A History of Breath

Birmingham Unitarian Church


“Only Breath”

Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu,

Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion

or cultural system. I am not from the East

or the West, not out of the ocean or up

from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not

composed of elements at all. I do not exist,

am not an entity in this world or the next,

did not descend from Adam and Eve or any

origin story. My place is placeless, a trace

of the traceless. Neither body or soul.

I belong to the beloved, have seen the two

worlds as one and that one call to and know,

first, last, outer, inner only that

breath breathing human being.


Scott Russell Sanders

Trees breathe, my father taught me. They draw in what we cast off, carbon dioxide, and they give off what we crave, oxygen, and so our breath circles in and out of their pores. Only the outer bark of a tree is alive, the tender inch or two of sapwood just beneath the bark which carries vital juices between dirt and leaves. The inner core of the tree, the heartwood, is no longer living. It’s not really dead, but merely still, finished, like a snapshot. Slice open, the heartwood reveals a tree’s history. So the grain exposed on our walls and floors and furnishings tells of the fat years and thin, weather hard and mild, soils deep and shallow. The texture of each board is like a photograph of a face bearing marks from a lifetime of blessings and blows.

Each plank in our floor is unique, and yet when the planks are laid side by side they resemble one another like brothers and sisters, faithful to the design of oaks. If the universe itself has a design, some deep and steadfast grain that reveals the kinship among all its parts, then what could be more important for a life’s work than trying to discern that pattern? All of science is based on the faith that there is such a grain in things, at least in everything that can be measured. But what of those immeasurable things–feeling and thought, memory and longing, actions and words–is there a grain to them as well? Is there a pattern in our striving, a moral to be drawn from this history of breath?


It all begins when God forms the first human being (‘adam) from the dust of the ground (‘adama) and breathes into his nostrils the breath of Life.

Well, let me say, that is where I shall start, for we know that somewhere, eons ago, some creature, somewhere, stuck its nose (or something resembling a nose) out of the water or the ooze and took that first breath – taking in the primal air, the clear atmosphere of the Earth and its life.

I wonder what it felt like?

Even as I pause, and slowly inhale, aware of drawing in that which I cannot see and yet upon which my life depends – even as I pause and inhale . . . and then exhale . . . I wonder, what that first breath felt like.

Take a moment yourself, and breathe, breathe in the air; pay attention to it filling your lungs and then returning to the air around you…. Pretty amazing stuff!

After that first primal breath, breathing got more popular. It spread to more and more creatures as they ventured out on the land, spreading across the world.

Eventually, ancient ancestors of ours emerged from this growing variety of creatures, great and small, and I am imagining there was a moment when one of them, on their way to becoming human, watched another die, connected the dots and realized that when the breath left their body, so did their life.

So it makes perfect sense to me that the ancient Hebrews, in the oldest of their two creation stories, should equate the breath with the spirit, with the animating force that came from and was a part of their God.

It is an image that carries on today in our own language. Within the meaning of the word, inspire, is the sense of being en-spirited, of having the spirit breathed in, taken in to our being, enlivening us. Likewise, with the word, expire, this spirit goes out of us – returns, one could assume, to whence it came.

Such motion, such movement – in and out and in again – is the focus of many meditation techniques, and a central part of Yoga. Holding our attention on our breath – in and out – focuses the mind and relaxes the body to the practice. Such breathing practices are common to many religions, all recognizing in their own way the simple, and yet profound, effects there can be when we spend some time focusing upon that which we take so for granted so much of the time.

And Jelaluddin Rumi, in his ecstatic meditations, takes it a step further, and back to the source.

Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu,

Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion

or cultural system….

I belong to the beloved…,

first, last, outer, inner, only that

breath breathing human being.

We all belong to the Beloved, we breath breathing human beings. We share this breath, and not just with one another, but with all who have gone before. A molecule shared with Rumi, or with Emerson, or with Emily Dickinson could be with us right now. We share our breath with everyone.

And we have shaped this breath into words, into sounds that communicate, that even when they are static on a page they can be revived in the speaking of them, in giving them breath again, inspiriting them again.

We have used these words over the centuries to explore and explain the very breath which carries them, expressing stories and observations about our being here, leaving us a rich library of wonder and insight that can still guide us today, expressions of common aspirations and insights, an interdependent web of wisdom, as it were.

An old Zen saying puts it this way:

To understand God is to listen. Listen to Jesus and Muhammad and Buddha, but don’t get caught up in the names. Listen beyond them; listen to God’s breath.

There is an anthology of several sacred scriptures of the world by that very name, God’s Breath. In an time when some declare the absolute and literal Word of God to be confined to one book and one book alone, I find it a refreshing breath of fresh spiritual encouragement to hold that volume and know that each of the writings contained within it, as well as many more not included, all came from the same spirit of search, of wonder – a spirit that searches the human heart as well as the human mind, seeking a place of balance and meaning in the midst of Life.

I have often spun out sermons that wove together reflections from a variety of religious traditions. Ok, I do it a lot. But I do it to illustrate this interdependent web of wisdom of which we all are a part, a wisdom that reaches across the religious barriers we erect – the absolutes, the dogmas, the rules and reg’s – and confirms again that we are all in this together, and have been for some time now.

