Caravanserai Magazine Archive

Published 1988-2000 semi-annually on behalf of the Sufi Movement International by the Sufi Movement in Canada.


1989 Volume 3. Pir-o-Murshid Hazrat Inayat Khan. "The Mystical Meaning of Breath"

The breath is what connects us with God, and the breath connects us also with manifestation. We are conscious that the breath reaches a certain distance without, and we are conscious that it enters into our bodies a certain distance, but we are not conscious how far without it goes, nor are we conscious how far it enters into our bodies.

As long as the breath is in the body, the body is alive; and when the breath has left the body, the body becomes a useless thing. This shows us the importance of the breath.

It reaches within to every part of the body. The hair has a little sensation in the root. If one hair is pulled, we feel pain. The nail has a little feeling in it. If it is cut, we feel it. But when the hair and nail are cut off, they have no sensation. This shows us that the more any part of the body is connected with the breath, the more sensation it has. Those parts that are most connected with the breath have the most feeling.

There is no aim that cannot be accomplished by the breath, and if we fail to accomplish our aim, it is because we have a thousand different aims before us, not one alone. It becomes very difficult in the world where attacks come from a thousand sides. The breath goes out to meet an attack from one side, and instantly it has to turn to another side to face another attack. It would have to turn to every side in the same moment, and this it cannot do. This is the reason of the failure even of the sages and saints and mystics.

There is no other aim worth attaining than God. Other objects may seem valuable for a moment, but in reality no object is of value save God, to realize Him, to reach Him and to be blessed. But in order to train ourselves, we may set some object before us and keep it before us until, by the breath, we have attained it. We must keep our mind fixed towards one point, as the needle of the compass is turned towards one point. The difficulty is to keep the one object of our desire before us. When we are aiming at this, another illumination calls us from here, another intellect from there, another wisdom from a fourth side. If we turn to these, the object before us may remain as an imagination, but in reality it is gone.

By concentrating on the breath, a person can tell what element is passing through him at the moment, and by consulting the breath he can tell the present and future.

As the books, precepts and doctrines of his religion are important to the follower of a religion, so the study of the breath is important to the mystic. We ordinarily think of the breath as that little air that we feel coming and going through our nostrils; but we do not think of it as that vast current that goes through everything, that current which comes from the Consciousness and goes as far as the external being, the physical world. In the Bible it is written that first the word was, and from the word all things came. And before the word was the breath, which made the word. We see that a word can make us happy, a word can make us sorry. There is a story that once a Sufi was healing a child that was ill. He repeated a few words, and then gave the child to the parents, saying, "Now he will be well." Someone who was antagonistic to this said to him, "How can it be possible that by a few words spoken anyone can be healed?" From a mild Sufi an angry answer is never expected, but this time he turned to the man and said, "You understand nothing about it. You are a fool." The man was very much offended. His face was red. He was hot. The Sufi said, "When a word has the power to make you hot and angry, why should not a word have the power to heal?"

Behind the word is the much greater power, the breath. If a person wishes to study the self, to know the self, what is important is not the study of the mind, of the thought, the imagination, nor of the body, but the study of the breath. The breath has made the mind and the body for its expression. It has made all, from the vibration to the physical atoms, from the finest to the grossest. The breath, the change of the breath can make us sad in the midst of happiness, it can make us joyful in the saddest, the most miserable surroundings. That is why, without reason, in some places we feel glad, in other places a melancholy comes over us. It is the air that makes us so. You may say, "How can the breath make all this? How could it make the body?" I have seen people become in the course of years as their breath is. What exists in the breath is expressed in the form. As the breath is, so the child becomes.

All the elements are in the breath, according to the direction which the breath takes; the earth, water, fire, air and ether. We can taste them in the breath. There are five directions, four outward and one inward. You may say, "What influence can the direction have?" I will say, "If you take a ball and throw it in every direction, the ball will not go equally far at every throw. It will go sometimes farther, sometimes not so far." The direction of the breath makes an effect even in our words. Sometimes we say, "Yes, I see," directly. Sometimes we say, "Yes," sarcastically, "I see," and our head is thrown back, the breath comes obliquely, the effect is quite different. If you say, "We cannot feel, perceive the elements in the breath; we do not know where they are," I will say, "This is a science. It cannot be understood in a moment. It is a study."

