I am a therapist, and my job often entails sitting across from hurt-hardened humans on their last leg of hope.
Sometimes their exasperation momentarily silences the hope in my soul; their seething hostility clouds my sense of wisdom for what could possibly shatter the block of ice keeping them arctic and separated.
But then I remember—I can breathe. In through my nose, out through my mouth: Lord, have mercy.
Pray Without Ceasing
At any moment, whether in a tense therapy session or in the peril of hitting every red light on the way home, if I remember to breathe, I can access the loving heart of God. Breath prayer, an ancient Christian prayer practice with origins in the lives of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, is a vehicle we can use to live out Scripture’s call to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
There, in my therapy room, when I silently turn my attention to the most basic function of living—breathing—I can acknowledge my great need for God to equip me with wisdom and courage. Breath prayer simultaneously relaxes my overwhelmed body and fills me with confidence in being a conduit of God’s love and mercy.
Therapists have a saying that the strongest nervous system in the room wins. Thankfully, breath prayer consistently makes me the winner. As my body receives the peace of God’s presence, I am able to offer my clients something different than the anger they are experiencing. The presence of God transforms my presence into one of quiet mercy, steady calm and abundant love.
Grace for Stressed-Out Christians
The 2017 Stress in America poll revealed the United States is at its highest stress level in history. More than half of Americans consider this the lowest point in U.S. history they can remember, a sample which included representatives from every living generation, including those who survived World War II, Vietnam, the Cold War, and September 11th. As of 2015, seven in 10 Americans identified with some branch of Christian faith, though the number of Christians continues to decline, especially among young adults. Christian or not, we are a nation of heavy-hearted, stressed-out, smartphone-carrying human beings, struggling to feel peace in an overstimulating, scary world.
Stress can negatively influence every aspect of life, from our interpersonal interactions, to physical health, to our ability to make meaning of our lives. But research shows that stress can be reduced through shifting one’s attention or reaching out to others for support.
As humans, we carry models within our brains of how to form and engage in relationships. For many of us, our templates for relationship are skewed by traumatic experiences and inadequate formative relationships, but modern neuroscience has shown that our models for relationship can be restored through attuned, healthy relationships.
Breath prayer offers stressed-out Christians a simple way to respond to stress by turning our attention to the presence of God and reaching out to Him for grace. Our template for being able to engage in secure, life-giving relationships can be transformed as we turn to God in the midst of stress.
Astounding Impact through Simple Prayer
In the last 20 years, psychology and neuroscience research have demonstrated the profound influence of mindfulness on wellbeing. Mindfulness training has been shown to increase life satisfaction, positive affect, self-compassion and immune function. It has even been found to increase levels of the enzyme responsible for maintaining and repairing the ends of chromosomes which shorten as we age, truly lengthening the life span.
Breath prayer provides Christians a simple, sustainable way to gain the benefits of mindfulness while deepening our relationship with God. The practice of breath prayer considerably overlaps with the practice of mindfulness as described in the clinical psychology literature, offering its users a singular focus, present-moment awareness, and a non-judgmental attitude toward their feelings, sensations, and thoughts.
The impact of this kind of prayer can be profound. Studies have found that contemplative prayer, of which breath prayer is one form, can help Christians manage stress, evaluate stressors differently and increase spiritual awareness. Furthermore, practicing contemplative prayer can decrease symptoms of worry, depression, anxiety and stress. Additionally, it can be an effective tool for coping with conflict, enhancing users’ mindfulness skills and offering them a greater connection and awareness of their subconscious.
Breathe and Pray
Though the impact of breath prayer is immense, the practice of it is simple. Momentarily stop reading this article and notice the rise and fall of your breath. In and out.
The very function of living that you cannot survive without, which occurs so automatically most of us forget it is happening, is a force that when acknowledged can unite your heart to God.
Notice your breath.
From there, you can begin pairing the flow of your breath with a short prayer, the most helpful of which I have found originates in the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Because even that feels complex to me when overwhelmed, I simply shorten this phrase to, “Lord, have mercy.” I breathe in through my nose, silently praying, “Lord,” and then out through my mouth, “have mercy.”
Unsophisticated, silent and accessible to anyone with lungs and a mind—breath prayer simplifies our approach to God. Through it, we incline our hearts to acknowledge two essential truths of belonging to Jesus: He is Lord of all, and we are not; and He is full of compassion, ready and willing to respond to our needs. As a baby instinctively cries out to her mother to meet her needs, breath prayer habituates our hearts to cry out to God in expectant faith.
Over time as we approach God through breath prayer, we can gain an inner state of stillness, resulting in deep joy that expands even in the presence of adversity. And as we grow in inner stillness, we also grow in an interior watchfulness, which expands our capacity to mitigate our tendencies of reacting poorly or impulsively to fleeting experiences, thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
When we align our breath through prayer with the heart of God, we can experience what the anonymous author of The Way of a Pilgrim attested: “… inner peace, purity of thought, awareness of God’s presence … warmth of the heart, a feeling of delight throughout one’s being, joyful bubbling in the heart, lightness and courage, joy of life …”
Contemplative practices like breath prayer can connect our minds and hearts to expansively respond to the stress and sorrow of everyday life with growing trust and reliance in Jesus’ sufficiency. Even as I write this, I am facing some of the most heartbreaking adversity of my life. But I recently realized, my soul has never felt more alive. And this is the Holy Spirit’s fruit of spiritual discipline in my life, continuously posturing my heart toward God as compassionate, approachable and accessible in every moment of stress and joy. May breath prayer guide you to the heart of God as well so this may be true in our lives: “I called to the Lord in my distress, and I cried to my God for help. From His temple He heard my voice, and my cry to Him reached His ears.” (Psalm 18:6)
For one simple primer on beginning the spiritual discipline of breath prayer, click here.