I bring all this up because I tend to spend some time reflecting every now and then on what is basic to my own spirituality – what still breathes for me and breathes in me. It seems a good Unitarian thing to do. I take these periodic occasions to indulge in such reflection, to return to, to be reminded and renewed in some of the sources that are basic for me.

The anthology, God’s Breath, starts off with that wonderful little book from the fourth century BCE (before the common era), the Tao Te Ching. I have ten different translations of it in my library because it is so tricky to render it into English. I figure I get a broader idea of what the original Chinese is trying convey by comparing translations.

One of its best wisdom guides is perhaps its most well-known, the opening two sentences: The Way (the Tao) that can be named is not the real Way. The Name that can be named is not the real Name.

When it comes to the life of the Spirit, one must be able to accept a good deal of ambiguity and paradox. We cannot nail things down with our words or names. We cannot pretend our own definitions of vast and ultimately incomprehensible things are completely descriptive. We cannot define in order to confine. We do our best with the language we have, of course; we do our best to convey the experiences and thoughts and feelings we have, but we have to know that the words we use are approximations, our best attempts, and not ever the thing itself.

I am reminded of an old image that illustrates this for me. It is the image, and the experience, of seeing a star in a clear night sky in the periphery of your vision which, when you turn to gaze straight at it, seems to disappear. Seems to disappear, yet it is still there. Such it is with the Way – with the Spirit, with God, and with whatever other word one wants to use for The Great Mystery, for the Life in which we live and move and have our being.

So the Tao tells me: keep on your toes. The adventure of the Spirit is that you can never be too sure.

And speaking of not being too sure, I also experience God’s Breath through Jesus in a brief exchange he has with those pesky Pharisees. I say pesky, because they seem to be constantly questioning him, and according to one text it seems that they all asked him the same question at once, in unison (at least is sounds that way to me). It reads: Being asked by the Pharisees…. Not just one of them; apparently ALL of them, like some strange Greek chorus. But Jesus keeps his cool. They wanted to know exactly when this Kingdom of God that he keeps talking about was going to arrive and where it would show up, as if there was a schedule somewhere for them to consult. So Jesus answered,

The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you. (Luke 17:20-21, RSV)

It is like, Yo! Wake up! It’s already here! (I rather like to think that ‘Yo!’ is something of a contemporary form of ‘Behold!’) And speaking of ambiguity, the word translated “in the midst of,” according to several sources at least, can also mean “among” or “within.” So really what is being said here is that God is everywhere – among you, within you, and in your midst. – I do not have to look for it. What I need to do is change the way I see. And it is sort of like Jesus is saying, “The kingdom of God that you can point to or name is not the real kingdom.” Shades of Lao Tzu.

But like that elusive star, the Tao, the Way, is there. The kingdom of God is there. It is there for us to experience when we can let go of everything we think it is going to be, or should be, and let it be what it is. And acknowledge it.

This brings us to one of the many paradoxes of the spiritual life, for while our names for these elusive experiences are not their real name, while we cannot put our finger definitively on it all and say, “There!” we can acknowledge this presence, this Life force, in some manner. For instance, the practice of pausing, and saying, “Namaste,” is as good as any. It reminds me to recognize and honor the Divine Spark in another, but also to recognize and honor the Divine Spark everywhere else. As the Chandogya Upanishad puts it:

An invisible and subtle essence is the Spirit of the whole universe. That is Reality. That is Truth. Thou are That. (J. Mascaro, trans.)

Thus does God’s Breath blow through Hinduism, as through the teachings of Jesus and Lao Tzu and many others. Aldous Huxley called this the Perennial Philosophy, and so it is. I just like the poetic image of God’s Breath better (but what’s in a name, right?). And lest anyone try to tell you that our own tradition somehow missed out on this, au contraire. It may be known in many of our people and places, through the sermons of William Ellery Channing or the poems of May Sarton, but one of its most resonant and eloquent voices for me is Emerson. In his essay, “The Oversoul,” he wrote:

Let us learn the revelation of all nature and thought; that the Highest dwells within us…. As there is no screen or ceiling between our heads and the infinite heavens, so there is no bar or wall in the soul where we, the effect, cease, and God, the cause, begins…. Within us is the soul of the whole, the wise silence, the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One.

God’s Breath through Mr. Emerson’s pen. In this essay, Emerson speaks to the perennial philosophy, the sacred breath that flows through all the wisdom literature of our collective scriptures. His words call to me and call me back to remember over and over again how the Spirit lives within, among, and in our midst – how we are, in more ways than we will ever know, That.

So there is a bit of the flow as it flows through my perceptions – a snapshot of what God’s Breath whispers in my own ear. Whispers all the time – I just need to pay more attention.

Rumi was in this flow big time, and offered this bit of guidance. He said:

Learn about your inner self from those who know such things, but don’t repeat verbatim what they say. (Rumi/Barks)

And aye, there’s the rub. God’s Breath must become our breath, our breathing, a flowing through us that is at once our own, and always Other. This is the invitation of the Spirit of which Thomas Moore writes when he says,

Nothing is more challenging, nothing less sentimental, than the invitation of spirit to become who we are and not who we think we ought to be.

God’s Breath turns the dust of the Earth into human beings. That breath has been passed down from the beginning to now, to us, today.

It is here, in this place, surrounding and ever-ready to inspire us.

Breathe, breathe in that air.

And may we also be careful stewards of it, that generations to come will also share in its gift of Life.

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