by Abbot George Burke (Swami Nirmalananda Giri)

The Jewish Tradition of Breath Meditation

breath meditationChapter 6 of The Breath of Life

“All the while my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils” (Job 27:3).

The Breath of Life

It is interesting to note that in the Genesis account of Adam’s creation it is said that God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life”–not into his body, mouth, or lungs, but the nose–“and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). “Nostrils…living soul” indicates that breath awareness at nosetip makes us conscious–aware of spirit. Three more times in Genesis (6:17; 7:15, 22) we find the expression “breath of life,” and in each instance breath is equated with life itself. In seven further instances in the Bible, the life principle is referred to, not just as the breath, but as the breath in the nostrils (Genesis 7:22; II Samuel 22:16; Job 4:9; 27:3; Psalms 18:15; Isaiah 2:22; Lamentations 4:20). This cannot be without significance. This verse, however, tells us more.

First, we learn that the breath comes directly from God, second, that through it “man became a living soul”–it is the breath that makes the psychic part of our makeup to live, just as it makes the body live. From this it becomes evident that the breath and spirit are the same; that the breath of life is the spirit of life–and ultimately is Divinity Itself. “The Spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life” (Job 33:4). Meditation on the breath, then, is direct meditation on God–“the God in whose hand thy breath is” (Daniel 5:23)–with no intermediary whatsoever.

God is “He that giveth breath unto the people upon [the earth], and spirit to them that walk therein” (Isaiah 42:5). Just as the breath of God is the Spirit of God, so also, since we are made in His image and likeness (Genesis 1:26), our breath one with our spirit, is our true nature and self. Wherefore: “Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live.…Thus saith the Lord God; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.…So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived” (Ezekiel 37:5, 6, 9, 10). Interestingly, in Lamentations 4:20 the Messiah is called “the breath of our nostrils.”

The breath of God is His creative power; and all things were made by it. And that power is the Holy Spirit. It is God “in whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:10). Even more, the breath of God is the breath of mankind: “All the while my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils” (Job 27:3).

This alone would establish Breath Meditation as the essence of spiritual practice, the original yoga initiated by the original guru: God. but there is even more to be learned from the Bible regarding the nature of breath.

Health and breath

The breath being the principle of life, it is also the power of healing. This is perceived right away by those who give adequate time to Breath Meditation practice. It is also the condition of the breath that produces disease and death. “My breath is corrupt, my days are extinct, the graves are ready for me” (Job 17:1). The breath is not only the means by which life enters into us–as stated in the first verse considered above–it is also the means by which we depart from this world into another, for Job says: “By the breath of his mouth shall he go away” (Job 15:30). Cultivation of the breath is cultivation of life and health.

The Silence

Silent awareness is the prime characteristic and purpose of Breath Meditation. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures silence and quiescence are set forth as essential for communion with Spirit. “Their strength is to sit still” (Isaiah 30:7). “Be aware and be quiet” (Isaiah 7:4). “Be silent, O all flesh, before the Lord” (Zechariah 2:13). “Then are they glad because they be quiet; so he bringeth them unto their desired haven” (Psalms 107:30).

The Silence has a practical effect. “Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord” (Exodus 14:13). “Moses said unto them, Stand still, and I will hear what the Lord will command concerning you” (Numbers 9:8). And Samuel: “Stand thou still a while, that I may shew thee the word of God” (I Samuel 9:27). “Ye shall not need to fight in this battle: set yourselves, stand ye still, and see the salvation of the Lord with you” (II Chronicles 20:17).

Through Isaiah the Lord has said: “Keep silence before me, and let the people renew their strength” (Isaiah 41:1). “They that wait upon the Lord” in silent awareness “shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31). It is indeed true that “The Lord is good unto them that wait for him, to the soul that seeketh him. It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the Lord.…He sitteth alone and keepeth silence” (Lamentations 3:25, 26, 28).

“Therefore the prudent shall keep silence in that time” (Amos 5:13). “Stand still, and consider the wondrous works of God” (Job 37:14). “Commune with your own heart, and be still” (Psalms 4:4). “Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for him” (Psalms 37:7). “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalms 46:10). “Be silent, O all flesh, before the Lord: for he is raised up out of his holy habitation” (Zechariah 2:13) within each one of us.

“The Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him” (Habakkuk 2:20). The Silence is not empty. “For while all things were in quiet silence, and that night was in the midst of her swift course, Thine Almighty word leaped down from heaven out of thy royal throne” (Wisdom 18:14,15). Inspired intuition speaks in the silence. All knowledge that leads to wisdom is there in the Silence.

“There is a path which no fowl knoweth, and which the vulture’s eye hath not seen” (Job 28:7). When the meditator stands still in the midst of the inhaling and exhaling breath, the Pathless Path opens before him, just as when the priests bearing the Ark of the Covenant stood in the flowing waters of Jordan, those waters ceased to flow and all were enabled to cross over (Joshua 3:7-17). But the secret of this crossing over is in the standing still. Speaking of that time of profound tranquility, David sang: “He leadeth me beside the still waters” (Psalms 23:2).

The voice in the Silence

“And Elijah arose, and went unto Horeb the mount of God. And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said unto him,…Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him” (I Kings 19:8-13).

