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The Miracle of the Breath
Mastering Fear, Healing Illness, and Experiencing the Divine
By Andy Caponigro
New World LibraryCopyright © 2005 Andy Caponigro
All rights reserved.
THE BREATH of LIFE
God breathed the breath of life into man's nostrils, and man became a living soul.
— Genesis 2:7 (AV)
Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian author, once wrote a story about a beggar who lived in a hut by the side of a road, living off the few coins and scraps of food that travelers put into his begging bowl. When the old man died, the villagers buried him in a pauper's grave and burned his squalid hut to the ground. While raking through the ashes afterward, they struck something hard and metallic just beneath the earthen floor — and dug out an old treasure chest filled with silver, gold, and precious gems. The unfortunate man had struggled with poverty all his life while sitting just a few inches above a splendid fortune.
Like that beggar, most of us are living in a relative state of ignorance and poverty, unaware of incredible treasures that are closer to us than our breath. The key to unlocking these treasures is the Breath of Life — the spiritual life-force that dwells in our breath. By learning the secrets of breath control, we can master fear, heal diseases, and even become one with God.
The Breath of Life is the greatest of natural wonders. Even more, it is the greatest of all miracles. When I speak about the Breath of Life, I'm referring to the spiritual energy that gives our breath its life-sustaining powers. Our breath carries the life-force much like a car carries its driver. People never confuse a car with its driver, but even those who've studied the powers of the breath tend to confuse the physical breath (or the air they breathe) with the life-force that flows within it.
The spiritual life-force is a ray of pure Divine Consciousness that emanates directly from the Godhead — the formless dimension of reality that is the source of all creation. From the point of view of our spiritual self, this Divine ray is our soul's imperishable link with its Creator. From the point of view of our physical self, it is our direct link with the cosmic energies that give birth to the universe.
The Breath behind the Breath
The Hindu sages recognized the Divine nature of the life-force thousands of years ago. They called it Prana. Since they also used the word prana to designate breath, wind, and air, they sometimes referred to the Pranic life-force as "the Breath behind the breath" to distinguish it from the physical process of breathing or the air we breathe into our lungs.
Because our breath is so closely linked with the life-force, the ancient Hindu masters called the human soul the anu, which means "the one who breathes." They measured the span of a person's life, not in terms of how many years they live, but in terms of the number of breaths they take from the moment they're born until the moment they die. They had observed that when we're born our first action is to breathe in — and that when we die our last action is to breathe out. Did you know that everyone dies on the out-breath?
Because our breath is so intimately linked with the pranic life-force, the Hindu masters teach that God is closer to us than our very own breath. Kabir, one of India's great poet-saints, wrote this humorous and down-to-earth verse to remind his followers that, if they want to know where God is, they needn't look any farther than their breath:
Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.
You will not find me in Indian shrine rooms,
not in synagogues, not cathedrals,
not in masses, nor sacred songs.
Not in legs winding around your own neck,
nor in eating nothing but vegetables.
When you really look for me, you will see me instantly.
You will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Kabir says: "Student, tell me, what is God?"
He is the Breath inside the breath.
In the Hindu tradition, God, Prana, and Divine Consciousness are considered to be one and the same. This is why the Hindu sages also call Prana "the Breath of God." They go on to say that God creates the universe with his own breath because the pranic life-force (or Breath of God) is the same as Divine Consciousness in its creative (or moving) aspect.
The Taoist sages of ancient China also recognized the Divine nature of the spiritual life-force that dwells in the breath. They called it Chi. One Taoist text, entitled The Utmost Secrets of the Methods of Breathing, tells us that "[Chi] is the functioning of the Spirits." The Chinese considered this Divine energy to be so indispensable to life that their pictographic symbol for Chi is the same as that for rice — the staff of life in China. To avoid confusing Chi with the physical breath, the Chinese masters sometimes called it the "inner breath" that motivates the "outer breath." This is such a vitally important distinction that one Taoist master warned his disciples:
People confuse the external breath with the internal breath. Those who do breathing exercises ought to be careful ... it is atrocious to mistake one breath for the other.
The Taoists masters rarely use the concept of God to explain the creation of the universe. Nevertheless, like their Hindu counterparts, they teach that the universe is created by a Divine cosmic breath. For example, in the Tao Te Ching the Chinese sage Lao Tzu says: "Tao is the breath that never dies. It is the mother of all creation."
