Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Inhale or Exhale…Which Comes First & Why It Matters

Written by: on September 14, 2020

Pause. Think. Breathe.[1]

Three simple, beautiful concepts that could be used to describe a leader.  Yet rarely are these practices lifted up as admirable when discussing the characteristics of great leadership.

Why not?

In the moments following the onset of the Coronavirus Pandemic in the United States, my organization was forced to make some decisions that we would have thought unthinkable the week before. We were poised for a record year and were on the cusp of hiring another executive-level leader onto our team. The future was bold and we were ready for the road forward.  And then…COVID happened. So much of what we had worked so hard for dissipated overnight. The calendar cleared of all immersive learning experiences, we were forced to drastically downsize our team, and while we felt the urge to do something, we confessed that we knew not what to do next.

And so, we paused to think and breathe.  Rather than a vacation or even a break, we referred to the week as an off-the-gird, on-the-clock hiatus.  It was a moment to remember. To grieve. To reflect. To imagine. To rest.

On one of those days, I ventured off one of the alpine trails that I so frequently run to look for an uncharted area. With my body, I wanted to be as off-the-grid as possible so I blazed a new trail. After a while, I found myself in a seemingly long-forgotten aspen meadow. After weeks of grueling decisions, unwanted programmatic pivots, heartbreak, and limited creative breakthroughs, I paused in the middle of a meadow as old as time. It wasn’t until then that I realized how high my internal RPM’s had been revving. Less concerned had I been throughout the immediate chaos of the pandemic to be perceived as busy and far more fixated was I on doing everything within my reach to maintain our team. It was a world-class collective comprised of irreplaceable women and men who had given so much to the mission that we all believed in.

The stillness of my external was being interrupted by the soundtrack of my internal engine. In order to ease its pace, I entered into one of the breath prayers that I had recently learned from a teammate.

With the inhale, I prayed, “Spirit of God.”

With the exhale, I prayed, “Come near.”

Inhale. Exhale. Listen.

Then something odd happened. The order shifted.

Inhale. Exhale. Listen. became Exhale. Inhale. Listen.

The exhale created desperation for the inhale. The inhale animated my senses. I was then able to listen more clearly.

The experience awakened me to what had become a pandemic practice of leadership: inhaling in order to grit my teeth, steel my resolve, do whatever it took to survive, exhale quickly, and repeat.  While understandable, the inhale-in-order-to-accomplish approach wasn’t helpful and, turns out, may be a distortion.

Let me explain.

Consider the creation myth as found in Genesis 2.  In this more indigenous telling of the two creation narratives, the Creator is portrayed as entering into the created order so to physically establish the form of humanity out of the soil. Quite literally, God played in the mud and humanity took shape. Once the form was present, we’re invited to imagine God exhaling divine breath into the human form. God’s exhale transformed dirt into flesh and blood and fully animated the human being’s life. God’s exhale woke up humanity and the first thing that humanity did was exhale the breath of God. After we inhaled the breath of life, we acknowledged that we were in a story that wasn’t about us, and then we listened for what was ours to do.

Exhale and remember whose we are.

Inhale the breath of life.

Listen for what’s ours to do.

Exhale. Inhale. Listen.

One day, I pray that these practices will define my life, love, and leadership.


[1] D’Souza & Renner, Not Doing: The Art of Turning Struggle into Ease. Kindle Location 140.

About the Author

Jer Swigart

12 responses to “Inhale or Exhale…Which Comes First & Why It Matters”

  1. Darcy Hansen says:

    I hope you are continuing to find your footing in these pandemic/wildfire days. I pray breath is what reminds you of who you are and who you belong to. There’s something magical in breath. As I read your words, “inhale-in-order-to-accomplish approach” I was reminded of how often we approach Sabbath in the same way, if we take Sabbath at all. It is a day that gives us space to simply regroup for the week ahead. But what if Sabbath IS the exhale- the release, the rest, the space where, when the exhale is done, fully dependency upon God for the inhale is realized? Over the years, my understanding of Sabbath has shifted from something that is done once a week to get through the next week, to a way of being that is lived every minute. This seems a lot like your exhale, inhale, and listen. Jesus might even call this abiding. And when we abide, all pivots, all ministry, all decisions, all things are possible. Keep abiding, my friend. The world needs leaders like you.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Yes! Sabbath as the exhale. The moment that generates the dependency.

