A Breath Prayer

By Marjean Bailey When I was young, I was taught that prayer was "talking with God" and that there were two kinds of prayer: praise and petition. I was not quite sure what praise was, but guessed that it was taken care of with words like, "Thank you God for this fine day" (even though when I was young I did not think every day was a fine day). Petition, on the other hand, seemed to be not so much talking with God as telling God what to do and what I wanted.

Although I tried at various times to build a prayer life, I could not maintain this practice for more than a few weeks. I got very tired of my list of wishes and wondered if God tired of them as well. I was yearning for something more, but did not know what it was. Listening to long, pastoral prayers seemed very pious but did not make me feel any closer to God.

What seemed to make prayer so hard for me was that God was external, so removed. I believed that God was good and I was not. I wanted desperately to be good but, try as I might, I could not get past the feeling that I first had to prove myself. Deep down, I believed I didn't do very well with prayer because something was wrong with me.

We in Western Christianity have focused so exclusively on our sinful nature that we have created a barrier to closeness with a loving God, removing us from ourselves and all of creation. I began to have a new understanding of prayer when I learned about the biblical admonition to "pray without ceasing." This phrase was adopted by a group of church fathers in the first centuries A.D. who wanted to be in an attitude of prayer as they lived out their lives in faithful work and service. This took the form of a "breath prayer": "Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner." Since we were already steeped in notions of our sinfulness, this prayer would not work for me and I was encouraged to find a "breath prayer" of my own, a mantra that came from the depths of my being and included my name for God. I would start with praise, saying, "I know that you are there in the vastness of the universe and I am happy," and then I would make a short statement about the deepest desire of my heart, a petition. I repeated this in sitting meditation and as many times during the day as I could remember: while waiting in traffic, brushing my teeth, at the supermarket, at the ring of the telephone. This prayer soon became as close to me as my breathing and has been a very precious part of my understanding and experience of prayer.

A few times, this prayer of my heart slipped down into my being and I found myself in the presence of the beauty of holiness that transcends all words, emotions, and feelings. However, even the God with whom I was connecting in this way seemed external to me. I had not yet let go of some control over the connection between myself and my self, between my mind and my soul, between my breathing and my breath. During this time, I found it very hard to pray for friends who needed help, for parishioners, and for places in the world that were in turmoil and war. I prayed the words, but something was missing.

Once when the prophet Elijah was very frightened and wanted to run away from everything—his calling, his mission, and his truth—it was revealed to him that what he was looking for was not to be found in wind, earthquake, or fire, but in the "gentle voice of stillness." When I discovered that mindfulness and prayer meant breathing deeply in the silence that existed as much within me as without, I began a whole new journey in prayer. As I deepened my practice, I discovered that to breathe in and "relax my body and my mind" meant that in the silence of my breathing, everything was filled with newness, with breath.

The Hebrew word for breath comes from the same word as wind and spirit. The wind of God was the Spirit that was breathed into the clay when humankind was created. For Christians, the Christ Spirit is breathed into each one at baptism. So when breathing out, "I smile for joy," it is not because I do not still have to work with my angers, griefs, and fears, but because the more deeply I breathe Christ Spirit into every cell of my being, the more surely there is a container for everything else.

Prayer is practice in breathing, mindful that it is the very essence of spirit, God, Christ, Buddha; of the stars, the seas, the trees, the pure being of me, the silence that is everything. As I breathe into every aspect of my being—body, intellect and feeling—then can come words, images, and actions. This way, when I want to ask for something—the healing of a friend's illness, the pain of a colleague's failure, the joy of a newborn infant, the word that might transform hate into understanding—it is more real. I can often find the patience to wait for the better word, the clearer action, and the kinder deed because it comes out of practice that is prayer. The spoken words come from a deeper place within that is also, paradoxically, the universal spirit without. The angers, griefs, and fears are still there, but they have a home in which to be held and transformed in our daily life. Then, daily life too becomes a prayer and a practice, and leads me back to breathing and silence.

Reverend Marjean Bailey is the Vicar of The Mission Parish of St. Peter, an Episcopal Church in Londonderry, New Hampshire. She has attended Thay's retreats for the past ten years and sits with a small group in Londonderry.

PDF of this article

Breathfully Taking Care

 By Therese Fitzgerald After months of zazen practice at San Francisco Zen Center, I asked my teacher Richard Baker-roshi, "Do I really have to count my breath?" "Yes," he responded with unmistakable solemnity. I had friends who managed to count hundreds of breaths forwards and backwards, and others who described staying home just enjoying their breathing in zazen posture. So I kept putting myself in the "bamboo rod," as Suzuki-roshi writes in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind--trying to learn what for me was a somewhat elusive practice.

Ten years ago, I acknowledged to Thich Nhat Hanh that paying attention to my breathing was mostly an experience of getting in touch with constriction in my abdomen and chest. Thlly asked me, "Is there any time you enjoy your breathing?" I thought for a moment and responded, "Yes, when I'm floating in the ocean, in a pond, or even in the bathtub." "Why do you ever get out of the bathtub?" he asked wide-eyed, opening his palm.

