Under the title ‘The Best Act of Worship,’ the Inner Call recently posted a brief but very profound thought from the early Sufi al-Qushayri, about the essential nature of breath. It is a thought written many hundreds of years ago and in a rather different culture, so the wording might be perplexing – what could be meant by ‘heart-secrets’? And ‘what is ‘arriving on the carpet of need’? And yet if we are willing to read with patience and attention, we might recognize here the idea that each single breath may be living or it may be dead, and it is we who shall be held responsible for any lack of life. This is a similar idea to that reported by Hazrat Inayat Khan, quoting his Murshid Syed Abu Hashim Madani: My spiritual teacher, my Murshid, once said, ‘People say that there are many sins and virtues, but I think there is only one sin.’ I asked him what it was, and he said, ‘To let one breath go without being conscious of it.’
To the average person, this seems to present an impossible challenge. We take thousands of breaths a day, and very often we are occupied with one affair or another, engaged in something that urgently requires our concentration (or at least we think it is so). To be steadily conscious of our breath seems like the task that was given by Aphrodite to Psyche in the Greek legend, of sorting a granary full of many types of small seeds into separate piles. It seems to call for an attention to detail beyond our reach.
We can begin, though, by thinking about the use to which we put our breath. It powers our speech for example, but there is an undeniable difference between words that are lifeless and living speech. Much of what is said in daily life is without much meaning, and in truth could just as well be left unsaid. Only occasionally do we hear words that are true and living, words that touch the life inside us and make it vibrate in response. If we were able to cultivate in ourselves the habit of truth, of loyalty to the Real, then our speech, and the breaths that give it expression, would by themselves become living.
We could also learn something from the myth of Psyche. When she was given the seemingly impossible trial of sorting the seeds, she was rescued by a colony of ants who, seeing her distress, felt compassion for her and undertook the labour on her behalf. Life imposes upon us innumerable small interchanges with others: written words, spoken words, glances, alterations of our body language, unthought-of adjustments to our pace as we navigate our way through a crowd, and many other examples. If, like the mythical ants, we could feel compassion for each person in our environment, the interchanges would become more meaningful. As a consequence, our breath would be more living.
And a final way to improve our awareness of our breath is simply to develop our appreciation. By not valuing all that surrounds us, and all that occurs within us, we close our eyes to the infinite treasury of the divine. Often what we are conscious of is only a dim reflection of the moment, glimpsed in blurry mirror clouded by our conceptions and assumptions. If we would drop our agendas, and simply surrender to the living light in each instant, we would begin to recognize how powerful a breath is, and what it really represents.
Making a reality of these three methods might not make us complete masters of the breath, but they would certainly improve our awareness.