Breath Prayers

“Focus on your breath,” a Zen master teaches.

Child's First Prayer
Child’s First Prayer (From the Library of Congress Collection)

Focusing on one’s breath can simply serve as a convenient marker to give one’s mind something to process while spending a few minutes focusing on being fully present in prayer. The breath is convenient for it is always with us. After practice, merely pausing to catch one’s breath might remind one of previous prayer times.

Having something to focus on while sitting quietly listening for God can keep one’s mind from straying to work on problems not immediately present. Taking a few minutes each day to sit quietly, listening for God, and being fully present in the moment, can train one for being fully present in a difficult project or conversation. Having something to focus on can keep one from fretting about yesterday’s mistakes or worrying about what might come later.

“So do not worry about tomorrow,
for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.
Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

— Matthew 6:34 (NRSV)

Breath prayers provide an alternative to silently focusing on one’s breath. Breath prayers are short, two-part phrases, that can be said quietly: one half while inhaling and half while exhaling. Breath prayers offer structure so the one praying can focus on being fully present, listening for the small clear voice of God, without latching on to every stray thought that passes through one’s mind.

Breath prayers, or focusing on one’s breath while listening for God, can develop one’s self-control, enhance one’s ability to delay gratification.

Jesus might have used a breath prayer during the crucifixion when he said: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani.” or “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” These first words of Psalm 22 become a source of comfort since David went on to recall how God had been present with him in the past, and boasted that future generations will proclaim his deliverance.

Other passages suitable for breath prayers include:

  • Come Lord Jesus / hear my prayer.
    — see 1 Corinthians 16:22
  • Seek first / God’s kingdom
    — see Matthew 6:33
  • Be still / and know that I am God
    — see Psalm 46:10

The last phrase may also be repeated each time removing the last word. Yielding:

Be still and know that I am God
Be still and know that I am
Be still and know that I
Be still and know that
Be still and know
Be still and
Be still
Be

Being still to pray silently lets the one praying enjoy God in the present, equipping that person with calmness of heart and mind, to creatively engage the problems of today.

Other musings on prayer:

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