Now as I sit up in bed writing while my husband sleeps next to me, I realize I am enjoying my breathing alongside of his breathing. At times-sitting at my office desk looking out the window, lying under a tree, standing at the dish sink-I find myself simply and happily being conscious of my breathing. The concept and practice of stopping, samatha-stopping at the sound of the telephone bell, having a friend ask, "Are you enjoying your breathing?" or stopping for formal meditation-has helped me notice my breathing throughout the day and notice whether it is long or short, relaxed or constricted. Stretching out in the prone posture is the most conducive for my relaxed breathing, and floating in a warm body of water, especially salt water, always gives me the most enjoyable breathing experience.

And then there are times when I have really needed to "take refuge in the island of self' by practicing conscious breathing. This practice was my constant companion, for example, throughout the ordeal of my beloved brother's recovery from a brain injury accident, starting with six weeks in a coma. The breath proved to be my strongest link with the present moment. By returning to my breath when any thoughts of the past or the future could have overwhelmed me, I nurtured my strength to stay with my brother through the coma- which was fairly unnerving, as he was both completely familiar to me and yet far, far away in another universe. Walking meditation in the halls of the neuro-unit sustained me in my contact with less-than sensitive medical staff and anxious visitors. I remember one visitor pleading with me, "Tell me it's gonna be all right." I breathed and spoke from a place of calm conviction, "He's alive. Let's be grateful and be with him as he is right now."


I had to leave midway through the coma, knowing that it would be several weeks before I could see my brother again. My father and I had just visited a facility for severely-damaged brain injury survivors. As I entered my brother's hospital room, I was choked up with sorrow and dread. Tears threatened to disable me from sitting by his side and helping him as he struggled to tear at the feeding tube. I called on the practice of putting breath to song and sang "Breathing In, Breathing Out" with as much spirit as I could gather. My calm was restored, and my sister, who arrived to take care of my brother, was heartened.

Years later, I continued to process the lessons from this experience. While practicing walking meditation at Plum Village one year after the accident, my sadness almost overwhelmed me. I remembered Thay's advice to me just months after the accident when I found it difficult to practice walking meditation on the beautiful streets of Prague, as all I could think of was my brother's inability to walk at the time. Thay had responded, "Walk for your brother." As we started out on the path along the Plum Village sunflower fields, I poured my loving concentration for my brother into each step, while I maintained awareness of my breathing. A song/mantra emerged from that walk which expresses what I continue to learn from the radical awakenings my brother opened up for me: I didn't know how precious life is, until I saw you lying there. I must have forgotten how precious life is, and then I saw you lying there. I couldn't believe how precious life is, as I watched you lying there. And then I practiced taking care, taking care of you lying there. And now I know how precious life is,  how very precious life is.

I tum to this mantra when I need to come back to my breathing and deepen my perspective.

It seems so simple: mindful breathing helps us be present for the preciousness of life. The trick is "remembering to remember" the practice that helps us stay present. We help ourselves by carving out time to sit and walk mindfully every day to develop the "habit" of stopping and being with the breath. And yes, counting the breath, gatha practice, guided meditations, or some other means of being fully aware of our breathing, can be the vehicle which facilitates our practice so that it is there for us to call on when we need it.

Dharma teacher Therese Fitzgerald, True Light, practices swimming meditation and mindful breathing in any body of water above freezing.

PDF of this article

Watering Fearlessness

A Mantra (or Two)

By David C. Gritz

Sometimes life presents us with very intense training opportunities for our practice. Probably you are familiar with those “opportunities” for learning. We didn’t ask for the experience and we wouldn’t choose it, if we were given a choice. But regardless of how we wish reality would be, it isn’t like that. It’s like this and here we are, in the middle of it!

A while back, I was headed to a family retreat at Deer Park. I needed the quiet time and was looking forward to being immersed in four-fold sangha, as well as speaking with my monastic brothers and sisters. As I was driving to Deer Park with my two children, we were listening to Green Day’s song “Novocain.” I began crying, because the song’s request for Novocain to take away the pain of life’s trials hit home so strongly. I so wanted relief from the pain of constantly trying to face the difficulties!

For months prior to that moment, life had been offering a series of very intense training opportunities. I felt as if I was being punched in the stomach, not just once in a while, but several times a day or several times a week. There were too many things to detail here, but I’ll give some examples.

I work as an ophthalmologist, specializing in a group of very serious eye diseases that can result in blindness. Despite offering patients the latest and best eye care possible, some people still lose vision. Studies have shown that people fear losing vision even more than they fear death or any other loss. So in my medical office, in addition to many people with very severe diseases, there are people with lots of fear and anxiety and frustration.

Over the course of a month, there were three patients who lost vision in their only good eye.

