Sunday, 20 October 2013

The Breath as an Anchor

"If you look up the word "spirit" in the dictionary, you will find that it comes from the Latin, spirare, meaning "to breathe." The inbreath is inspiration; the outbreath expiration. From these come all the associations of spirit with the breath of life, vital energy, consciousness, the soul, often framed as divine gifts bestowed upon us, and therefore an aspect of the holy, the numinous, the ineffable." - Mindfulness meditation teacher Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are (2004), p263.

Working with one's breath is not something new to human societies - since ancient times people have harnessed the breathing reflex through concentration and effort in order to achieve better results in various cultural pursuits. Mindfulness meditation teacher Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn speaks of this in his book Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p52:
"All professionals who make special use of their breathing as part of their work, such as opera singers, wind-instrument players, dancers, actors, and martial artists, know the value of breathing from the belly and "centering" their awareness in this region. They know from firsthand experience that they will have more breath and better control if the breath comes from the belly."
Beyond such practices, however, it seems we do not really consciously bring attention to our breathing, even though it is so fundamental to our existence. As Kabat-Zinn states in Coming To Our Senses (2006), p75:
"Breathing is fundamental to life. It is just happening. As a rule, we don't pay much attention to it unless we are choking or drowning, or have allergies or a bad cold."
Within traditional Zen monasteries, however, any physical work is often integrated with the breathing process. Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh gives an example of this in Peace is Every Step (1991), with reference to his use of a scythe, p36:
"During the past few years I have avoided tiring myself and losing my breath. I must take care of my body, treat it with respect as a musician does his instrument. I apply nonviolence to my body, for it is not merely a tool to accomplish something. It itself is the end. I treat my scythe in the same way. As I use it while following my breathing, I feel that my scythe and I breathe together in rhythm. It is true for many other tools as well. One day an elderly man was visiting my neighbor, and he offered to show me how to use the scythe. He was much more adept than I, but for the most part he used the same position and movements. What surprised me was that he too coordinated his movements with his breathing. Since then, whenever I see anyone cutting his grass with a scythe, I know he is practicing awareness."
In this way, a Zen practitioner's mind may become more integrated with the present moment - temporally and physically; allowing him to find a peaceful refuge from busy thoughts concerning matters outside of the here and now.

Following the breath in this simple manner can feel boring, however. To counter this, mindfulness practice encourages the perspective that the experience of boredom is a product of habitual "negative propaganda" originating from one's fearful mind - a legacy of our evolution which required us always to be on guard against enemies and predators. One's judging mind scans all that flows into one's consciousness, including it's own subjective reactive judging, and uses it's own existence as evidence of an external reality where 'good' and 'bad' things objectively exist - like a circular argument going around and around; e.g. "I am judging things negatively, so therefore there must be something negative". This is always a factual mistake, and yet it is the habitual 'default mode' for the vast majority of people on this planet. As Professor Mark Williams of Oxford University Mindfulness Centre writes in Mindfulness: A practical guide to peace in a frantic world (2011), p137-138:
"We think that the situation itself aroused our feelings and emotions when, in fact, it was our interpretation of the scene that did this. It’s as if the world were a silent film on which we write our own commentary. But the commentary, with its explanations of what is going on, happens so fast that we take it to be part of the film. It can become progressively more difficult to separate the ‘real’ facts of a situation from its interpretation. And once such a propaganda stream has begun, it can be more and more difficult to argue against it. All future events will be interpreted to support the status quo; competing information is ignored and supporting facts wholeheartedly embraced. The mind’s running commentary on the world is like a rumour. It might be true, it might only be partially true – or it might be completely wrong. Unfortunately, the mind often finds it very difficult to detect the difference between fact and fiction once it has begun to construct a mental model of the world. For these reasons, rumours can be incredibly powerful and derail not just the minds of individuals but of whole societies."
Mindfulness methodology frames such negative thoughts/propaganda as suggestions offered up to us - e.g. "What if you fail?". The decision can remain with us as to whether we want to let such thoughts affect our actual performance, however.

