It was three o’clock on a Monday afternoon and I receive a call from Cinda, my wife. She says she doesn’t feel at all well and has made her way to a local doctor’s surgery. Now she is waiting for an ambulance. She puts the doctor on the phone, “Your wife is fine, don’t be alarmed but as it looks like something may be amiss with her heart we have called an ambulance as a precaution.” The next call I receive soon after is to say Cinda is being taken into hospital.

Two hours later we are still in a small cubicle in the Accident and Emergency Department of Dorchester Hospital and various tests have been carried out. The results of the blood test eventually come through and a young doctor tells Cinda, “You have had a heart attack”. Big shock. What followed was a roller-coaster of a time for us both during the following weeks. Both of our lives and our approach to life were to change dramatically. It was easier to see how slender the thread of life actually is and it immediately gave me a different perspective on life – what was of most importance to me became crystal clear.

Make Friends with the Breath 

Like many of you perhaps there have been a number of times in my life where I have been overwhelmed by what life has presented before me. I have learned, perhaps the hard way, that to make friends with my life I need to make friends with my breath. The more I have learned to consciously re-member and re-focus my breath the easier it becomes to face life’s difficulties with more balance and equanimity. Yet when faced with something extraordinary such as Cinda’s heart attack it’s not always easy to remember. Even though one knows many spiritual practices very well it is all too easy to forget and to lose that essential connection to the rhythm of the breath.

Remembering to Watch my Breath

In the first days, even weeks after Cinda’s heart attack the pace of life increased dramatically for me. As I wasn’t sleeping so well I was rising early and practicing meditation every morning for longer than usual. This was a welcome and necessary lifeline but even so as each day unfolded I found I was succumbing that bit more to the stress of the situation. At first I couldn’t seem to do anything about it especially as I was less concerned with my own needs and was giving myself wholeheartedly to whatever needed to be done for Cinda’s healing. Then after some days I remembered. I began to take more conscious control of my breathing throughout the day. From that point things changed dramatically. I felt much calmer and was able to carry out whatever was before me with more ease. The easier the rhythm of the breath became the more the stress of the whole situation began to ease. Simple rhythmic breathing along with a sacred phrase to give added focus to that rhythm was all it took.

The Great Teacher

Life itself is always the great teacher and where our real spiritual practice is revealed. It is no exaggeration to say that how we breathe determines how we experience our life, our health, our emotions and our mind. If any aspect of our being is out of balance, our breath will almost certainly be out of balance also. Everything we think, or feel or do will have its effect on how we breathe. If we can consciously remember to reconnect with our breath even if at first only for a few moments we can begin to bring our life back into a more harmonious rhythm. From this practice life begins to flow more easily.

“Is He Breathing?”

One of the simplest teachings from a mystical perspective that generally fails to make any impression on most people is that the word spirit really means breath. Spiritual development is essentially nothing more than breath development. An American Sufi was once asked whether a certain person was really spiritual. “Is he breathing?” was the reply.

Simply by breathing you are following the spiritual path whether you are conscious of this or not. How we may be following our spiritual path at any one time depends on how we are breathing and the quality of our breath. Development of breath requires long study and practice usually under the guidance of one who has mastered this art and science. But there are things you can do on your own. You can easily become more aware of your breathing and if you were to consciously practice simple rhythmic breathing you could soon begin to notice beneficial effects in all aspects of your being. Regular and rhythmic breathing will give health and strength to your body and mind. There doesn’t need to be a major crisis in life to be reminded of this.

Practice this Technique:

Stage 1. Begin to experience your breath as it is in this moment without trying to change it in any way. Your body is being breathed and you simply experience it. Allow the breath to enter in and out through the nostrils. Feel the awareness of breathing in the nostrils. Notice how your body breathes, how the body accommodates the energy of breath. Allow this to continue for several breaths.

Stage 2. Follow the breath down from the nostrils into heart space in the center of the chest. Watch as you continue to effortlessly breathe in and out from the heart. Continue to explore a developing sense of ease in the breathing. You may find the breath gradually begins to deepen. Allow this to happen naturally.

Begin to sense the rhythm of the breath. Feel a sense of balance between the in-breath and the out-breath. The rhythm of the in-breath begins to feel the same as the rhythm of the out-breath. See if you can get a clear sense of that rhythm. Have a sense that the length of the breath is the same on the in-breath and the out-breath whatever that length is. Sense that the depth of breath is the same on the in-breath and the out-breath whatever that depth is for you. You may notice the connection between the heartbeat, your own basic rhythm of life, and your breath.

Stage 3. Let go of any sense of concentration or of doing anything. Feel whatever you feel and notice whatever you notice.

Taking the Practice Further

Naturally there is much further one can go with this practice. As you focus more on the rhythmic breath in daily life you can become one with your breath and begin to feel a sense of unity in all you do rather than being distracted by all the conditions of life.

As I mentioned earlier I also placed a sacred phrase on the breath to add more energy to the sense of rhythm. In this way by concentrating on something other than self one takes oneself less seriously. But this is another story to be told at a later date perhaps.

Health and Peace of Mind

Thankfully despite a number of ups and downs in the weeks following the heart attack, Cinda continues to go from strength to strength and is making an excellent recovery. Her health and vitality improve that much more each day. As I have continued an ongoing awareness of a rhythmic breath so has my own health and peace of mind been maintained.