As we rush about our busy lives, how often do we stop to savor the joy of being able to breathe, or the joy of being able to sit in a state of peace and stillness? How often do we remember that, of all the blessings God has given us in this world, the blessing of being able to breathe affords one of the most profound occasions of gratitude?
I’ve been breathing all my life, but it’s only recently that I started to truly breathe: slowly, mindfully and gratefully.
When we let ourselves be controlled by our survival instincts, our breathing is fast and our focus distracted amidst a multiplicity of concerns.
All too often our survival-instincts compel us to suppose that our well-being depends on pursuing every distraction that enters the brain. These distractions, most of which are rooted in our primal survival instincts, include things like:
- mentally rehearsing everything we need to do;
- obsessing over threats to our social needs, including wondering what other people might be thinking about us;
- wondering if someone has sent us a message that we need to check;
- imagining how we will respond to various future scenarios;
- worrying whether our emotional and sexual needs are being met;
- focusing on what we will do next instead of paying attention to what we are doing right now;
- thinking about food or financial resources;
Without even consciously choosing to listen to these types of thoughts, they typically flow through our brains automatically, disrupting inner-stillness and scattering our focus. Since these types of distractions are rooted in primal fears for our survival, they have enormous power.
By contrast, when we let our scattered attention rest on our breath (or with a simple prayer that we can synchronize with our breathing), we commit to embrace the safety of stillness. The stillness of slow breathing proclaims that our survival does not depend on following every distracting thought that enters the brain. The stillness of slow breathing recalls our wandering minds from the past and the future and tethers it to the present, which is the only place where we can truly be alone with God.
Mindful breathing is the ultimate assertion that you can relax because God, not yourself, is in charge of your survival. To embrace the stillness of mindful breathing is to acknowledge that your heavenly Father knows your needs and is taking care of you exactly as He promised.
Stillness doesn’t always feel safe. Embracing the stillness of slow breathing can be frightening because it removes all the props and distractions that keep us from truly knowing ourselves.
Sometimes when I force myself to stop and do nothing but breathe for five minutes, I find myself bursting into tears. When I allow constant noise, distractions and worldly pressure to become my status quo, being alone with God in the present is disconcerting, overwhelming and frightening. As the Greek Orthodox monk Father Maximos Constas explained,
“If the mind focuses on the breath that means the wandering mind, which has been outside of the body, is now united to the body, and that’s a huge first step, because so often we’re absent from the present moment. You can live your whole life without actually having lived it. Focusing on the breath is important because it brings the mind back to the body, and also because the breath is the one thing that we have that is unambiguously in the present—right where and right now. If I can get my mind to focus on the breath I’m not only entering into my body but I’m also entering into the present. It is so tremendously powerful to be in the present. It can be frightening because it’s a place we’re not familiar with, and I think that’s one of the reasons we run from it. It can be overwhelming.”
A year and a half ago I switched from writing about conservative politics to subjects like breathing, mindfulness, gratitude, struggle and stillness. In the process I lost a lot of my readership and have faced opposition from close friends who are concerned that I’ve fallen off the deep end. One person even warned me to be careful of divine judgment for leading souls astray.
Today I received a communication that has encouraged me to keep directing people to the value of stillness, and the occasion for gratitude afforded by ordinary things like mindful breathing. The message was from my friend Ruth, who is the sister of the lady who first introduced me to mindful breathing in the summer of 2015. Ruth gave me permission to share her story in this post.
At twenty-seven, Ruth is progressively losing the ability to breathe due to cystic fibrosis. Ruth is unable to enjoy the stillness of slow breathing since every breath is an effort.
In her email to me this morning, Ruth shared how the constant noise of her oxygen machine, combined with continual breathlessness, makes it a struggle to focus on anything: reading, listening, even having a conversation. Ruth explained how simply getting through each day is becoming more and more of a challenge as she endures the final stages in a protracted and painful process of suffocation.
Faced with such suffering, most of us would simply be struggling for breath. But Ruth shared that she is also struggling for gratitude.
Over the years I’ve talked a lot with Ruth and her husband David about gratitude. Through things they’ve said, but mainly through their example, they’ve helped me to see that it’s possible to strive for peace and gratitude even when everything is going wrong. They’ve helped me to see that peace and gratitude are not things you either have or don’t have; rather, these are virtues each and every one of us can struggle towards regardless of what is happening in our life. (And yes, struggle is a good thing, though some of my readers have been disputing the fact.)
The struggle we face is not to be grateful for extraordinary things that it’s easy to feel thankful for; rather, the struggle is to be grateful for the ordinary things in life that we so often take for granted.
Breathing, stillness, silence—for those of us who are not struggling with cystic fibrosis, these gifts are always available to be received with gratitude and joy. But how often do we stop and savor these blessings? For Ruth, these blessings are no longer available. Her message to the rest of us is to appreciate what we have.
“I long for people to understand, enjoy and be thankful for the simple blessings they have” Ruth shared with me this morning. But she also shared how so few people are willing to engage with this part of her journey.
Sometimes it takes someone who is dying to remind us just how blessed we are for ordinary things in life that we take for granted—things like being able to sit in silence, being able to take a walk with a friend, being able to withdraw into a room and do nothing but breathe deeply for ten minutes.
I want to end by sharing a comment Ruth put on Instagram about the picture below that she found meaningful:
“The last few weeks have been hard. Breathing is a struggle and uses enough of my mind to make it difficult to focus properly on anything else. My oxygen flow rate is higher and so the soundtrack to my days is the whistling and blowing of air into my nose. Silence is something I remember but no longer experience. But this isn’t the end. I found this artwork on eBay and love it. It captures my idea of bliss. Winter, the peace and stillness that comes with snow everywhere, walking with my favourite person and our goofy dog through the trees. That has never happened and probably won’t in this lifetime. But it makes me long for the next even more. Pain is not the end. Peace is coming.”