One was a woman in her sixties who had lost the other eye to glaucoma. She always inspired me by her zest for life despite her limited vision. Shortly after we first met, I did a cornea transplant in her one good eye and her vision improved from blindness to 20/20 (although she only had tunnel vision due to glaucoma). It was a much better result than we had expected. But the transplant was rejected in less than a year, and after a series of eye problems she lost all vision in her only eye.

Another nineteen-year-old patient came to me with a very severe eye disease that caused blindness in one eye and constant, severe pain. When we first met, she was always doubled over in pain. With very strong medication, she improved and no longer had pain. Her family was so happy with the wonderful transformation, as she returned to be the bubbly, joking person she had been before the constant pain. She still had 20/20 vision in the other eye. Within days of the visit when we were all happy with how well she was doing, another disease attack occurred and she lost vision in her good eye. With additional strong medicine, the vision returned. This cycle repeated a number of times and each time the vision came back. But then an especially severe attack occurred and the vision was permanently lost.

The third patient who lost vision in his only eye was a single father with a young developmentally disabled son. A very good doctor had made a bad decision to do surgery in the patient’s only eye. A rare complication occurred and the patient was sent to me. After months of intensive treatment including two surgeries, we realized there was no hope of improved vision.

During that same month when these three patients lost vision, I found out I was entangled in a lawsuit. Another patient with severe eye disease had been referred to me for treatment. Despite intensive treatment, she lost some peripheral vision in one eye. She brought a lawsuit because of the outcome. I was surprised because I perceived that she and I had a very good relationship. It was difficult to think that even when I had done everything that was possible and could see nothing to change (upon reviewing the medical chart in detail) I would get sued.

In the following month, another lawsuit emerged from the third patient I mentioned above. In addition to these patient-related issues there was a variety of other difficulties at work with coworkers and supervisors, challenges at home, and family difficulties.

My formal and informal mindfulness practice was of great help in dealing with these challenges and enabling me to still see the joys of the present moment. However, after more than six months of this ongoing assault, my energy was very low and my resilience in the face of adversity was waning. With each new blow I would think, “How can I deal with this? I need to face it and deal with it, because this is my practice. I have no other choice. But how?”

Water the Seeds of Non-Fear

At Deer Park, I asked Sister Dang Nghiem for her advice about these situations and my waning energy. “How can I help to rejuvenate myself and maintain my energy, so I don’t feel so drained?” I asked. She suggested that I deepen my practice through watering the seeds of non-fear.

I was uncertain how to go about this. I didn’t perceive the presence of fear in this situation and didn’t know how to water the seeds of non-fear. I spoke to my teacher, Lyn Fine, after I returned home. Lyn explained that fearlessness can help us face difficult situations and maintain our energy when faced with adversity. Lyn had several ideas for cultivating fearlessness. One of these suggestions was to find a mantra that would help to face each moment with fearlessness.

“And This Too!”

Lyn told me about Maha Ghosananda, the Cambodian patriarch, who was asked, “What is the essence of practice?”

In response to the question, he replied: “Here.


“And this too!”

He said “And this too!” with a joyful, fresh voice that conveyed equanimity — whether the phrase was in reference to the blue sky, the lush green of the rice paddies, or the killing fields.

I started using “And this too!” as a mantra to go with my breathing, throughout my days at work and home.

I also explored finding another mantra. There is a song in Portuguese that I love, called “The Blower’s Daughter.” One line in the chorus is “É isso aí” (pronounced eh EES-oh ee), which means, “And so it is.” I loved the melodious sound and rhythm of “É isso aí,” in addition to the meaning, and I began using this mantra also. When a difficult situation arose, I would use it as a chance to take a breath and say silently (or sometimes aloud), “É isso aí!” When a wonderful moment arose, it would be another chance to take a breath and say, “And this too!”

A typical response prior to starting the practice of “É isso aí!” could have left me feeling downcast as I mumbled inside, “Oh, boy. Woe is me. And THIS, TOO!” Instead, a fresh “And this too!” or “É isso aí!” helped me to see glimpses of humor and irony. When another potential “punch in the stomach” occurred, the mantra helped to quiet my mind and keep it from running on, telling me stories about how this blow was going to lead to other problems in the future.

Over time, situations changed and my experience gradually transformed. With the mantra practice, feelings of equanimity for the situations grew stronger. This particular practice helped me to more deeply experience the reality of impermanence and touch the precious jewel of the present moment, finding a unique and difficult-to-describe joy, even in the difficult moments. Through this practice, I continue to look for better understanding of my suffering and to experience transformation.

“É Isso Aí,” sung by Seu Jorge and Ana Carolina on the CD and DVD, Ao Vivo: Live. The original song was written in English and is called “The Blower’s Daughter,” music and lyrics by Damien Rice.

David C. Gritz, Truly Embracing Compassion, previously lived in Berkeley, California and attended Morning Light Sangha. He has relocated to Kansas City with his family, where he enjoys the sangha fellowship of the Heartland Community of Mindfulness.

PDF of this issue