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Breathing as Spiritual Practice

Experiencing the Presence of God

Published by Inner Traditions
Distributed by Simon & Schuster

About The Book

A guide to meditative breathing practices in Western religions and how these practices provide a direct experience of God

• Reveals how Western spiritual traditions, such as the Book of Genesis, the Jewish teachings of ruach, and the poetry of Rumi, contain hidden instruction for meditative breathing practices

• Explains how breathing practices can bring all of us, including Christians, Muslims, and Jews, closer to a direct experience of the palpable presence of God

• Provides guidelines and best practices for meditative breathing through a personal journal of the author’s own meditative retreat

Surprised by the number of attendees from Western spiritual traditions at his Buddhist retreats, Will Johnson wanted to understand what drew them to this type of spiritual experience. He found many devoted Christians were in search of a more direct experience of God beyond faith alone, so he began exploring what breathing practices could be found in the sacred texts of Western monotheistic religions. Johnson discovered that, like their Eastern counterparts, Western traditions speak of gaining direct access to God via the breath. After experimenting with these teachings during a 10-day retreat at a desert monastery, he discovered that each of us has the potential to open up to the presence of spirit in every breath.

In this book, the author offers a close look at the importance of breath in each major Western religion, including the Jewish teachings of ruach as life-giving spirit in the form of breath and the Islamic poetry of Rumi, which describes breath as essential for cleansing the soul. He then ties each breathing tradition to the Book of Genesis, sacred to Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.” Just as God blew life into Adam, every breath we take--if we follow the breathing practice of surrendering completely to inhalation--can open us up to the presence of God.

Through his own contemplative journey, Johnson shares his experience of striving to surrender to the fullest presence of God through each breath. As he takes the reader step-by-step through his own breathing practice, the author explains his physical and mental techniques for meditating successfully through breath and provides helpful guidelines to get the most out of meditative retreats. Johnson also offers deep reflections on how these shared practices of experiencing God through the breath transcend religious differences.


Day Three. In God’s Image

According to the Old Testament, God entered into humans and gave them life through a mixture of two things: the dust of the earth and the power of the breath. So, to reconnect with the original human that you are, created in the reflected image of God, you want to bring breath back to life so it can be felt blowing into the minute cells of the body, awakening their felt presence.

sensation and breath am i
nothing but sensation and breath

To experience God as actual, palpable, felt presence, we need to get back in touch with the sensations and breath that self-image conceals. We want to soften and dissolve the mask of self-image--our prides, our ambitions, our wants, our fears--and trust in the feeling presence of the body. Just sensation. Just breath.

deeper than the image i hold of myself
is the sensation and breath that i am
my image of myself
is but a pale shadow
of the felt vibrancy that is my birthright

Underneath the mask, on every part of the body down to the smallest cell, is an oceanic web of minute, little pin prick blips of sensation, so small in size, constantly moving and changing, the cellular motes of matter into which life has been blown.

But mostly we have little to no awareness of this great oceanic web of feeling presence. We’re lost in the unbidden, random thoughts of our mind that cover over that web like a blanket over a statue that’s yet to be unveiled. To resurrect God’s presence in our own bodies, we want to bring our sensational presence back to life, and just as God did in the moment of Adam’s creation, we want to breathe into every little cell of the body, every nook and cranny. God did not just blow life into some of the dust motes that coalesced to form Adam’s body. God blew into all of them. Breathing into the entire body in this way brings the tingling, vibratory, humming, buzzing sensations of each and every cell of the body back to felt life.

you can’t take the oxygen in the air
and breathe it into
every cell of the body

but yes
you can breathe right into
the body’s global feeling presence
stimulating sensation everywhere
breath and sensation meeting

The practice of Breathing God, of feeling the presence of God as the fundamental ground of your bodily life, is twofold. First you can shift your awareness away from the thoughts in your mind back to the sensations that exist on every part of the body, but which you can’t feel when you’re lost in the thoughts that feed your self-image.

my thoughts are always concerned
with my place in the material world
but my sensations are the holy spirit’s way of saying

follow me
i’ll take you to god

Just by remembering to feel--perhaps passing your awareness at first through each and every part of the body, slowly, methodically, over and over again to reinforce this remembrance--you can start breaking free from the gravitational pull of the mind that thinks thoughts. The good news gospel is that, through no heroic efforts and expenditures of energy but simply by redirecting and paying attention, sensations start coming back to felt life. Over time, every part of the body can wake up--first one part, then another. And suddenly the ground is prepared for the great leap in which you start to feel the body not as an assortment of individual parts--a hand here, a knee there--but all at once, as a unified field of felt presence.

And then, secondly, you can start relaxing so deeply that the breath you’ve worked so hard to become conscious of, your inspiration/inhalation, can be felt to stimulate and touch into every single cell of your body. And just as unconscious restricted breath and a generalized numbness of body are reflections of each other, so too are awakened body and a more freely flowing breath. In truth, the twofold practice--bringing feeling presence and breath both to life--can’t really be divided into two as the one reinforces the other. If you bring body to life, breath naturally becomes fuller. Through becoming more aware of the breath, and surrendering to its potency, sensations come alive. Breathing into the whole body, then, is a direct reflection of that original breath in which God gave life to Adam by blowing into all the dust motes of his as yet lifeless body.

* * *

And here I feel a real dilemma because my mind and my body are telling me two opposite things.

My mind objects strongly to the notion that every breath I take could be felt to touch into my entire body because I know as scientific fact and certainty that I don’t breathe into every cell of my body, only into my lungs. And yet there’ve been moments when every inhalation I’ve taken could be felt touching into and awakening sensation everywhere in my body, stimulating the latent shimmer of every single cell all at once.

two breaths
one bringing oxygen
to my lungs
the other stimulating
felt presence
throughout my body

There’ve been moments in which breath, in addition to being the source of oxygen that my body so needs as its most vital food, has also become a force that could be felt touching into my body, not just into my lungs alone, but everywhere.

From the perspective of my mind, what I’ve just said sounds ridiculous, but from the perspective of those moments of awakened body and breath, I can see how both are equally true. One breath keeps me alive. The other breath awakens God in me.

the scientific explanation
for why we breathe
is one of those rare instances
where knowledge ends up disempowering us

About The Author

Will Johnson is the founder and director of the Institute for Embodiment Training, which combines Western somatic psychotherapy with Eastern meditation practices. He is the author of several books, including Breathing through the Whole Body, The Posture of Meditation, and The Spiritual Practices of Rumi. He lives in British Columbia.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Inner Traditions (October 8, 2019)
  • Length: 160 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781620556887

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Raves and Reviews

“Will Johnson sounds a clarion call for integration to a fragmented world. Ever the quintessential body and breath awareness teacher, Johnson skillfully brings together the three monotheistic religions by way of a spiritual practice common to all. Interwoven with his own candid, sometimes poignant, personal experience, Johnson offers a message of hope to all of us, wherever we find ourselves in our desire to be present to what is.”

– Antoinette Voûte Roeder, author of Poems for Meditation and The Space Between

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