I have always thought breathing was a simple concept: you breathe in, you breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. Repeat.
But this morning John O'Donohue informed me that all breath comes in pairs except the first and the last. That stopped me cold. Wait. Does that mean that other people think breath works the other way? First you breathe out, then in? I know this sounds odd, but I just never saw it that way.
I would have walked away from this thought after that first brief reaction, but today is the first day of a new online retreat I am doing through the Spirituality and Practice website. The retreat is on the poetry of Rumi, and the first exercise begins with an explanation of the Sufi view of repentance, which is not about shame and guilt and sin, but rather about a return, from forgetfulness to awareness.
We are then enjoined to a zikr: to sit in a relaxed upright posture (okay, I'm thinking, I meditate, I can do this) and to "breathe out all tension, anxiety, fear, negativity, and psychological idols; breathe in God's presence. Breathe out "La illaha" (there is no god); breathe in "il Allah" (but God). "
And there it is again: the out breath comes first. And I cannot tell you how challenging it was, sitting in my chair as I do every day, to think of the first part of the phrase as the outbreath, and to breathe in with the second. Every time I lost my place and the monkey mind came bouncing in, when I tried to return to the practice I would breathe IN La illaha and then have to breathe it out again.
Isn't it curious to think that even so simple and natural a practice as breathing can be gotten backwards? Although, perhaps that is the point of it; to reverse the natural pattern as a way of retraining your focus away from busy self to Self; of moving from forgetfulness to awareness. And then, you have to wonder -- how long has this been going on? How long have I had it backwards? All my life? Because when I practiced this -- even though it was only for a few minutes, after my normal meditation was done, it took me to a completely different place; so much deeper... a little breathtaking, actually.
As I may have mentioned before, my parents and first husband were all musicians, and I have a huge store of jazz standards in my head; piles of lyrics to ballads rarely heard or sung these days outside of jazz clubs. But the lyrics surface constantly in conversations (as my family will tell you I burst into song at the oddest times!) and the one that popped into my head just now is an old Gershwin tune from one of my favorite Ella Fitzgerald albums. It perfectly describes this sense of astonishment I feel...
I could cry salty tears;
Where have I been all these years?
Little wow, tell me now:
How long has this been going on?
There were chills up my spine,
And some thrills I can't define.
Listen, sweet, I repeat:
how long has this been going on?
Oh, I feel that I could melt;
Into Heaven I'm hurled!
I know how Colombus felt,
Finding another world.
Dear, when in your arms I creep,
That divine rendez-vous,
Don't wake me, if I'm asleep,
Let me dream that it's true !
...What a break! For Heaven's sake!
How long has this been going on ?