Posts Tagged ‘Breath’

one

August 3rd, 2021    -    4 Comments

During the long, slow months of the pandemic lockdown, holed up at home with nothing to do and nowhere to go, I discovered something new. I discovered my breath.

Breathing might not seem like much of a discovery, occurring as it does twenty thousand times a day for each of us. But we hardly notice the breath. We remain unstirred by its subtle constancy and unmoved by its deep mystery. Yet right there under our nose lies a journey into the pulsing heart of a living, breathing universe.

All I needed to do to take that journey was sit down and count my breath.

Counting one’s breath is the foundational practice in Zen, taught by generations of ancestors. It’s an efficient way to quiet discriminative thought and bring the mind to single-pointed concentration. Yasutani Roshi, a twentieth-century Japanese Zen master, instructed his students in a sequence of four types of counting, which are described in Phillip Kapleau’s classic book The Three Pillars of Zen. To start, count each inhalation and exhalation up to ten, and then return to one. Do this over and over for the length of each sitting period. Next, count only the exhalation up to ten and over again for each sitting period. Then, only the inhalation. Finally, drop the counting entirely and concentrate your attention on each breath fully.

“Breathe naturally,” Yasutani said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Even so, anyone who has ever tried a breathing practice knows that it is not at all simple in the doing. The very word “simple” conjures up difficulty in our dualistic thinking. Trying too hard to “just breathe” can strangle the breath. The number ten can seem as distant as ten thousand. Obsessing about breathing, we may no longer know how to do what we have been doing effortlessly since the moment we were born, and even before.

“Before we were born, while still in our mother’s womb, how did we breathe? You don’t remember how? Actually, that is the problem!” the late Taizan Maezumi Roshi said. Like his teacher Yasutani, he exhorted his students to remember “that most excellent breathing” from the lower abdomen where we were once connected by umbilical cord to our mothers.

Infants maintain full-body breathing—not to mention full-body crying and full-body laughing—until they grow older and, like the rest of us, become engrossed in the artifice of thought. It’s the busyness in our heads that tightens the chest and shortens the breath, creating physical and mental discomfort. Because of that, we are likely to conclude that a breathing practice isn’t working for us. It’s harder than we thought it would be. It doesn’t seem like we’re getting anywhere. And it’s not interesting. We want to move on to what’s next, to a more entertaining or important stage in our quest. Or we give up altogether.

But all the while, breathing remains the most profound dharma—every thought, every action, and every moment comes out of it. So how do we keep the practice of breathing going if we get discouraged? The answer really does lie in giving up.

Breathing exposes the expectations we bring into a practice: what we think it should feel like, what we aim to accomplish, and what it all means. But each breath defies our expectations and is entirely original: sometimes long, sometimes short; sometimes smooth, sometimes not. Breath is movement and movement is change, the truth of our existence. We can hold on to our expectations, beliefs, and judgments, but we cannot hold on to a breath, which is the manifestation of the present moment. The exhalation itself guides us into the empty ease and relief of letting go.

If we’re honest about counting the breath, we have to make sure we can keep a count going through a full sitting period, then a series of sitting periods, or, if we’re on retreat, for a full day of sitting. By then, we are probably unconcerned with whatever comes next in our spiritual advancement, and when we empty ourselves of ambition, a kind of in-the-marrow remembering occurs. Our bodies know how to be. Our breath knows how to flow. Our brain knows how to self-regulate and our thoughts to self-liberate. This is the inherent wisdom of our Buddha nature. It’s how the seemingly simplistic instruction to “breathe naturally” can be realized quite naturally. We just get out of the way.

That’s what happened to me while I was stuck at home for a year with nowhere else to go. I sat down on my cushion, folded my legs, straightened my back, and brought my attention to my breath, just as I’ve done for more than twenty years. Longtime meditators can get trapped in stale habits, but this time was different; this time was entirely new.

Alone, with nothing to prove and no insights to uncover, my body relaxed. I felt my weight drop to the floor and even further, as if pulled underground. I breathed as though my nose wasn’t in the middle of my face, but located two inches beneath my navel, inflating and deflating my belly. My mind cleared, and automatically I began following the counting instructions Yasutani had spoken so long ago. It happened by itself. In sight of a clock, I could tell that my breathing slowed to four or five times per minute, sometimes slower. As I did this day after day, it felt as though the sitting weren’t my doing at all. It was the world that wanted to stop spinning, and me with it.

