Recitation by means of breath alone (ajapa-japa)

Recitation by means of breath alone (ajapa-japa)

talk given at the Interfaith Ashram, Warburton, January 2015

Last week we spoke about the mantra. This week time Yogi and I would like to speak about ajapapa.

The term japa means the ‘recitation’. The term ‘ajapajapa’ simply means ‘reciting without reciting’. In other words, it is a process of recitation, which does not use a mantra.

An example of ajapajapa is the cycle of the breath. Just as the mantra begins from silence and ends in silence, and is then repeated, so too the cycle of breath starts from stillness leading to inhalation and then to exhalation. This is repeated naturally. There is a cycle in both cases, in the recitation of the mantra as in the act of breathing.

The advantage of ajapajapa, the natural process of breathing, is that it occurs naturally without effort. Indeed, it began on the day of birth with the first intake of breath and will continue till the moment of death with the last expiration of breath.

The reciter therefore focuses simply on the cycle of breathing. This act of becoming increasingly conscious of the breath gives the it deeper meaning, increasingly so. There is eventually a union of consciousness and breath, such that breath becomes fully conscious, fully appreciated, fully willed, fully known. Breath and consciousness become one.

The breathing, if it is to become complete, must be inspired. The word ‘inspire’ is taken from the Latin word ‘spiritus’, which means ‘breath’. The word ‘spiritus’ is also used to refer to the Holy Spirit of God. When a person performs ajapajapa with the breath perfectly, they are inspired ‘from above’.

It is the moment of great purity, the Sanskrit term is nirañjanam, when will, knowledge and act become perfectly fused. It is a moment of healing, when we want to breathe, we know we are breathing, we want to breathe, we know what we want, we know what we are doing. The disjunction of our faculties ceases, and we become one

The advantage of focussing on the breath is that it occurs without effort. By contrast, with mantra recitation there is a certain need to exercise the will, though, of course, the reciter of the mantra will eventually reach that stage where there is no effort in reciting of the mantra; when mantra and reciter (mantrī) become one. When that happens, who is reciting: is it the mantra who inspires the reciter to recite or the reciter who gives rise to the mantra?

Each person who performs ajapajapa with the breath does so differently for we all have a different gift of grace; we have different perceptions and characters. Thus the breathing of one is not the same as the breathing of the other, although all are inspired from above.

Thus as we gather together and focus on the breath, we become profoundly united. The mantra of one person may not be the mantra of another, just as their deities and rituals may differ. The act of breathing, while it is also diverse, unites more simply.

The cycle of breathing is but one of many natural cycles: the cycle of night and day, the cycle of the seasons, the whirling of the galaxies, and the swirling of the atoms. There is a universal vibration (spanda) where the whole of reality is engaged in interchange. The couple in their lovemaking are likewise engaged in a profound vibration. By focusing on the ajapajapa of the breath, the practitioner becomes united with the vibration and pulsation of the universe in all its forms.

In the Christian tradition, the breath occupies a highly significant place. The Gospel of John (Jn 20: 22) recounts how Jesus appeared to his disciples on the day of Easter and, after showing them the wounds in his hands and his side, breathes on them and says ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’. Thus ‘Breath’ comes to them from the one who lived most fully, died most totally and is raised to the highest height. His breath comes from the paradox of life and death, from beyond life and death. It is the most powerful of breaths and is available to all.

Thus by the act of grace – for all occurs by grace – the practitioner can breathe the enlivening and eternal Breath that nothing can take away.

It is this Breath, which fills the Church and makes it survive all the vicissitude of history. It is this Breath that makes the Christian community capable of reinventing itself, again and again.

The relaxed act of breathing has a specific character. Out of stillness the inhalation suddenly begins to take place; and at the end of the inhalation, with a scarcely a pause, the breath begins to be exhaled. At the end of the exhalation, however, there is a slight pause, perhaps a second or two. This is the moment of immense tranquillity. It is the moment of rest, the where nothing happens, where there is only stillness.

Moreover, the alternation of inhalation and exhalation are related. Even as the inhalation takes place, the exhalation is being prepared; and as the exhalation takes place, the inhalation is being prepared. It is like the swing of the pendulum where the potential energy is transformed into kinetic energy: both imply each other. There is, so to speak, a rubbing of the two breaths, one against the other. This friction causes an excitement, a spark, a feeling of libido, as the two breaths, outward going and inward going, ‘touch’ each other, so to speak. This ‘rubbing’ of the breaths leads to bliss.

This mutuality occurs also in the process of encounter, for when people meet in all their diversity, there is a giving and receiving. This in fact is the highest form of ajapajapa, when freedoms meet and inspire each other and lead to a knowledge of that Freedom, which is higher than any of them and from which their freedoms proceed.

This meeting can occur in the ordinary course of life; it also occurs when the group gather together to spend time in meditation, focussing on the breath, aware of the grace that is imparted to each one, aware that their grace spreads from each to the other. It is the meeting of diverse gifts of grace. This in turn leads onto a sense of the highest grace, which is the ultimate point of all spiritual practice.