      Exhale. Inhale. Listen as the rhythm of abiding is also such helpful insight.

      To understand abiding in this light, with Sabbath as a regular exprience is to cultivate an ear for what the Spirit is saying and the courage to live what we hear.

  2. Greg Reich says:

    Profound word! Thanks for the reminder that this story is not about us. Out of all creation God chose to breathed into humanity, the rest he spoke into being. This pandemic has shifted a lot of people’s paradigms. The simple reminder to Exhale, Inhale and Listen is exactly what we all need right now.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Isn’t it something that the exhale of God is the very thing that brought (& continues to bring) us to life?

      I agree with you that in this Zen Diagram of Pandemic, Racial Tension, and Elections the rhythm of Exhale, Inhale, Listen seems necessary. While my inertia is still more toward “Inhale-in-order-to-accomplish” I’m recognizing, espeically in my waking moments, that the only way forward is to begin with the exhale…the reminder of whose I am.

  3. Dylan Branson says:

    If anything, it feels like the Covid pandemic has shown us how desperate we are in so many areas of our lives. What I’ve found interesting is how pre-Covid, many of my friends would express how they were “drowning” at work or school or whatever they were involved in. And yet, when everything stopped and there was nothing they could do, they felt they were drowning in a different way (isolation, lockdown, loss of security, etc.). So many are still trying to get their heads above the water and take that breath of fresh air. Maybe there’s something to be learned in the middle of the desperation.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      In view of my piece that focuses on breathing, I’m struck by the idea of “drowning.” The experience of drowning is saturated with panic, reactive flailing, and the inability to breathe. How is it that we find ourselves cultivating a life marked by the practices of drowning? Do we allow this to happen to us or have we been trained into a survival-through-drowning approach to navigating this life?

      Perhaps the answer is both. Espeically becuase, as you point out, the experience of drowning doesn’t seem to have to do with how much we have to do, but our interpretation of how to survive the moment we find ourselves within.

      Dylan, how would you invite your drowning friends to consider a more measured & healthy disposition? Because, turns out, we actually aren’t submerged underwater and unable to breathe.

  4. Chris Pollock says:

    Sweet practise. Off-the-grid leadership. Off-the-grid breathing exercise! The story of coming into being, the inhale of breath. Vivid, bro.

    How to be so conscious both in-the-mix and off-the-grid?
    Listen for what’s ours to do.

    How do we live like this? To the extent that we are not scheduling ‘stopping’ or time to reflect and breathe? That this is natural, it just is, just happens. Man, appreciate the depth and fluidity in the way you express the revelation.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Perhaps the actual calendared parctice of off-grid but on-clock will help generate this as a rhythm of my and my team’s work. That’s what we’re hoping. It’s new to us so I’ll keep you posted on how it impacts the team.

      The question of how we live this this is THE quesiton. As I mention above, I think the actual intentional planning of the practice into the calendar is important, but utlimately, I want to live my life in a way that is marked by E-I-L. In order to develop a rhythm of life, perhaps a rule with some structure is essential?

  5. John McLarty says:

    Your post invited me to think about my own relaxation methods- breathe in, breathe out (deep “cleansing” breaths.) You flipped that and I find it a bit disorienting to practice. But it’s only after the exhale that our lungs have room to be filled again and there’s a special little moment, after the last wisp of breath has left the body, but before the urgency to draw another breath takes over, a special little moment where I am aware that I am empty- ready. I’ll be working on this over the weekend. Trying to slow down and listen in that moment.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      Yeah. It’s been disorienting for me as well. And then, like you, I’m getting used to it and learning to anticipate that moment between exhale and inhale where I encounter dependancy…maybe even desperation. It’s sobering, humbling, enlivening.

  6. Shawn Cramer says:

    Perfect description of the Hebrew “ruah” for both “breath” and “spirit.”

    • Jer Swigart says:

      That’s it. And so odd how we’ve managed to ignore or misunderstand the animating power that we actually have access to. This exercise is bringing me into a new realizing of the Spirit who hovers and inhabits. It’s been powerful.

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