“Breathe out,” she says, “and imagine that you’re breathing out through the bottoms of your feet.”
It’s Christmas-crazy, and I need this.
We’re sitting on the floor, a whole clotted bunch of us worn women. I feel them all around me; I can hear them breathing, the slow draw in, the release, but I can’t see them because eyes clamped closed, we’ve all diffused to some safe place. We are curling tendrils of smoke, drifting away from a candle. I’m on a Caribbean beach–I can see the birds swooping in the brilliant sky; I can hear the clear water lapping against the rocks; I can just barely feel the back of Kevin’s hand with my fingers, alternately him and the sun-warm sand I’m sifting. My friend beside, she’ll later say she’s been curled up nest-cozy in her daughter’s bed, in those tender moments carved for stories and nighttime prayers; and across the way, well, that sweet friend is stretched out on a hammock in her mother’s living room, gently swaying. Maybe it all sounds rather wispy, but ultimately, the exercise has the opposite effect.
Right now, except for the chair pressing metal-hard against my back and the floor beneath, solid, I could forget momentarily that I even exist in this space. But that awareness is important too, not to divest from the body but to appreciate it. My friend sitting cross-legged in the middle of the whole group of us, she’s like an anchor bobbing, drawing us strong and gentle through a thoughtful current, keeping us here together, but not. Mindfulness is something she teaches, something she practices, nearly every day. Now she slowly pulls our attention toward our breathing. “Your breathing is the most powerful influence you have on your nervous system,” she says.
Your breathing. I guess I knew that, even if I didn’t. How many times had I cupped Riley’s shoulders steady and asked her just to breathe? In the middle of her anxiety attacks, when she’s paralyzed with fear, that’s what we say, Breathe, just breathe. In….out…in…out. I even remind her how, as if she’s forgotten. In scripture, the word translated Spirit from the Greek is pneuma, meaning breath. I learned that once from a friend who’d had a double lung transplant. She said she’d never quite understood the significance of the Spirit indwelling, of God filling us with His own breath, until the inability to breathe nearly killed her. “When you can’t ever get enough air…”she’d searched for words that would touch the sensation, but couldn’t find any. “Well, it’s just awful,” she’d said, finally, and I could see I’d lost her to the remembering. God’s breath is the most powerful influence over me. And maybe this is a glimpse of what it means to live by the Spirit (Galatians 5:25)–to remember to breathe Him in, breathe Him out, to be aware of His movement through every part of me. Maybe this is what He means when He says, “Be still and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10).” We all love that verse, but not a one of us really knows how to just be still and exhale the I AM-ness, the WITH-ness, of God.
“If you find that your thoughts are wandering, show yourself kindness and compassion. Gently guide your awareness back to your feet, to your breath,” my friend says from the center, as though she’s opened a window and can see right into me.
“Oh my, that’s a lot of compassion,” I think, reaching to consider the bottoms of my feet, how they feel, what it would feel like to breathe through them. Does it count if your thoughts wander to God (and is that wandering or coming home?), if the focus on your breathing makes you consider His own breath filling your tissue, your cells, flowing out from your pores?
“Now shift your awareness to your calves,” she says, and it’s like she’s drawing the soul of me back into the skin and bone, as though softly she’s knitting together the safe-place feeling to my flesh. “Imagine that you are breathing in and out through your calves.”
“What is mankind that you are mindful of them?” The Psalmist wrote (Psalm 8:4). Literally, that He members us, because apart from His attention we will fall apart. In Him, all things hold together (Colossians 1:17), even me, even now, even in the crazy last weeks before Christmas when I feel as though I’m leaving chipped off parts of myself all over the place; when I’m desperately trying to be given. He need not practice mindfulness. He is mindful. His way is to reassemble me, solid, safe. I imagine the Sovereign mind considering each part of me, breathing right through, and I gasp. Is that what it means that He’s mindful of me? “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being (Genesis 2:7).” He’s been mindful of each one of us from the beginning. This is what I’m breathing, slowly, out through my calves.
“Now shift your awareness to your thighs,” my friend softly guides. Slowly, I am beginning to feel whole again, to recognize that no matter how insane everything feels, I am whole. I am a soul with a body, the two carefully assembled and knitted by a God who loves me to death. We are whole together, every broken, breathing one of us, because we draw the Spirit in, exhale Him out through our limbs. Even when we fail to be mindful of God, He is mindful of us. Even before we were ever mindful of Him, He was mindful of us. He showed up, gave His own life–that last breath chosen, so that He could breathe right into the dead weight of us the life breath, the Spirit, the seed-deposit of something holy.
“I am always aware of your unfailing love (Psalm 26:3).” I think of those words, curling through another bit of God-breathed poetry, and I exhale, intentionally letting go of the breath. Isn’t that the mindfulness I can return, the thing to re-member carefully when I feel as though I’ve lost the edges of myself? Just breathe. In…out…in…out. He did all this because He loves me.
soli deo gloria