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Answering anxiety with breath prayers

Rev. David Cobb, chaplain | Mar 31, 2020

praying handsThese days, I’m noticing a lot of anxiety and worry on people’s faces. It’s in their voices on the phone, in their eyes as they make a wide arc around me on the sidewalk, and in their fingers as they reach for the disinfectant wipes after touching the table.

Rudyard Kipling wrote an often-quoted poem some find helpful when facing scary things. It’s a poem lifting up Victorian values, not getting too high or low. The first line begins, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…” The rest follows in like fashion, advising the reader to “hold on when there is nothing in you” and “lose and start again at the beginning and never breathe a word about your loss.” 

I used to think this was the best way to meet troubles: even-keeled, dispassionate, not showing too much sorrow or joy. It’s the classic, stiff-upper-lip way of facing the world. You may be right there with Kipling, trying “to meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat these two impostors just the same.” If so, keep at it. I’m glad you are getting through these difficult days.

But, if that’s not working for you (it doesn’t for me anymore), I’d like to offer you another way to manage stress. It’s something I learned years ago and is still my go-to spiritual discipline. Set aside two or three minutes, longer if you’d like, and try a breath prayer.

This is a prayer with two words or simple phrases you can pray silently over and over as you breathe in and out. A breath prayer used among the first Christians is kyrie eleison, which means “Lord, have mercy.” You breathe in on “Lord” and out on “have mercy.” Then you pray it over and over. You can create your own breath prayer—just keep it simple. You might not even have to use words.

How often you use breath prayer is up to you, but the process will only take a few minutes. During the prayer, notice how you feel. Are you loosening up? Relaxing? Smiling a little? It won’t make the anxiety go away for good, but it may give your fight-or-flight reflex a much-needed break. Then, when you feel like it, pray it again.

There are many ways to relieve stress. A breath prayer might not work for you, but I do know all of us breathe. And, as long as we’re breathing, we’re still here. As long as we’re still here, there’s a good possibility things will be okay.

Peace, blessings, and breath to you.

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