The Spirit of Life
The intimate bond that exists between the spirit of life and the physical breath was also recognized by the ancient Greeks and Romans. For example, the Greeks called the life-force Pneuma. Pneuma has the same range of meanings as prana, and more. It not only refers to breath, air, wind, and the spiritual life-force, it also means "spirit" and "soul." However, its essential meaning was the concept of "Spirit in union with breath." Pneuma is the root of many modern-day English words, such as pneumonia and pneumatic, which refer to the physical breath or the compression of air. These days, however, we've lost track of the fact that the ancient word pneuma primarily referred to the mystical union of spirit, soul, and breath.
The Romans were also aware of the direct connection between spirit, soul, and breath. For example, the Latin word spiritus not only has the same range of meanings as pneuma (breath, wind, spirit, soul, and life-force), it also means "God within the breath." The Romans paid tribute to the link between spirit and breath by coining the Latin word respire, which means "to breathe."
Respire is composed of the prefix re- (which means "return") and the root spiritus (which means "spirit"). This remarkable word literally describes how the spirit of life leaves our body — and then returns — with every cycle of breathing. Our English word respiration is derived from the Latin respire. Here too, however, we've lost the essential meaning of the original Latin word. We've forgotten about the spirit in respiration, and we merely use this word in a mechanical sense to designate the movement of air in and out of our lungs.
The Latin verb expire is another ancient word that describes the intimate bond between the physical breath and the life-force. Expire is composed of the prefix ex- (which means "out of") and the root spiritus (or "spirit"). It not only means "to breathe out," it also means "to die." Literally translated, expire means "the exiting of the spirit." This is a perfect description of what happens at the moment of death, when the spiritual life-force leaves a person's body along with the last out-breath.
Have you ever wondered why people say, "God bless you!" when someone sneezes? This custom dates back to medieval times, when people believed that the force of a sneeze temporarily separated the breath (and the spirit of life) from a person's body. Our ancestors would quickly bless the sneezer to prevent evil spirits from entering and possessing the vacated body until the owner's spirit (or soul) returned on the next in-breath.
The link between breath and spirit is recognized in the languages of ancient and modern cultures throughout the world. In Hawaii, for example, the word Ha means both "God" and "breath." Everyone has heard the traditional Hawaiian greeting "aloha," which means "may God be with you." However, few people are familiar with the rest of the Hawaiian greeting ritual: a hug and a few gentle breaths on the cheek of the other person, meaning "I honor the spirit of God within you."
Nowadays, traditional blessings such as these are considered to be quaintly superstitious customs, but the people of ancient cultures took the term Breath of Life in its most literal sense. To this day, Brahmin priests in India chant divine mantras and perform sacred fire rituals to install the Breath of Life (or Prana) into newly made statues of saints or gods. To confirm the success of their devotions, they hold a mirror close to the statue's nose. When the mirror fogs up, they know that the spirit of the sacred personage has taken up residence within the statue.
The ancient Egyptians held strikingly similar beliefs about the link between spirit and breath. Whenever they conquered a new country, they would systematically break the nose off the statues of all the previous gods and rulers. This wasn't done merely to dishonor their enemies; their intention was to kill the statue's spirit so that the conquered gods could never rise from defeat to challenge them again. The way the ancient Egyptians figured it, the best way to kill any spirit was to stop it from breathing once and for all!
The Breath of the God of Israel
The link between spirit and breath is mentioned throughout the Bible, yet most modern-day Jews and Christians are unaware of this relationship. For example, the ancient Hebrew word ruah not only meant "spirit," "breath," and "wind"; it was also used in essentially the same ways as the Greeks, Hindus, and Romans used the words pneuma, prana, and spiritus. The ancient Hebrew scribes often linked the word ruah with Yahweh (the name of the God of Israel). Thus, the term ruah Yahweh, which appears often in the Old Testament, can be translated to mean "the spirit of God," "the breath of God," or "the wind of God" (God's breath manifested as wind).
The meaning of many biblical passages can be significantly altered by choosing one meaning of ruah Yahweh over another. For example, one translation of the second verse in Genesis says:
In the beginning ... the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
According to a different translation, "a mighty wind" swept over the waters. At first sight, these translations appear to be contradictory. But they're actually saying the same thing, because "the mighty wind" and "the spirit of God" are simply different names for ruah Yahweh — the breath of Almighty God. Notice, too, how closely this biblical passage resembles the Hindu teaching that says, "God created the universe with his own breath."
