One of the things that interests me about the breath exercises we did in church Sunday is how all great wisdom traditions frequently end up at the same place. Thomas Merton died while on a tour of Asia where he met with Buddhist monks. Thomas Keating revived a centuries old tradition of contemplative prayer (which uses mantras, sitting meditation, and walking meditation as ways to connect with God) with his book Open Heart Open Mind. John Cowan wrote a book called Taking Jesus Seriously that connects Buddhist meditation and Christian theology. In the end it comes down to a phrase I frequently hear Frank Schaeffer say: It’s not about correct beliefs. It’s about the content of your character. Character is action, yes, but to understand both what we do and why we do it, we must sit still and breath, observing the movement of our mind.
Last week I blogged about my biggest epic prayer failure (although I would argue that the days I don’t show up to pray are worse than the days when I show up but do it badly). This time I want to comment a little on what has worked for me.
I’ve started a regular practice of fixed hour prayer. This means I pray the psalms in the morning (lauds), at midday, in the evening (vespers), and before I go to bed (compline). I use The Paraclete Psalter, and on the surface, it’s easy enough to do. The book organizes the psalms into sections, running through all 150 of them in a four week cycle that repeats. I find the book and read the hour’s psalms aloud, reciting the Gloria afterwards and the Lord’s Prayer at the end. But when I get caught up in my daily activities, taking ten minutes to recite the psalms feels like an annoying interruption. I’ve got momentum. God seems very far away. But the days I do it, I find it makes a difference in my day. First, I’m forced to step away from whatever I’m doing, and a break is almost always a good thing. Second, the psalms don’t require me to think of something to say to God, and they almost always include some element of praise. I’ve found my internal orientation adjusting as I do this regularly. It’s about God, about praise, about a rhythm outside myself, and thousands of years old. I wear a simple Timex watch with an alarm on it, and I set the alarm at the end of each prayer session. Even if I’m in a situation where I can’t stop and pray aloud, I can recite the Lord’s Prayer silently, and take a couple of deep breaths.
Another practice I’ve found to be working deep in my soul is the practice of deep breathing while thinking the Jesus Prayer. It goes something like this:
Inhale Lord Jesus Christ,
Exhale Son of God,
Inhale have mercy on me,
Exhale a sinner.
After a while the exhales somehow shift into a profound letting go. I feel muscles relaxing along my neck and jaw. I feel calmer. Most days, that’s more than grace enough.