
Christian meditation is both different from and very much like other forms of meditation about which you hear and read. Christina meditation is different in that it begins with prayer to God in the name and spirit of Jesus Christ our Lord. Here is an example:
O God, who did breathe into me the breath of life in your creation of me and who in Jesus Christ did redeem me and breathe upon me as he gave me the Holy Spirit, I thank you for the air that I breathe, the nostrils, lungs, chest, and abdomen with which you enable me to breathe, and the blood that courses through my arteries and veins to the minutest part of my being. Enable me now to exercise and use these gifts to the fullest, that I may present my whole being to you as a spiritual offering. Through Jesus Christ, whom I love and whom I serve, I pray. Amen.
Now, the simplest way of exercising and using God's gift of breathing is as follows:
- Sit erect in a firm, straight-backed chair, close your eyes, and place your hands gentry on your thighs. Begin to be aware of your breathing. Relax and breathe naturally. Breathe primarily from your abdomen. Focus your attention on the movement of air through your nostrils, down your windpipe into your lungs, into your abdomen, and back out through the same amazing set of organs. Breathe in and out normally five times.
- Breathe in to the fullest extent possible and say: "I am ..." Then breathe out just as completely and say: "Relaxed." Do this five times quite deliberately purposefully.
- Do this same exercise but add to it your own image of the nostrils as the air passes through them, your windpipe, your lungs, and your stomach. Reverse the pictures in your mind as you breathe out. Do this five times.
- Now return to your normal breathing pattern and pray a prayer of thanksgiving for the nourishment of your blood, the interchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your lungs, the nourishment of your heart and brain by the oxygen, the quickening of your mind, and the privilege of fellowship with God.
- Finally, enjoy the quietness and rest that have come to you in this experience of breathing. Cast all your anxieties upon the Lord, for he cares for you. Resolve to live today to the fullest and let the future take care of itself. Shift to living life twenty-four hours at a time.