Studies tell us that focused breathing can help relieve depression and chronic pain, fight inflammation, and activate life-extending genes in our DNA. The power of breath can’t be understood but it can be felt—not just within but beyond our egoistic self. Deep in the lungs, the separation between ourselves and the outside world is smaller than a single cell. That’s no separation at all. That’s what we are.

From the Sept. 2021 issue of Lion’s Roar magazine.

Photo by Amy Clark.

the covid improvisations

April 20th, 2020    -    2 Comments

A month ago when the big one hit and the world shook loose, communities began to gather online. That’s when I started offering weekly zazen and dharma talks to the group of students around the country with whom I practice regularly. The talks are recorded and publicly available, but I am posting them here so you won’t have to go looking. Each talk is 20-30 minutes and informal, arising from the mood of the moment. They are arranged here chronologically, but you can play them in any order that strikes you. Just to pause for that long and listen could keep you afloat.

On my site, you’ll see embedded players below. If you receive my blog via email without the embedded players, the links to each talk are here:

Peace Is All That’s Left, March 29
We’re All Hermits Now, April 5
Beyond Stress & Anxiety, April 12
Breathing Makes Beautiful Sense, April 19

Above photo by Sam Wermut on Unsplash



don’t use a word of this

June 19th, 2019    -    1 Comment

“You are an experienced meditator, aren’t you?”

Perhaps only an experienced meditator would be stumped by this question, but I answered yes to be cooperative.

“Something happened after I meditated and I wanted to ask you about it.”

She told me that she’s been meditating more and she was getting good at it but the last time she did it she had made it through all the chakras and it was going pretty well and she meditated for longer than she ever had and afterwards some good things had happened to her but then later that day she felt sick and lightheaded and had to lie down and had I ever heard of that and what did I think it meant?

“That does sound like a kind of sickness,” I said.

Which part? she asked.

I shrugged. “I don’t even know where my chakras are.”

***

Something happens when you meditate, but it will never be what you expect.

To be sure, no one starts a meditation practice without expecting to get something out of it—the answer, the secret, the pay-off. Just about any motivation is worthwhile if it gets you out of bed and upright for one more day, but what I experience in a room with other people on retreat is never something I’m seeking.

When I stop thinking about myself, I feel the subtle energies around me, like fear and sadness, restlessness and worry. People around me are grieving. They are in crazy pain and shame. There is trouble at home. A marriage is ending, loved ones are lost or leaving, lives are falling apart. The body is breaking, the cancer is spreading, the debt is coming due. And out of this great ache comes a flooding rush of gratitude up my spine and out of my heart because these humans have shared a moment of their lives without a get or a fix, for no good reason and absent any shred of understanding.

What happens is love.

***

Your body knows what to do, and it’s already doing it, so just breathe, I told her. Breathe from the belly, and count your breath to keep your mind still and focused. You don’t have to process anything. Everything is already processed. Try not to look for a result. Don’t judge if it’s good or bad or right or wrong or working or not. Keep it simple. Buddhism is really simple, and Zen meditation is the simplest kind of Buddhism.

“That’s really useful,” she said, even as I prayed she wouldn’t use a word of it.

Letting Go: A Zen Retreat
Aug. 8-11, 2019
Transfiguration Spirituality Center, Cincinnati

Clear Waters: A Zen Retreat
Oct. 10-13, 2019
Chapin Mill Retreat Center
Batavia NY between Rochester and Buffalo

Photo by Zoltan Tasi

keep starting over

August 20th, 2018    -    1 Comment

It is important that you encourage yourself to keep starting over, to keep listening to the basic, simple instructions in how to sit, because this is a simple thing to do. But, of course, it isn’t easy.

You are here to face yourself. We are each uncomfortable in some certain way with ourselves and with our lives. Now you are here. You are sitting on your cushion and you are by yourself. You are experiencing yourself. You are breathing your own breath. The most important part to keep in mind is the body. I suppose you might think this is a thinking practice— because we always think that things require thinking—but this is a practice that ultimately requires no thinking. Your body, functioning by itself, requires no thinking. That’s why we can rely on it to guide us.

Let’s pledge to practice with the body we brought. Don’t be critical. Don’t think that you are shortchanged or shorthanded, that you don’t have the right kind of feet or knees, hips, shoulders, eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body or mind. You are perfectly endowed as a buddha. What do you think? If this practice was good enough for Shakyamuni, is it not good enough for you?

Excerpted from the dharma talk “The Breath is You”

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Sunday, Sept. 30, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Los Angeles
Register by email

Beautiful Valley: A Zen Retreat
Oct. 11-14
Chapin Mill Retreat Center near Batavia
Upstate NY
Register before Sept. 24

practice no harm

February 7th, 2018    -    3 Comments

Cracked_Pavement

When folks begin to practice Zen, they can be set back by how hard it is. They might have expected to be good at it—for certain they expected something—but what they are good at is something else altogether.

