Dearest monks, artists, and pilgrims,
We continue our exploration of the Monk in the World Prayer Cycle Video Podcasts with morning and evening prayer for Day 2: Hospitality. Hospitality invites us to welcome the stranger both within and without. The ancient practice of breath prayer is a lovely way to engage with the principle of hospitality. The reflection below comes from my new book Breath Prayer: An Ancient Practice for the Everyday Sacred to be released in the US and Canada on Oct 12th.
I surrender the ache,
and the worry.
Breathe in stillness,
breathe out anxiety.
Monks used to awaken in the middle of the night intentionally to pray Vigils. Some of the stricter monastic orders, like Trappist, still do. It is a way of consecrating all the Hours of the day, including the dark of the night.
If our sleep patterns get disrupted and we awaken sometime in those early hours before the sun rises, we might consider joining those monks in our imaginations. Rather than get hooked into the anxiety of our churning thoughts, this opening to the night can be an opportunity to savor stillness, to rest into the unknown, to breathe love out to a hurting world, to bathe our communities in prayers for peace, and to allow our breathing to soften our hold on things so that we might slowly release ourselves back into slumber.
I know for myself the worst anxiety can come when I have to be somewhere the next day, perhaps teaching in the morning, and I start to worry whether I will get enough rest. This worry, of course interferes with the possibility of going back to sleep and can become a vicious cycle.
Sometimes I sit up and read for a while or write down what my mind is grasping for. But mostly breath and prayer are the balm that help to calm and soothe me. They help to sanctify these moments when I would prefer to be asleep. They become opportunities for prayer and connection with Source. I see myself joining with monks around the world awake at that very same moment offering their prayers of praise and gratitude.
Breathe in: I surrender the ache;
Breathe out: and the worry.
Breathe in: Breathe in stillness,
Breathe out: breathe out anxiety.
Similar to the breath prayer at bedtime, this breath prayer is about allowing our body to surrender and yield, to release anxiety and worry as much as possible, and let the darkness comfort and hold us for a while. This time of night wakefulness can be a practice in learning to appreciate mystery. So much of the anxiety arises from the parts of ourselves that want to plan and control and know the outcome of things. Of course, none of us knows these things and life is largely out of our control, especially with the larger events we experience.
In the first part of the breath prayer, see if you can physically allow your body to surrender anything it is holding onto. Sometimes taking an extra deep breath and letting it out with a long sigh can really help with this release.
In the second part of the breath prayer, notice what breathing in stillness and breathing out anxiety feel like for you. See what colors or sensations are present. If it is helpful to pray with images, visualize your inhale drawing in this gift of stillness. Visualize your exhale letting go of any anxiety or worry.
In his poem “Sweet Darkness,” David Whyte writes “The night will give you a horizon / further than you can see.” Many of us aren’t used to spending time with ourselves and when we slow down and let go of the many possible distractions we are left with our mind’s churning. Breath prayer helps us to ease the racing thoughts by giving our mind another focus and direction. We can bring an intention of restfulness and release to our nighttime hours though this practice. The words give us an intention so we might find more ease in these middle-of-the-night awakenings.
I also have an article on breath prayer published in US Catholic. Join us for the virtual Breath Prayer book launch on Monday, October 25th.
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD REACE