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Practicing with Our Breathing

by Josho Pat Phelan

I would like to talk about breath—how to practice with our breath during zazen and how to use our breathing as a vehicle for awareness in our everyday activity. As we become aware of our breath, we find different kinds of breathing. The breath may be quick and shallow; it may be rough or smooth; subtle and refined; monitored or restricted and tense; it may be deep and relaxed, steady, calm and peaceful; or loose and free. As we become more aware of our breath, we become more aware of our state of mind. Sometimes, before we realize that we have become involved in a particular mental state, before we actually realize that we are angry or feeling threatened or anxious, we may first notice that our breath has changed, it may become controlled or held.

I think unconsciously we try to control our state of mind and external circumstances by controlling and holding our breath as if by holding our breath, we can hold back what we fear. Our breathing does not function independently from our emotional and mental activity. So the more we practice awareness of the breath, the more we become aware of all our experience.

In Zen meditation, we breath naturally through the nose. There is no emphasis on breathing in a particular way, such as breathing deeply or breathing slowly. So we don't need to direct or interfere with the breath in any way. Just allow yourself to breath naturally and notice that you are breathing. In Zen practice we get to know who we are, to know the nature of our mind and the nature of reality by being present with the detail of our experience and accepting this rather than trying to change who we are or manipulate circumstances. I remember for the first few years I practiced zazen, sometimes when I tried to be aware of my breath, instead of settling and becoming calm, I became tense. The juxtaposition of trying to be consciously aware of an involuntary action produced a self conscious tension. Other times is my breath felt stuck as if I couldn't breath past a point in my upper chest. Another time, even though my breath was moving smoothly, I felt like I wasn't getting any oxygen. I had the image of a pair of broken bellows where the handles moved back and forth, but no air was being transferred. If anything like this happens to you, try to relax and forget about your breath. Return your attention to your posture, to your spine, to he contact between your thumbs and other physical sensations until your breath returns to normal again.

Actually, in Zen meditation, our intention is to join our breath, to become one with our breath; rather than trying to observe or watch our breath the way you might watch TV or watch something separate from yourself. In mindfulness practice, there is no objective observer in the sense of objectifying your experience or separating yourself from your experience in order to observe it. Although we use the terms "to follow your breathing" and "watching the breath," we do this from the inside. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that the way we are to observe something in meditation is to become the thing we are observing by removing the boundary between subject and object. He says, "Non-duality is the key word....the body and mind are one entity, and the subject and object of meditation are one entity also."

Traditionally there are several physical locations where we can concentrate our awareness on the breath. In Vipassana Meditation, the entrance to the nostrils is used by feeling the tactile sensation of the breath entering and leaving the nostrils and the sensation of the breath moving across the upper lip. Another area is the chest: feel the expansion and contraction of the lungs and rib carriage as you breathe. In Zen meditation and in Japanese culture, the abdominal area below the navel is emphasized. In this area feel your lower belly filling out and sinking in as you breathe. This area is called the tanden or hara in Japanese. Suzuki Roshi taught us to practice with this area by placing our awareness and strength in the hara. As you develop your awareness of the hara, you will develop a groundedness that you can return to throughout the day. If your awareness of your breath has not yet settled into one of these areas, experiment and find which one feels more familiar, more comfortable. But once you choose a place of concentration, try to stay with it and give yourself a chance to settle in and develop your concentration in that area. It's like exercising a muscle, it takes time to develop.