Ruah Yahweh is also mentioned in relation to the creation of Adam, the first man. Genesis 2:7 (AV) says: "God breathed the breath of life into man's nostrils, and man became a living soul." In this passage, ruah Yahweh is translated as "the breath of life" rather than "the breath of God." The image of God infusing his spirit into man's body by way of the breath is more than a poetic metaphor; it's a physical matter of fact.
During the Israelites' flight from Egypt, Moses invoked the help of ruah Yahweh as the wind of God to part the waters of the Red Sea:
Then Moses stretched his hand out over the sea, and the Lord swept the sea with a strong east wind throughout the night and turned sea into dry land.
Once his people had safely crossed to the other side, Moses commanded God's wind to change direction, whereupon the waters returned to normal and drowned the Egyptian army. After their deliverance, the Israelites sang these words of praise to Yahweh:
At the breath of your anger, the waters piled up and stood like a mound in the midst of the sea. The enemy boasted, "I will pursue and overtake them," [but] when your wind blew, the sea covered them.
The Old Testament contains many more references to ruah Yahweh, which are variously translated to mean "God's spirit," "God's wind," or "God's breath." In the second Book of Kings, for example, God's breath appears as the great whirlwind that carries Elijah up to heaven in a flaming chariot. Later, in the Book of Job, the prophet Elisha says:
The spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life.
The Breath in the New Testament
In the New Testament, all references to God's spirit, breath, or wind appear as the word pneuma, instead of ruah, because the Gospels were originally written in Greek. In John 3:8 (AV), for example, Jesus appears to be speaking in riddles when he says to the bewildered Nicodemus:
The wind [pneuma] blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of spirit [pneuma].
The early Christian fathers also used the term Hagios Pneuma, which means "Holy Spirit" or "Holy Ghost" in Greek. The Holy Ghost's link with the physical breath is mentioned in the passage from Luke that recounts the poignant moment in which Jesus takes his last earthly breath and expires on the cross:
And Jesus said, "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit," and having said thus, he gave up the [holy] ghost.
When the Roman Catholic Church came into dominance hundreds of years after Jesus died on the cross, the Greek term Hagios Pneuma was replaced by Spiritus Sanctus, which means "Holy Spirit" in Latin. The most unmistakable reference to the Holy Spirit's link with the breath is found in John's description of the events following the Resurrection, when Jesus mysteriously appears in a locked room where the apostles are hiding:
Jesus said to them, "Peace be with you. As my father has sent me, so I send you." And when he said this, he breathed upon them and said, "Receive ye the Holy Spirit. Whose sins ye forgive are forgiven them."
Was Jesus' act of breathing upon the apostles merely a symbolic gesture? In 553 A.D., the members of the Second Council of Constantinople decreed that Jesus had literally used his breath to transmit the powers of the Holy Spirit directly into the apostles. They compared this action to the moment in which God breathed the breath of life into Adam's nostrils (Genesis 2:7 AV).
How Did We Ever Lose Track?
Today's Western languages contain few words that honor the divine connection between the spirit of God and our physical breath. Even worse, we've stripped ancient root words, such as pneuma and respire, of their spiritual resonance and retained only their designations of material things, such as air, breath, and the physical process of breathing. To the best of my knowledge, the French philosopher Henri Bergson is the only modern Western thinker who tried to explain the miracle of life by postulating the existence of a spiritual force, which he called the elan vital, or "vital spirit." Elan vital is the only modern Western term that embodies the same concept of "spirit in breath" as do the ancient words prana, chi, pneuma, ruah, and spiritus.
Hebrew scholars and Christian theologians still use the words ruah and pneuma in their original sense of "spirit" and "soul." Unlike the ancient Hebrews and early Christian fathers, however, today's theologians and scholars have completely forgotten that the Holy Spirit literally dwells in our breath. At the end of one of my seminars, a senior Catholic priest came over to tell me how impressed he was by what I'd said about the link between the Holy Spirit and our physical breath. However, there was one thing he couldn't quite understand: "How did we ever lose track of something so obvious and important?"
Western theologians aren't the only ones who've lost track. Most Western scientists and philosophers have also forgotten about the vital link between spirit and breath. This is one of the most unfortunate blind spots in Western thinking, because we've been completely overlooking a spiritual Rosetta stone that can help us decipher some of the deepest mysteries of human existence and provide us with a master key for unlocking the secrets of creation. The Eastern masters discovered this key thousands of years ago and used it to develop powerful systems of breath control for mastering fear, healing illness, and attaining the state of enlightenment.
Excerpted from The Miracle of the Breath by Andy Caponigro. Copyright © 2005 Andy Caponigro. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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