How does control of breathing help with meditation?

Control of breathingControl of breathing is related to meditation.

When you are meditating you very probably have great difficulty attending just to one thing. The mind wanders off and it takes great practice to stay focused. You are distracted by extraneous sounds, random thoughts, an itch, a worry. The original centre of attention disappears several times. You make a great effort to call yourself back but you start to be conscious of the effort itself rather than the thing to be focused on. You can easily wander off into a fantasy. Zen monks doing this same sort of thing sit up with eyes directed at one spot to prevent sleep.

Emanuel Swedenborg, the spiritual philosopher, as a child practised control of breathing. He had discovered that the slowing and limiting of breathing facilitates gaining inner awareness.  He stumbled upon this method of concentration during morning and evening family prayers.

It is possible he had independently discovered a similar discipline of breathing control to one used in Yoga. He lived in the eighteenth century. There were no Yoga classes in Stockholm at that time. The literature about such ancient ways to enlightenment, developed in the Indian subcontinent, hadn’t been translated and made available in Europe.

Pranayama for control of breathing

In Yoga, control of breathing is called pranayama. The root of this word comes from three words: prana, yama, and ayama. The first of these prana means “life force”. Yama signifies “discipline” or “control”. Ayama means “expansion”, “non-restraint”, or “extension”. Ideally, this practice of opening up the inner life force is not merely to take healthy deep breaths. It is intended for yoga practitioners to help and prepare them in their meditation.

During the normal process of breathing you inhale oxygen to energise your different body parts. Then you exhale carbon dioxide and thus take away all toxic wastes from your body. Yoga teaches that through the practice of Pranayama, the right balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide is attained and absorbing the life force through breath control links your body, mind, and spirit. We might speculate that the building up of carbon dioxide in the blood may have something to do with intensifying inner experiences.

Swedenborg’s method of control of breathing

Swedenborg probably had advanced powers of concentration. Even without his breathing control, he was a practised scholar, a single man, with private means who was in a position to devote much of his time to study.

When controlling his breathing he would try to relax, and with his eyes shut, do his best to concentrate on the issue at hand. He had learned to reduce his breathing so that it would nearly stop. He found that, as he did this, his consciousness of what could be seen and heard physically around him, would greatly reduce and perhaps disappear. He became totally focused on the one thing he wanted to better comprehend. Wilson Van Dusen in his book The Presence Of Other Worlds points out that as a result of reflection aided by reduced breathing, the problem Swedenborg was focusing his mind on would blossom out in new, rich and surprising ways.

A Swedenborian explanation

So how might reduced breath aid the concentration needed for meditation? Swedenborg suggests the following. Bodily sensation is awareness of the external world and it depends on respiration of the body — for when the breathing completely stops, so does all conscious sensation. Likewise, he would argue, the awareness of your inner world depends on its own inner breath — the respiration of the spirit.

My breathing was developed by the Lord in such a way that I was able to breathe inwardly for quite a long time without the help of outside air, so the breathing was directed inwardly, (Swedenborg, SD 3317)

According to this view, normally, the breathing of the spirit is so bound in with the breathing of the body that you don’t realise you are receiving sensations from a higher realm but such inner sensations rather are merely considered to be the introspected thoughts and perceptions of your mind.

Those familiar with Yoga might say that the meditative state involves Ayama meaning “expansion”, of the mind no longer restrained by worldly considerations and extended into the spiritual.

Later on when Swedenborg started to become fully conscious of what he called the  spiritual world, he wrote

Afterwards, when heaven was opened to me, and I was enabled to converse with spirits, I sometimes scarcely breathed by inspiration at all for the space of a short hour, and merely drew in enough of air to keep up the process of thinking. (SD 3464)

Swedenborg claimed to be able both to have a sensation of what happens in the realm of spirit and at the same time to reflect upon it while yet preserving the life and respiration of the body. In other words he was saying he had a conscious exercise of internal respiration with a quasi suspension of the respiration of the body; but always with the ability to return again into full bodily respiration.

Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

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Emanuel Swedenborg

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Meditation – Finding God in it


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