BREATH AND THE PRAYER OF SURRENDER

breath prayerBy allowing yourself to be breathed freely and fully, you are saying with your body that you accept life whole‑heartedly, that you embrace the circumstances of your life in this present moment. However, for many people this surrender may not be possible to begin with. Anxiety, fear or traumatic experience may have paralyzed their spirit. This can lead to a distortion in the natural flow of breathing, making it tense, shallow or uneven. In this way the breath truly mirrors the condition of the soul. But there is also a positive aspect to the parallel movements of breath and spirit. By practising awareness and relaxation of the breath, you can over time find healing for your soul and a renewed faith.

 

In the Gospel of Luke, just before his death on the cross, Jesus prayed the words of Psalm 31: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23.46). Here Luke has Jesus using the word pneuma, which, as we have seen, can mean either “spirit” or “breath”. This means that the last prayer of Jesus can equally well be written in English: “Father, into your hands I commend my breath”. As the Gospel points out in the very next sentence, that is just what Jesus did: “Having said this, he breathed his last.” Each one of us in our time will be called on to do just this in our final moments. In dying as in living, breath and spirit are inseparable.

The call to let go is however, not just for the moment of death, but is there constantly through life. There are many things that we would be better off letting go of, yet somehow we still cling to them. These may include losses we have experienced but not fully accepted: of money, property, a family home, a career, a relationship - above all, a deceased loved one. There may be many less tangible attachments of which we may be more or less conscious: cherished projects, mental attitudes, hurts, resentments, judgements, jealousies, our self-image or anxiety around our own mortality.

The meditation that follows is an exercise in “letting go” spirituality. Becoming aware of the breath and of the spontaneous tendency to control it has the potential to guide you to addressing the control issues in your life. That acknowledgement alone will be sufficient to weaken the hold that the particular issue has on you. Then, in the final part of the meditation, focusing on Jesus in his act of self-surrender can be a powerful inspiration in bringing you to the freedom that results from a fuller letting-go both of the issue and of the breath.

Exercise 21: BREATH SURRENDER

1. Lie flat on your back, with your feet apart and arms just a little bit away from your sides. Relax. Take some time to get in touch with the breath, giving it time to become slow and even. Observe the breath as it flows in and out of your body. How fast or slow is it moving? How shallow or deep? How jerky or smooth? 

2. Call to mind the words of the prayer, “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.” As you keep your awareness on the movement of the breath, imagine that the breath is gently murmuring these words. As the breath is going in, hear the phrase “Into your hands, Lord” - and as the breath flows out, the phrase “I commend my spirit.” 

3. Allow the words to fit into or be moulded into the length of the in‑breath and the out-breath. Do not in any way adjust the breathing to the words. “Listen” as the breath whispers the prayer for you. Relax – allow yourself to be breathed and also allow yourself to be “prayed through” in the breath. Continue with this breath prayer for five or six cycles of breath at least.

4. After some time focus your attention on the in-breath. As the breath comes in, be sure not to inhale or draw the air in. Simply relax and allow yourself to be filled. Do not take a breath. Instead receive the breath as a gift.

5. As your lungs fill up do not restrict the in-flow of air in any way. Allow yourself to be filled to the full extent that the breath is being given to you in this moment. Relax and accept the gift in its fullness.

6. Turn your attention to the out-breath. As the breath goes out, do not exhale or blow the air out. Just relax and let the breath go. As your lungs empty out, you may find yourself, consciously or unconsciously, not wanting to let all the air go. Some little voice may be urging you to hold on to some of it – just in case the next breath does not come. Relax completely and let it all go, trusting that you will be looked after, really making your own the words “I commend my spirit” – or more concretely “I commend my breath.”

7. After practising this breath-prayer for some minutes, you may discover that some issue from your life comes into your consciousness. This will usually be something that has to do with letting go. You may find that this disturbs your meditation for a short time. The smooth slow rhythm of the breath may be hit by a period of turbulence. If this happens, simply focus all your awareness on the breath itself for at least a few rounds. You will discover that it will gradually slow down and resume its slow, even pace.

8. You may like to take this meditation a stage further by visualizing Jesus on the cross praying these words: “Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit.” Imagine the breath of Jesus moving exactly in time with the breath in you. With these words Jesus and you are now being breathed and being prayed through in unison.