The nosetip is the mouth of Elijah’s cave, and the still small voice is the subtle sound produced by the refined breath during meditation. In Writings From the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart: by Kadloubovsky and Palmer, p. 84, footnote 24, they say regarding this: “The nearest English equivalent to the Slavonic version is ‘subtle and serene wafting of wind.’” That is a very good description of the subtle breath sound. But the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible has: “a sound of sheer silence.”

“My heart wakes”

David counsels us: “Commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still” (Psalms 4:4). In the Bible “sleep” often refers to the state of inmost consciousness when the body and mind are at rest and silent and only the core of our being is awake. This is first mentioned in Genesis: “When the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram” (Genesis 15:12). It is of this Yoga Nidra–yogic sleep state–called sushupti in Sanskrit, that David further sang: “He giveth to His beloved in sleep” (Psalms 127:2). “As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness” (Psalms 17:15 ). “When I awake, I am still with thee” (Psalms 139:18). Speaking of that state, Jeremiah said this: “Upon this I awaked, and beheld; and my sleep was sweet unto me” (Jeremiah 31:26). In the sweet sleep of interior awareness we truly awake and see. The practice of Breath Meditation produces this waking sleep so we can say like David: “I laid me down and slept; [yet] I awaked” (Psalms 3:5). Describing this, the mystical writing known as The Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) says: “I sleep, but my heart waketh” (Song of Solomon 5:2). Both Daniel and Zechariah speak of their inmost experiences as being “asleep” (Daniel 8:18, 10:9; Zechariah 4:1). On the Mount of Transfiguration, before witnessing the Divine Light the disciples of Jesus felt they “were heavy with sleep” (Luke 9:32). Many mystics have covered their inner experiences by claiming to have dozed off.

Yoga Nidra is also referred to as “rest” in the Bible. “My flesh also shall rest in hope” (Psalms 16:9). “Return unto thy rest, O my soul” (Psalms 116:7). The prophets other than David also spoke of this mystic experience. “The whole earth is at rest, and is quiet” (Isaiah 14:7). “This is the rest wherewith ye may cause the weary to rest; and this is the refreshing” (Isaiah 28:12).

The breath as the pathway to God in the Kabbalah

“The goal of meditation, especially as described by the Kabbalistic masters, is to attain enlightenment. In Hebrew, the word most often used to describe such enlightenment is Ruach HaKodesh, which can literally be translated as ‘Holy Spirit.’ It is this term that is consistently used by all Hebrew writers.” So Aryeh Kaplan tells us in Meditation and the Bible, from which all subsequent quotations in this section are taken. And Ruach HaKodesh can also legitimately be translated as “the Holy Breath” as is reflected in some of the Biblical passages already cited. The breath–particularly the Holy Breath of meditation (anapanasati)–is both the presence and the working of the Holy Spirit in us. “As we have seen, Rabbi Abraham Maimonides explains that the ‘pure heart’ for which King David prayed (Psalms 51:12-14) refers to a heart and mind cleansed of all external thoughts through intense meditation. The level of enlightenment implied by Ruach HaKodesh involves a clarity of understanding, an enhancement of perception, an awareness of the spiritual”–in other words, vipassana. “While in its lowest state, Ruach HaKodesh consists of general enlightenment and perception, in its higher, true states, Ruach HaKodesh provides the individual with clear, unequivocal perception, where he can actually receive information that is not otherwise available.”

In the Kabbalah it is considered that there are three levels of our spiritual being: Nefesh, Ruach, and Neshamah. All three refer to levels of breath. Nefesh literally means “that which rests” in the human being: the Divine Life-Breath Itself. Ruach is spirit with the connotation of movement as in “wind,” which is another viable translation. Respecting this, Kaplan says: “Although God’s influence constantly permeates man’s being, like the air around us, it is not usually detectable. Air can only be felt when it is in motion, when we sense it as a wind (Ruach). Similarly, God’s spirit can only be detected when it moves in us [as the breath], and it is for this reason that such spirit is also called Ruach, the same word as for wind.” This also makes it clear as to why we need to take hold of the awareness of the “moving spirit” of our breath by means of Breath Meditation to enable us to rise to perception of and union with the Divine Presence that manifests as that breath. Neshimah means the simple external breath of the body. Thus we see that the breath is a kind of ladder of ascending grades. By means of the physical breath we can merge into the psychic or soul-breath, and ascend through that to the Breath of God that is breathing into us and manifesting as the two “lower” breaths. And since God is absolutely one (homogeneous), His Breath is also His Consciousness. The breath then, is itself the ascent to Supreme Consciousness when Breath Meditation is correctly and persistently practiced.

“This is also evident from the etymology of the word Ruach. This word is closely related to the Hebrew word Oreach, meaning a ‘visitor’ or ‘guest,’ as well as the word Orach meaning a path.” The breath, then, is both a visitation of the Divine Guest as well as the path we can tread hand-in-hand with that blessed Guest back to the Kingdom of Blessedness that is the Blessed One Himself. “Thou hast granted me life and favour, and thy visitation hath preserved my spirit” (Job 10:12).

The inhaling and exhaling breaths are the two edges of the flaming sword which guards and lights the way to the tree of life in Paradise (Genesis 3:24). Self-knowledge is the fruit of the Tree of Life that will make us immortal gods within God.

Tracing the Kabbalistic tradition of Breath Meditation has not been easy, and has given meager results. If any reader can supply me with more source information I will be most grateful.

Next Chapter in The Breath of LifeThe Christian Tradition of Breath Meditation