You will say, "Is the direction the only thing that has influence upon the breath?" There are two other forces that influence it, the rise and fall. In the jets of water in a fountain, some of the jets rise very high, others less high, others rise only a few inches, according to the force by which they are predestined. So it is with breath.

Regarding the control of the breath, it must be said that reading books cannot give this to anyone. For this, practice is needed. Reading the theory of music cannot make anyone a composer, a singer or a piano player. Ask the composers, the singers, the violinists how much they have to practice. The practice of the breath is very difficult and very arduous. We see the yogis sitting for hours in the same position, standing in the same position, practicing for hours in the night or before dawn. By the control of the breath all things are gained. If a man is a great writer, it is because his breath holds the thoughts that are in his mind. Sandow, by the control of breath, developed ideal muscles. Before the control of the breath is learnt, there is the control of the body. This is gained by the practice of postures and positions. If a small child is trained once in the day to sit still for five minutes or four minutes, not to run about, that gives control. If it is trained not to begin to eat at dinner until everybody eats, that gives control.

The ways of the control of the breath are many. It must be done by the realization of the self. But as long as we think that this body is our self, we cannot realize our self. And often we think not only that our body is our self, but we think that our overcoat is our self. If it is miserable, we think that we are miserable; if it is very grand, we think that we are very grand. It is natural that that which is before our view, we think our self. We always remember the words of our great poetess, Zeb-un-Nisa. She says, "If thou thinkest of the rose, thou wilt become the rose. If thou thinkest of the nightingale, thou wilt become the nightingale. Thou art a drop, and the Divine Being is the whole. While thou are alive, hold the thought of the whole before thee, and thou wilt be then whole."

The mystic always consults his breath, in the evening and in the morning, to know whether it is harmonious with the sun, with the moon and the planets. He is always conscious of the breath. For this the Sufi gives a lesson, to be always conscious of the breath. My spiritual teacher, my murshid, once said, "People say that there are many sins and virtues, but I think there is only one sin." I asked, "What is that?" He said, “To let one breath go without being conscious of it." This is done by concentration.

We say that the hand is in control when it can grasp something and hold the thing in its grasp. The fingers, we say, are in control when they move up and down the piano; when they strike B when B is wanted; they do not strike E. Control is in repose and activity both. Sometimes we find that we have become angry, we have become impatient, we have lost control of our mind. Before control of the mind is lost, the control of the breath is lost.

More than a thousand times since I have been in the West, people have said to me, "We cannot control our mind. We cannot keep our mind fixed on one point." The first step is to lessen the activity of the mind. When the thoughts come more slowly, this is the first step. And the first thing is to control the breath, to make it slow and regular. By this the breath of the body is improved, and the health of the mind.

In the Qur'an, it is said, "Surely, we revealed it on the night of Power." What was that night of power to him whose whole life was revelation? It was the sending of breath within. It is natural that we always look outward. The breath is directed outward. We see what is outward, we hear what is outward, we taste what is outward, we are touched by what is outward. When the breath is sent within, then a person sees what is within, he hears what is within, he tastes within, he is touched by what is within. When this is done and the breath is purified, the mystics see in it forms and colours which reveal to them the past, present and future. They know the past, present and future of every person whom they see.

But if the control of breath tells him the past, present and future, that is too little. That is not worthwhile. It must tell him more. It must bring him to that unlimited existence from this limited being, to that immortality from this mortal being.

In the account of the miraj it is said that a buraq was brought for Prophet Mohammed to ride, an animal like a horse with a human face. This buraq was the breath, the horse whose rein is in the rider's hand.

If a person exercises the breath and practices concentration with a scientific idea only, he soon becomes tired. He thinks, "Why take so much trouble, for what result?" If it is done with the thought of God, with the repetition of the names of God, then a happiness comes, a bliss, by the thought of the idealized God, in Whom is all perfection, all beauty, the Friend to Whom we can tell our sorrows, all our sorrows, all our troubles. Sa'adi says that in the thought of God there is this blessing, that it draws us every moment nearer to Him.

God bless you.


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