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Breathing In, Breathing Out

Fara Choi Ashimoto
Headington Institute, 2012.


The process of breathing is a living metaphor for the importance of rhythm and balance. We don’t often stop to think about it, but we all know that within our physical lives we have to both breathe in and breathe out to live. The same is true for our spiritual life. The English word “spirit” even comes from the Latin word spiritus, meaning “breath.” Just as we must breathe in and breathe out to stay alive physically, we must engage in a similar process of taking in and giving out to stay health and vital spiritually.

This metaphor does have its limits though. It’s not quite as simple as separating out what counts as breathing out spiritually versus breathing in, and then making sure you’re engaging in some of both. Physically, it’s impossible to breathe in and breathe out at the same time. That’s not true when it comes to “spiritual breathing.” Nearly all contemplative traditions talk about “spiritual work” or “practice” (which involves giving out or spending energy in some way, such as serving others) and “spiritual renewal” (which involves feeling refreshed, or inspired, or reconnected to our deepest sense of purpose and meaning).  If we compare spiritual work to breathing out and spiritual renewal to breathing in, then, unlike physical breathing, these two aspects of spiritual breathing can be deeply intertwined and often occur simultaneously.

For example, many different aspects of humanitarian work can involve considerable sacrifice of your time, energy, money, wants, and even needs to help others (breathing out). But this very process can also be a rich source of emotional and spiritual renewal – providing a profound sense of meaning and deep satisfaction (breathing in).

One big risk that humanitarian workers run, however, is depending on this work-related sense of meaning and satisfaction as their main, or only, source of spiritual renewal. The pace of humanitarian aid work and lifestyle can make it difficult to create the time and the quiet that is necessary to access so many other ways of breathing in spiritually. But just as it’s ultimately unhealthy to depend solely on work for a sense of personal identity, it’s not a good long-term strategy to depend on the sense of meaning you find in your work as your only source of spiritual renewal. Over time, humanitarian work willdemand more from you than it will give to you if you are not also supplementing your spiritual oxygen in other ways.


  • What is spiritual work or practice for you?
  • Where does your sense of spiritual renewal come from?
  • How do you balance breathing in and breathing out spiritually? Focus on whichever comes least naturally to you, and do something different this week.

Adapted by Fara Choi Ashimoto from our Peace by Piece series on spirituality written by Lisa McKay.

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