"I breathed your fragrance"
the wisdom of the breath
When I was first introduced to meditation by Fr Alphege of Prinknash Abbey, I threw my 19-year-old self into daily practice with an excess of excited, self-conscious energy.
A week later I told Fr Alphege that I’d experienced a slightly uncomfortable feeling in my chest a few times. He gave me one of his much-loved smiles and said, “Relax. You’re trying too hard. Let the prayer word and your breath flow together gently, and rest there.”
The discomfort went away and never returned.
Just to practice bodily stillness and follow our breath helps guide us to the silent ground of our being in God, where we might say with St Augustine, “I breathed your fragrance.”
If we’re trying to paint a window frame without painting the window at the same time or trying to remove an irritating speck of dust from our eye, our breathing slows and deepens without any conscious instruction. The steady flow of our breath contributes greatly to our focus and concentration.
Whether we are trying to undertake a delicate task or experiencing a sudden eruption of anxiety, we easily recognise the wisdom and healing anchor of the breath.
So, too, the skillful use of the breath helps greatly with the deepening of our meditation practice, whether it is combined with the use of a prayer word or used simply on its own. The breath becomes a bridge which unites our whole being.
Using the breath is a natural and very effective way of maintaining focused attention and preventing mental dispersion. Whenever our mind becomes scattered, the breath can help us gather it again and cultivate the energy of concentration.
It is the energy of concentration (un-grasping, focused attention) which facilitates the opening of awareness.
Over time, our breath naturally deepens and slows (three to five breaths a minute is common) and the centre of our breathing moves down from the chest to the abdomen.
As this happens, many discover the breath to be a place of sanctuary. As well as grounding the deepening interior peace which is a fruit of our practice, the breath becomes a place of refuge and a vehicle of deepening communion with God and all creation.
The wisdom of the breath is deep and has great power.
Over time, our prayer word and breath become one harmonious flow. As this happens, there are likely to be moments when your self-conscious mind falls away. Meditation continues, but there is no meditator present. Prayer continues, but we are being prayed.
As St John of the Cross says so beautifully, “The soul that is united and transformed in God breathes God with the same divine breathing with which God, while in her, breathes her in himself.” One breath, one breathing, one flow of love.
A few suggestions for integrating the breath into our meditation practice:
Once we are sitting, it is helpful to begin by taking a few slow, deep breaths, breathing in from the abdomen and breathing out fully. Some initial deeper breaths can help gather our attention, settle the mind and still us.
Both the inbreath and outbreath should be steady and unforced, so that if you had a little glass mirror under your nose it would hardly cloud at all. Then, let your breathing return to its natural flow.
Next, begin to say your prayer word (or short phrase), silently, interiorly, in tandem with the flow of your breath. A single prayer word might be said with the inbreath or outbreath, or with both. If a short prayer phrase is being used, you might say half the phrase with the inbreath and half with the outbreath.
The crucial thing is to find what is most comfortable for you (which is most likely to help you forget yourself) and stay with that.
Nothing should be forced or laboured. Whenever you notice that your attention has followed a thought or feeling (or some other content of experience), just gently bring your attention back to saying your word in the flow of your breath.
You will be distracted from your practice. It’s going to happen. Don’t fight it. The practice is simply to return to the practice. Just notice and return, without comment, without judgement.
To notice that you are distracted is not failure. It is awareness. To notice you have been distracted 100 times, is to have had 100 moments of awareness, 100 opportunities to come home, to be present in God’s ever-present presence.
To meditate is to begin and keep beginning, to return and keep returning. We practice accepting the gift of the present moment, just as it is. We practice accepting the gift of ourselves, just as we are.
Sometimes when people first start to use the breath, they become very conscious of how they are breathing. Sometimes they wonder if the breath is deep enough, at other times whether it is slow enough, or not quite right in some way.
If you find yourself with thoughts like this, let them go and trust your body. It has all the wisdom it needs. It knows what to do. Let it show you. It takes just a few days for your body to teach you all you need to know.
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 St Augustine, Confessions, Book 10 XXVII.
 St. John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, Red A., str. 38, quoted by Martin Laird in Into the Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation (Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd), 2006, p. 18.