This is the third in a sermon series on Elemental Spirituality: Earth, Water, Air and Fire.
Air… wind… breath…Ruah… Spirit
In the second creation story (Genesis 2), God molds and fashions and forms and breathes life into the earth creature. (Adam in Hebrew, literally meaning human being or earth creature. Soil is adama in Hebrew.) Judaism and our Old Testament refer to God as Ruah, the holy wind moving through life. Islam also understand God’s breath as an extension of God’s being in the world. In the Gospel of John, Jesus breathes on his followers and imparts the gift of the Holy Spirit, thus beginning another creation story – the creation of Christianity and the church. In the New Testament, the Greek word pneuma (meaning breath) is used almost 400 times to describe a sacred wind, divine breath, or the holiness of life. Pneuma is personalized as the Holy Spirit. For Buddhists, to breathe is to achieve mindfulness, the awareness of one’s breath within the breath of all. Hindus say that “Every single movement in the cosmos is a movement of the Cosmic Breath.” Native Americans speak of the four directions and the four winds that unify the natural world.
Spiritually we almost can’t think about God without thinking about air. John O’Donohue wrote, “Air is an intimate element… it gets right into you through your breathing and your blood, into the heart of your life… God is breath and tenderness.” Our understanding of air is both spiritual and scientific, soul and body. From the standpoint of faith, the spirit of God moves around and through us and breath and wind. From the viewpoint of science, plants create the oxygen for us to breathe and we exhale carbon dioxide for them in a symbiotic relationship.
(For the full video sermon, click here.)
Just as with our discussions about earth and water, we can’t physically live without air and we can’t spiritually thrive without a connection to the Divine.
Here in Racine we typically don’t have to worry about air pollution… at least not compared to China or LA… but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or it doesn’t have an effect. If you have asthma or COPD, you probably know when the air quality is getting worse. The rest of us take breathing for granted. It is clear from that statistics that it is so important that we continue to advocate for emissions restrictions and try to reduce air pollution.
When I think about the breath we breathe, I think about that first breath a child takes, and the last breath we take before we die. Being present at each of those moments is very sacred.
When a child is born we hold our own breath while we wait to hear that first cry, or the doctor tell us that they’re breathing just fine and didn’t even whimper. My second child, Sam, was born looking a bit blue with the cord wrapped around his neck. As they wisked him away to get him in an oxygen hood, the importance of breath was taken to a whole new level. That first breath is such a miracle as it transitions us from the womb (the world of water) to the world of air. It is no wonder it was seen as God placing breath within a body.
Then there is the last breath a person takes. Yes, it’s difficult for those of us who wait as breathing slows and becomes more and more labored. There is nothing to be done, but to be present with love. It is a different transition, but if you have ever been present during those last moments, you may understand what a sacred moment it is as well.
Cait Johnson, in her book, Earth, Water, Fire, & Air says, “Western religions see the powerful breath as primarily belonging to the Divine. But in Eastern traditions, breath can be a way of knowing the Divine in our own bodies, of changing consciousness and even attaining enlightenment.”
We know that what happens in our minds, manifests in our bodies and our breathing. When we get scared, anxious or tense our breathing becomes short, shallow, and faster. Or we hold it! When we are relaxed and comfortable, our breathing is slower, deeper and calm.
All meditation and forms of yoga begin with a concentration on one’s breathing, to pay attention to it, to deepen it and relax one’s muscles while releasing the tension in the body.
At his monastery and retreat centers, Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh teaches a mindfulness practice that focuses on the breath. At random intervals someone rings a bell, and at the sound everyone stops briefly to breathe deeply and focus their awareness on the present moment. Simply pausing for a moment helps to recenter and ground us, instead of rushing frantically through our days without thinking.
I’m sure you’ve heard someone along the way tell you to count to 10 when you get angry and to take a deep breath. It gives our souls a moment to catch up with our egos and then we are better able to determine how we want to act instead of react. Someone in our women’s group refers to this as “mindful breath before strangulation.”
Pema Chodron said that “some people have told me that they find it unnerving to pause. One man said if he pauses it feels like death to him.” It may feel like we’re wasting time, or letting go of control or power. But perhaps the reality is that we don’t pause because we don’t want to be present. And, yet, being present to the moment is what truly connects us to life and living. Taking a simple deep breath or two to remember, reground, reconnect with self and Spirit.
So, here’s an idea for you: pick something for the next day, or week, that will be your trigger to stop and breathe. The phone ringing, opening the refrigerator, or checking your email. Whenever that trigger comes stop whatever you are doing, take a deep breath and take inventory of the situation and how you are feeling. Or, did you know you can download an app on your phone to help you do this? I found a number of mindfulness apps and downloaded a Mindfulness Bell that can be set to ring at set or random intervals. It reminds me to stop for just a moment to breathe and take account of my state of being (whether I want to or not!)
Air… breath… Spirit… scientific and spiritual… body and soul… it gives us life, it brings us back to center, it heals us, it calms us, it fills us. It is sacred.
Love & Light!