Bringing this perspective to when one is following the breath, and the inevitable negative responses one encountesr in one's mind/body, we can begin to allow the negativity to dwindle by a simple motivation to move in the direction of becoming more integrated with the natural processes which have always nurtured and supported us; tapping into an instinctive, innate positivity/self-compassion that has always been present in our biological makeup - identifiable in various reflexive behaviours throughout the human body. Ronald D. Siegel, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, illustrates this shift in focus in his book The Mindfulness Solution (2010), p319:
"While “I” won’t last very long, the larger universe will. If I can begin to see myself as part of this vast web of matter and energy, participating in the circle of life, I will suffer much less as everything continues to change. ...I will also naturally feel an impulse to care for this wider world, much as my right hand wouldn’t hesitate to bandage my left."
This natural impulse to care for ourselves and life in general originates from within our very fabric; our DNA. One such natural self-caring impulse is to continue breathing at all costs. We can think negatively about who or what we are all we like - proposing that we would be better off dead, or that we are a waste of oxygen and resources, and yet our breath will continue supporting us; bringing in new fresh resources into our bodies. This happens reflexively every minute of the day, as Kabat-Zinn writes in Full Catastrophe Living, p47:
"With each breath, we exchange carbon dioxide molecules from inside our bodies for oxygen molecules from the surrounding air. Waste disposal with each outbreath, renewal with each inbreath. If this process is interrupted for more than a few minutes, the brain becomes starved for oxygen and undergoes irreversible damage."
And, p229:
"When your whole organism, your body and your mind together, is in a relatively healthy state, it takes care of itself without too much attention. For one thing almost all of our self-regulatory functions are under the control of the brain and the nervous system and are ordinarily occurring without our conscious awareness. And we would hardly want to control them consciously for any length of time, even if it were possible. It would leave us no time for anything else. The beauty of the body is that ordinarily our biology takes care of itself."
Mindfulness practice teaches us that we can trust and 'let go' into this reflexive self-caring and self-healing dimension of the breath, and allow our innate intelligence to take care of everything - effortlessly. Professor Mark Williams describes this in Mindfulness, as follows, p80:
"The breath breathes itself. If it was up to us to remember to breathe, we’d have forgotten long ago. So tuning into the breath can be an important antidote to the natural tendency towards believing that we have to be in control. Attending to the breath reminds us that at the core of our being, something is happening that depends very little on who we are or what we want to achieve."
And, p81:
"The breath opens up a different possibility, that of allowing life to live itself for a while, to see what wisdom emerges when you don’t rush in to ‘put things right’."
Creating the conditions for this wisdom to manifest requires us to actively anchor our mind in one place so that it does not habitually fly off and remain in the past, future, or judgement. Kabat-Zinn describes the process in Coming to Our Senses as follows, p75-76:
"...resting in an awareness of breathing ...requires first that we feel the breath and afford it a place in the field of awareness, which is always changing in terms of what the mind or the body or the world offers up to divert and distract our attention. We might be able to feel the breath, but in the next moment, it is forgotten in favour of something else. The aiming is here, but there is no sustaining. So we have to aim over and over again. Coming back, coming back, coming back to the breath over and over again. Every time noticing, noticing, noticing, noticing what is carrying our attention away. The sustaining comes with the intention to allow sustaining. It requires considerable attentiveness to keep the focus on the breath sensations when our attention is so labile, so easily pulled elsewhere."
Any attempt to try and do the job of the breath - to actively control the diaphragmatic muscle, breathing rate, etc., becomes a distraction from the breath itself, and one's attention wanders into comparing past experiences, judging one's performance, etc. One needs to actively get out of one's way, so to speak, so that one's reflexive breathing and reflexive awareness can meet without interruption - this is the core practice of mindfulness. As the third Chinese Zen Patriarch Sēngcàn (5th Century AD) famously wrote in his treatise Faith in Mind (translated by D.T.Suzuki):
"毫釐有差  A tenth of an inch's difference,
天地懸隔  And heaven and earth are set apart:
欲得現前  If you want to see it manifest,
莫存順逆  Take no thought either for or against it."
Such a separation in mind and body can have very intense physical repercussions, even, like the psychological process which leads to hyperventilation - something Kabat-Zinn refers to in Full Catastrophe Living, p49:
"People who experience episodes of hyperventilation can think they are having a heart attack and are going to die. Actually the worst that can happen is that they will black out, which is dangerous enough. But passing out is the body's way of breaking the vicious cycle, which begins when you feel unable to breathe, which leads to panic, which leads to a stronger feeling of being unable to breathe. When you pass out, your breathing returns to normal on its own. If you are unable to get your breathing under control, your body will do it for you, if necessary by short-circuiting your consciousness for a while."
American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck speaks of the necessity to let go of the breath in Everyday Zen (1997) thus, p162:
" following the breath, it is best not to try to control it (control is dualistic, me controlling something separate from myself), but just to experience the breath as it is: if it is tight, experience tightness; if it is rapid, experience that; if it is high in the chest, experience that. When the experiencing is steady, the breath will gradually become slow, long, and deep. If attachment to thoughts has markedly diminished, the body and breath will eventually relax and the breath will smooth out."
Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki illustrates the same idea in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), but in a different way thus, p29:
"The air comes in and goes out like someone passing through a swinging door. If you think, "I breathe," the " I " is extra. There is no you to say " I . " What we call " I " is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale. It just moves; that is all. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no " I , " no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door. So when we practice zazen [seated mindfulness meditation], all that exists is the movement of the breathing, but we are aware of this movement. You should not be absent-minded. But to be aware of the movement does not mean to be aware of your small self, but rather of your universal nature, or Buddha nature. This kind of awareness is very important, because we are usually so one-sided."
 Joko Beck adds in Nothing Special - Living Zen (1995), p249:
"...what we want is to let the breath be the boss, so that the breath is breathing us."
As this process goes on, one continues to notice any thoughts arising and does not engage them - instead one merely continues to be aware of the breath and allows thoughts to move on in their own time, to the point whereby the spaces between thoughts can widen enough to allow through true peace and tranquility - trusting one's awareness to reflexively notice what is important, as Mark Williams points out in Mindfulness, p11:
"Mindfulness meditation teaches you to recognise memories and damaging thoughts as they arise. It reminds you that they are memories. They are like propaganda, they are not real . They are not you. You can learn to observe negative thoughts as they arise, let them stay a while and then simply watch them evaporate before your eyes. And when this occurs, an extraordinary thing can happen: a profound sense of happiness and peace fills the void. Mindfulness meditation does this by harnessing an alternative way in which our minds can relate to the world. Most of us know only the analytical side of the mind; the process of thinking, judging, planning and trawling through past memories while searching for solutions. But the mind is also aware. We do not just think about things, we are also aware that we are thinking. And we don’t need language to stand as an intermediary between us and the world; we can also experience it directly through our senses."
This very physical approach - beyond concepts and rooted in pure feeling, can allow one to experience everything as a kind of raw energy which, Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Anger - Wisdom for Cooling the Flames (2001), is akin to the compassionate energy present when holding a suffering baby in one's arms in order to comfort it, p68:
"Mindfulness means to be present, to be aware of what is going on. This energy is very crucial for the practice. The energy of mindfulness is like a big brother, big sister, or a mother, holding the younger one in her arms, taking good care of the suffering baby, which is our anger, despair, or jealousy."
This instictive caring component is in complete harmony with the reflexive breathing, and the fact that the breath is always present - to anchor and bring the mind back to a more balanced place - means that at every moment our bodies contain deep self-compassion whether we are aware of it or not, and therefore we always have a potential release from the idea of suffering built into us if we wish to witness it, as Kabat-Zinn states in Full Catastrophe Living, p49:
"It is always here to be attended to, no matter what we are doing or feeling or experiencing, no matter where we are. Tuning in to it brings us right into the here and now. It immediately anchors our awareness in the body, in a fundamental, rhythmic, flowing life process."
And, p56:
"Giving the mind one thing to keep track of, namely the breath, to replace the whole range of things that it usually finds to preoccupy itself enhances our powers of concentration. Staying with the breath during meditation, no matter what, ultimately leads to deep experiences of calmness and awareness. It is as if the breath contains, folded into itself, a power that we can come to simply by following it as if it were a path. This power is uncovered when we systematically bring awareness to the breath and sustain it for extended periods. With it comes a growing sense of the breath as a dependable ally."
Within Zen Buddhism, this potential calmness is considered to be always present - like a bottle of refreshing water secretly hidden in one's bag, beyond the realms of rigid, conceptual perception, and it is our conscious choice to either go beyond what we know to be able to drink from the bottle or not. A text attributed to the first Zen Patriarch, translated in The Bodhidharma Anthology: The earliest records of zen, (Jeffrey L. Broughton, 1999), states the following illustrating such a stance, p14:
"Things have always been in a state of quiescence and there has never existed a perceiving subject."
Thich Nhat Hanh also speaks on this topic in Understanding Our Mind (2001), with reference to our existence being like a dynamic wave in essentially tranquil water, p392:
"We say that we “attain” the ultimate dimension, but we do not attain anything. The wave does not need to attain the state of being water—the wave is water. We live in the historical dimension, in the world of existence and nonexistence, continuation and cessation, coming and going—and, at the same time, we are in touch with nirvana. Nirvana is our true nature. Just as a wave has always been water, we have always been in nirvana."
And in a similar sense, the waves of our breathing have always been rooted in an unconditionally compassionate and nourishing essence whether we have been aware of that fact or not. Amplifying this dimension through placing sustained attention on our unconditionally compassionate breathing can create the conditions for a more peaceful experience to arrive.

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