When you sit zazen if you have a hard time finding your breath, try taking a deep breath at the beginning of the period. I've heard that Suzuki Roshi recommended taking four or five deep breaths at the beginning of a period of zazen which will help you find your breath and give your lungs some fresh air to sit with. Another thing you can do is place your palms on your abdomen for a minute or two when you start sitting to help you get a tangible sense of how your breath moves in this area. Holding our mudra, or hand position, on the abdomen as we do in zazen naturally brings awareness to this area—our center of gravity. Counting the breath is one on way to practice bringing the mind to the breath. This is done by placing a count on each exhalation until you reach "ten," and then on your next exhalation, begin again with "one." While counting be careful not to interfere with the natural pace and shape of your breath. Your breath should lead the counting the same way it leads your feet in kinhin. If you practice counting your breath, sooner or later you will find that you will be able to maintain counting while your attention is elsewhere. If you are counting and find that you have gone beyond "ten"; if you suddenly notice that you are on "eighteen" or "thirty-five," stop counting, and with your next exhalation begin again with "one." The same is true when you notice that you are thinking, start counting again with "one."

Another way of practicing with the breath is to follow your breathing without counting. Whether you count your breath or follow your breath, it is important to stay with the whole cycle of each breath. Sometimes I find when I am counting my breath that after I count, I begin to tune out during the last part of the exhalation. When we tune out, this gives our minds an excellent opportunity to wander and become distracted. Try to stay with the complete movement and detail of each breath, become intimate with the geography of each breath. Stay with the inhalation until it is transformed into an exhalation. Stay with the exhalation until it becomes an inhalation. Stay with the period in between the exhalation and the inhalation. Again, when we say to follow the breath, it doesn't mean to follow the route the breath takes through the body. Rather, find some part of your body and let your awareness abide and feel how the breath moves in that area.

As we practice zazen our attention will inevitably wander. Uchiyama Roshi who wrote Opening the Hand of Thought, considers the brain to be an organ of the body and he compares it to the stomach. He says the way the stomach secretes digestive juices, the natural function of the brain is to secrete thoughts. When you notice that you are distracted, that you are thinking, or remembering the past, or planning the future, or involved in an emotional state, or about to fall asleep, wake up. Without forcing yourself, try to wake up to the present moment, to your full presence right here.

The effort we make in zazen is not to hold our minds empty or blank or void of thought. Nor is it to force the attention onto the breath. That would lead to rigidity, to a rigid state of mind. Rather, our effort should lead to flexibility by being ready to let go whenever we notice that we are distracting ourselves from our intention to engage with our present body and mind. Be ready to let go of distractions, to let go of insights, to let the tracking mind stop and return to your breath. We do not try to stop our minds from thinking. In zazen, we try to wake up. When you realize that you are thinking, let go of your thoughts the way you let go of your breath when you exhale. This flexibility, this ability to drop distraction and return to the breath, over and over and over throughout zazen, is one of the most important elements in practicing zazen. This ability to let go is essential. We can use it to let go of the stickiness of our attachments, to let go of our point of view, to let go of our pain. And whether we like it or not the inevitability of our life is to let go—and we have the opportunity to practice it now.

One of the reasons we choose awareness of breath as the object of our meditation is because it is always with us. Years ago I read an article that began: "With your last breath, your last thought will pass away." It had never occurred to me before how much our breathing and thinking are connected. One way to extend awareness of breath beyond zazen is to follow your breath while you are falling asleep. Very lightly, join your awareness to your breath. And as you wake up, try to wake up with your breathing. For me this breath practice is a way to prepare for dying—for changing realms of existence with some awareness. Another way to practice is to use the attitude that this breath may be my last breath, exhaling with no expectation that anything will follow. Using this attitude will change the way you breathe, and whatever follows can be accepted as a gift. This helps us cultivate a state of mind free from expectations as well as cultivating gratitude for something as simple as our next breath. Aitken Roshi suggests using the phone as a signal to come back to the breath. When you hear the phone ring, be aware of your breath for one breath before answering it. Returning to the breath is a way of taking refuge.

I would like to end with a quote about breath from Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind:

"When we practice zazen our mind follows our breathing....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 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, all that exists is the movement of the breathing, but we are aware of this movement." 

This awareness is pivotal between being lost, or being absorbed in the breath, and being awake.

Josho Pat Phelan, 1996

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