The culture of breath
Breath: the Bridge between Soul and God,
the Sufi way
Adapted and expanded version of a lecture held at the lawns of the India International Centre, New Delhi, February 2006, on invitation by the Federation of Universal Responsibility, a foundation established by the Dalai Lama, bringing together men and women of different faiths, professions and nationalities. The lecture was part of a programme on breath in various faiths.
‘The universal responsibility the Dalai Lama is calling for is a challenge to this century. Each human being will have to develop a sense of responsibility, wider than just for oneself. Each must learn to work not just for the self but for the benefit of mankind. It is too narrow to speak in terms of my nation, my country, my race, my class, my age group.’
Hazrat Inayat Khan (Baroda/Vadodara 1882 – Delhi 1927) founded the Sufi Movement, a movement of universal Sufism. His message focusses on developing human brotherhood, a responsibility of the individual. When someone enters the inner school of the Sufi Movement then he realizes that it is not primarily for the self but that he intends to serve God and humanity, to help to establish a better society — by trying to transform the rough diamond of the ego into a shining one. Breath then is a phenomenon that is essential in this process of transformation.
I would like to start this address by chanting the invocation which was formulated by Hazrat Inayat Khan. We use it whenever we start our individual meditations or our Sufi meetings.
Towards the One
The perfection of love, harmony and beauty
The Only Being.
United with all the illuminated souls
Who form the embodiment of the master
The spirit of guidance.
Let us together recite the first words, Towards the One, in a rhythmic way, so please listen and tune in to the rhythm:
Towards the One, Towards the One, …
And I would also like to recite the initial words of one of our prayers, the Saum prayer, and do it together rhythmically and with a beautiful resonation. It invokes divine attributes:
Praise be to Thee
Most Supreme God,
The Only Being.
Then we will repeat again the Invocation Towards the One, phrase by phrase, now by saying it on the exhalation and then repeating it silently on the inhalation. Whilst being aware of what you are expressing and what you are receiving.
Well, finally let us start with the lecture
The title of the speech is Breath: the bridge between God and the self. It is a subtle subject, to the extent that it escapes definitions. Breath, soul, God are to be experienced in a particular dimension which exceeds our natural world of objects, emotions and reason, even our imaginations. God as omnipotent (a concept different from Almighty!), omnipresent, all-pervading, the only being. It is in breath that he can manifest, a breath consisting of the finest unmeasurable vibrations. Vibrations which in their turn may become pervading and present. Breath is the channel to transfer divine energy that originates in the divine, flows and then manifests itself in heart, mind and body. In Sufi terminology breath and soul appear to be interchangeable entities. How? The point is that both represent the current running between the ‘divine sun’ and the battery of man, the soul, one’s life energy. That current is the bridge between God and self. Extremely subtle and utterly refined and at the same time the ideal tool for transferring the life giving energy, life’s sustenance. This one current of breath is the agency which links together all parts and aspects of man into one human organism. Breath as light.
The soul in Sufi terms is the spirit and therefore the divine part in man. The Hebrew Bible (Christians call it the Old Testament) relates in Genesis 2:7 that God breathed his breath into Adam (which just means man), and by that Adam became a living soul. And that is what happens again and again to each human being upon birth. This very spirit of God has been breathed into every single one; it is our first inhalation. And at death we exhale the last breath, breathing out that same spirit, leaving the body behind. When the spirit is no longer in need of the body the latter becomes superfluous. The utmost thing the soul really wants is to return to that divine sun where it came from as a ray incorporating into the body, to experience and therefore to know truth, meeting limitations, and from limitation coming to know what is perfection. So the essential breath is the breath of life. It takes all lifelong to last and is the carrying power of our lives. When it is strong it can move mountains, when it is weak not a single problem will be surmountable.
Spirituality is to find that light of life in breath. It is a wonderful type of spirituality we are discussing here. It does not reject the world, neither does it the body nor the self. Body, mind and emotions, each as a valuable resource for living life. Each is in need of sustenance by light – ultimately to be found in breath. Therefore, body, mind and heart are not an aim in itself. Rather each as one functions as an instrument of the soul. Breath is like the light in the body, as the light in one’s thoughts and emotions, ultimately in one’s will when it is free. However, the light is veiled by the lamp and its coverings.
A lamp has light in it but it is not light. It needs to be switched on if we want light. The lamp of a human being, however, is veiled. A veiled lamp will obstruct the light to shine out fully. A lamp shade may show colours, or patterns. It may be dirty. Screens may diminish the light. Though the light is switched on, it may hardly be visible. Does one see the light? It shows in the guise of its appearance: colours, patterns, shades, dark-and-light. The challenge to each individual and to humanity at large is to clean the lamp, to unveil the light.
How to unveil? By purifying breath. Or at least to gain the insight that the appearance is not the light but the projection of the light in shapes, colours, patterns, etc. By this purifying process we can make this light clear so that all these veils and all this dirt around is taken away: the light may shine out. That is the basic idea of the Sufi message in this world that we take responsibility to make that light bright, and to do it together. We need transparency. Only in that way can we help to create a better world. What is the role of breath? Breath is the tool to purify. Provided the channels of breath be purified.
