About 25 years ago I read a short book on breath prayer. I don’t remember who wrote it, what the title was or much detail about it. I do remember that the author believed that, with empty and open reflection, a person would be given a brief, mantra-like breath prayer. The idea was a two-part phrase, the first part to be thought or spoken on inhalation and the second part on exhalation. It would be repeated throughout the day. And it would be just the right thing to meet the petitioner’s need, likely for a long period of time.
Being a fairly trusting soul, and thinking this sounded like a pretty good thing, I sat quietly and asked to be given my breath prayer. And sure enough, it showed up: “Thy will be done.” Breathe in, “Thy will.” Breathe out, “be done.” So the idea was, just like breathing, to say, to breathe this over and over. About a million times. Seriously. Just literally graft this into my autonomic nervous system.
And I have. For twenty-five years, when I wake, before I go to sleep, riding in airplanes, when I am driving by myself, confronted with challenges or opportunities, for a few minutes before I enter a meeting, I breathe in, “Thy will,” and breathe out, “be done.” Incredible things have happened. Incredible learning and growth have come my way. Not to mention the numerous times I have been brought rudely to my knees.
I advocate the concept and practice. Find your breath prayer, whether you are theist, agnostic or atheist. Whether you think of God/Spirit/Mind/Source as a person, concept or force, I suspect your subconscious will offer up some useful breath mantra. And when you incorporate it seamlessly into your breathing habit, it will find, strengthen, shape and heal something centrally useful for you over time.
But breath prayer is not what this piece is about. It’s about choosing the willingness of connection to the Tree of Life over the willfulness of attachment to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. As it happens, I backed into this learning through my breath prayer, and have experienced the goodness of it for many years. But the more I experience it, the more I think it is the most important thing.
Psychiatrist and spiritual director Gerald May wrote the most amazing book, Will and Spirit, which I have mentioned on this page before, and it is all about choosing willingness over willfulness. The choice I am describing is the choice of abandoning personal control in favor of submission to something larger and greater. It is the choice of trust over suspicion, of grace over judgment. It is the wholeness of Zen over the mechanics of technique, openness to epiphany over grasping for contingencies. It has nothing to do with abandonment of responsibility, but everything to do with balance and perspective.
The root of all our anxiety and most of our unhealthy behavior is our desire, our drive, personally to control everything about life. This is a natural response to the sensation of individuation that comes with human awareness. We feel vulnerable and alone. We feel solely responsible. We have enough awareness of our environment that we think we can and should govern it entirely.
But we cannot. Our perspective and our grasp are necessarily limited. We are, in essence, missing the “omni” part of omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence. We are created in the image of God. We are filled with the breath of God, “in whom we live and move and have our being.” But we are never complete in and of ourselves. And we are willfully deluded, headed for destruction and despair, if we think so.
“Use the force, Luke.” There is so little to worry about in life when we approach it from a stance of trust and willingness. Which of our biggest fears or greatest challenges have we changed with anxiety? What problem have we solved or outcome have we truly influenced in a positive long-term way through willful control? Healed any relationships lately with a swing of the old ego bat?
I grew up with a fairly positive experience of a personified God. So even though “God” is now to me beyond the confines of concepts and language, “Thy will be done” works pretty well for me – very well, in fact, as I breathe in and breathe out every day. But maybe you did not experience God that way, or maybe even the term God is totally off-putting. No matter. I think your breath prayer could be “Eat Jell-O,” so long as it takes your mind off yourself and opens you to a place of greater trust and less willfulness.
Let go of willful attachment to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Connect willingly to the Tree of Life.
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