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laotzu.jpgWoe the Man with Halitosis

I found a book on sports psychology at the library last week. It could aptly be called, “The Tao and Sports.” Because the Tao has long intrigued me (note), I checked it out. I suspect it’ll be a lot of fluff, but two early chapters–breathing and visualization–have resonated with me. The writers put a lot of emphasis on a slow breathing exercise, followed by visualizing aspects of your game. It takes about ten minutes, and the writers say it could improve one’s game more than actual practice. I mentioned it to two friends (both good Christian men, solid guys who have no truck with new age hokum) and both of them agreed it has credibility.

What really intrigued me, though, was the breathing part. The use of controlled breathing plays a large part in Taoist mediation and Zen meditation (Zen is the offspring of harsh Indian Buddhism and light-hearted Chinese Taoism). I also remembered reading that Eastern Orthodox monks put a fair amount of emphasis on breathing, especially when practicing The Jesus Prayer. Nicephorous the Solitary in the fourteenth century gave the whole psychosomatic practice a huge push, citing the logic that the lungs lie around the heart, so air passing through them envelops the heart and therefore helps lead to prayers of the heart.

So, I know there’s a tradition of breathing meditation in Taoism, Zen, and Eastern Orthodoxy. There’s also a breathing meditational tradition in Hinduism, Sufism, and probably mystical Judaism. But is there a breathing meditational tradition in Catholicism? I searched through a couple of Catholic resources, but nothing popped up. The best I could find was a statement by Fr. Groeschel (in Praying in the Presence of Our Lord: With the Saints). When preparing to make a Holy Hour, he says “it is helpful to kneel in adoration, and to take some deep breaths that help to calm us down and to repeat inwardly, ‘I am here with my Savior and my God.'”

I’m going to keep looking for Catholic sources. Based on my research last weekend, I suspect any Catholic references to breathing and prayer will agree with Kallistos Ware:

The Jesus Prayer can be practised in its fullness without any physical methods at all. St Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), while regarding the use of physical techniques as theologically defensible, treated such methods as something secondary and suited mainly for beginners. For him, as for all the Hesychast masters, the essential thing is not the external control of the breathing but the inner and secret Invocation of the Lord Jesus. Orthodox writers in the last 150 years have in general laid little emphasis upon the physical techniques.

We are a composite of soul and body, spirit and brain. It would make sense that our physical dispositions have an impact on our spiritual. If you believe otherwise, you’re a Gnostic of some sort. But overall, the main emphasis must be on the soul. The body is a mere aid. Controlled breathing is important, but it’s not the sine qua non, and should never be emphasized as greater or even equal to the efforts of the mind.

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