Where does breath originate? We have seen that it originates from the divine, and is divine. The link is actualized both at birth and at death; and whenever one is conscious of it. It is a ray of the divine sun, a current of divine consciousness. Hazrat Inayat Khan expresses it beautifully in another image. Breath is like a rope, he says, hanging as it were from heaven down into our very being. It is here, with us, inside us. A dynamic rope. Breath — perceived as a presence, as light, as peace, constantly renewed by the flow of the soul’s energy. Does one perceive it? For that to happen, the ground of mind and heart needs to be cultivated, and the body in the first place. Awareness is needed. It requires purifying body, mind and heart in order to be in a condition to relate to the rope, to be able to grasp it, and then allow the current to vivify our being.
Breath is spirit
Now what then is the difference between soul, spirit and breath? In our Sufi terminology soul is embodied spirit. In all scriptures we find that spirit and breath essentially refer to the same. When looking at the ‘Western’ religions, we find it in the Hebrew scriptures, we find it in the Christian scriptures, we find it in the Koran: breath is spirit. In the New Testament we find the term pneuma. It means wind, breath and spirit at the same time. The same we find in the Hebrew ruah and the Arabic ruh. It is ancient wisdom that breath and spirit are very close and essentially identical.
But, as a matter of fact, isn’t breath the oxygen that we inhale and carbon dioxide that we exhale? Yes, certainly this is the case physically. But isn’t man more than the body? Yes, those who know have experienced some awareness of another dimension in breath. It is about a sense of beauty, of ecstasy, a deep silence, something of an indescribable refinement and subtlety. To be at home. It feels like a sort of undercurrent of the physical breath which is like a tube conveying its subtle counterpart, the spirit.
To discover and cultivate this phenomenon a rich variety of practices is offered in our Sufi Order, a school for inner culture. Like meditations, concentrations, contemplations, prayers, often in function of the breath. In principle they are taught by the teacher (murshid) to the pupil (mureed) individually and confidentially. One of these – a special one — I want to present to you on this special occasion though generally (and essentially) it is given privately. It is called the purification breath, a practice intended to affect all levels of our being.
One may experience it as a physical purification as inhaling pure air and exhaling ‘polluted’ air. One may experience it at a mental level purifying the mind by inhaling purity from the ‘mental’ sphere and exhaling what you want to get rid of mentally.
One may experience it at an emotional level purifying the ‘heart’ by inhaling purity from the ‘angelic’ sphere and exhaling what you want to get rid of emotionally.
But essentially this practice is working on the spiritual level, where one may become aware of a current gently passing through lips or nose whilst becoming aware of glimpses of divine light and life entering body, mind and heart, revivifying soul, or spirit, — and radiating the same when exhaling. Or, in another image, the spirit thus reinforces, or even may rekindle, the light of the soul like a candle being lit. When it leaves at exhalation its light is as bright as before. No pollutant is going out because spirit remains pure and aloof of whatever dirt and negative things there are. The radiance it produces may charge the atmosphere and remain with one. One is transferred from the world of sensation to the sphere of exaltation.
A young fish was swimming in the ocean
A young fish enjoys the environment, and feels at home. When growing up, however, it starts wondering about the world. It comes to its mother asking `what is it that everybody talks about? They are talking about the ocean, what is it? I don’t know, I have never seen it’. And the mother says in the words of the apostle Paul ’you live and move and have your being in the ocean: that is our essence’. We hardly have any bit of consciousness of that ocean which is surrounding us. Why? Because it is so normal, it is there and we do not pay attention to it. Maybe because the antenna of breath mostly is tuned to the vibrations of the physical radio station or to those of a rational or of an emotional radio station. Because of these harsh sounds one cannot hear the subtle sound. When blinded by strong light one cannot see the subtle shades of soft light. It is the same with the atmosphere of the spirit: we do not perceive it because we are not attuned to it. And what is done in spiritual schools of all religions is to try and find that attunement again which is very difficult in this world of excessive activity amidst a world of roughness. Breath is the bridge uniting the two spheres.
Often God is considered to be separate from man and man separate from God. God is divine and is residing in the faraway heaven. Man is limited to the unheavenly earthly domain. The chasm in between cannot be bridged except under severe conditions – so it is thought. Yet man knows though unconsciously that man is divine in his soul, against all appearances. One is part of a wider consciousness. Man is as a drop of water taken from the ocean. Drop and ocean are of the same substance. The drop essentially is of the same nature — but at the same time is nothing compared to the vastness and power of the ocean. But when the drop merges into the ocean, factually or in its consciousness, it becomes so vast, it becomes so strong — we know how strong is the power of a tsunami. It drowns enormous ships, destroys artifacts and takes everything in its bosom. Spirit can be as strong.
However, when at a mental level I would come to the awareness of this likeness, I will be prone to conclude, ‘I am the ocean’. Everybody will then ridicule me seeing the contrast: what pretension. But when the drop really becomes aware of its true nature and loses its false ego its consciousness is merging into the ocean of higher awareness.
So there is truth in it that man and God are separate and totally differ whilst at the same time essentially it is not so. The difference is: do we look at quantity or do we look at quality. Man becomes really human when becoming aware of the vastness of the ocean. It is then that he will discover the huge natural potential of his ocean, whilst at the same time being humble — without being small. When contemplating a magnificent mountain landscape one feels humble whilst at the same time being part of the vastness and majesty of the scene. This is one of the qualities the Dalai Lama is stressing in his messages, be humble and yet be aware of that essential power and potentiality that is in yourself.