Why is it so hard to just breathe? Because you’ve been practicing holding your breath.

Why is it so hard to keep my eyes open? Because you’ve been practicing falling asleep.

Why is it so hard to be still? Because you’ve been practicing running amok.

Why is it so hard to be quiet? Because you’ve been practicing talking to yourself.

Why is it so hard to pay attention? Because you’ve been practicing inattention.

Why is it so hard to relax? Because you’ve been practicing stress.

Why is it so hard to trust? Because you’ve been practicing fear.

Why is it so hard to have faith? Because you’ve been trying to know.

Why is it so hard to feel good? Because you’ve been practicing feeling bad.

Whatever you practice, you’ll get very good at, and you’ve been practicing these things forever. Take your own life as proof that practice works as long as you keep doing it. Just replace a harmful practice with one that does no harm.

***

For the benefit of those who will be practicing with me at any of these places, and especially for those who won’t be able to make it.

Winter Sun Retreat, Madison WI, March 1-4
Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat, LA, March 18
What is Zen? Retreat, Kansas City, April 13-15

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inexhaustible desire

May 13th, 2014    -    1 Comment

kmm this is my inexhaustible

Paradise in Plain Sight

Enter the Goodreads Giveaway here.

Listen to 30 Minutes in Paradise, a podcast here.

Art by Julie Kesti

 

6 steps to a mindful argument

November 10th, 2013    -    4 Comments

images-1

1. Stop talking
2. Inhale
3. Exhale
4. Listen
5. Smile
6. Repeat as needed

Because when you stop arguing, the argument stops.

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why the hell you’re here

October 22nd, 2013    -    6 Comments

scan0007

Practice is like medicine: it is bitter, but good for you. Although it is a bittersweet experience, it is worth it. When you sit on your cushion, it is tearful and joyful put together. Pain and pleasure are one when you sit on your meditation cushion with a sense of humor. — Chogyam Trungpa
The money, I say.
The hassle, I say.
I have no zafu, I think.
I haven’t sat since March, I think.
Sitting is hard, I think.

In my mind’s eye, I see
that wall in front of me,
that damn wall after the blessed
reprieve of a meal or a break time.

I see you bow over
and over and the skies are gray
and dull and I wonder why
the hell I’m there

and then we are all speaking
with one voice even though
our tongues trip on the
unfamiliar syllables

and time is suspended
and the air feels sacred
and maybe there are tears
or maybe no tears
or a sigh
or no sigh

but there is breath
enough
and I forget to wonder
why the hell I’m there.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat, Nov. 10, Los Angeles
Returning to Silence: A Retreat at Grailville, March 27-30, Loveland OH

Painting “Grailville Retreat” by Melissa Eddings Mancuso
Poem by Anne Erickson

mindfulness starts here

September 29th, 2013    -    61 Comments

deep+waterWhen I first began my practice, I was already lying inert at the bottom of the deep end. Life’s triple decker of despair—heartbreak, grief and depression—had sent me plummeting into the murky realms. On the way down, I tried to rouse myself with the usual prescriptions, but nothing could reach. So when I bumped into a Zen teacher who reminded me how to breathe, it saved my life. Breath gave me the buoyancy to rise to the surface where I could float, and later, find the strength to swim. Breath always does that.

Not everyone comes to practice in the same sloppy way. Not everyone is as far gone as I was, in dire need of resuscitation. Some folks are holding onto the side of the pool, knuckles whitening, but still alert and awake enough to realize, “Perhaps I should give some serious thought to taking some swimming lessons.”

There’s a new book out that is like a set of swimming lessons.

Lynette Monteiro and Frank Musten have kindly packaged an eight-week mindful course into a single volume, Mindfulness Starts Here: An Eight Week Guide to Skillful Living. It includes the practices, explanations, encouragement and accountability you would find if you participated in a mindfulness course like the kind they lead at the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic. And here’s what I really like: it also includes the people. The authors pair their artful instructions with real-life commentary from the students in their classes—students who might as well be you, facing the fear, doubt, resistance and even overconfidence we carry with us into the water. This is what I like best about this eminently likeable work: the human voices and stories reminding us that this practice isn’t academic or intellectual. It isn’t a course of self-improvement or just a tool for a toolkit. Mindfulness is not a seasoning, a flavor or a fad. It is life—your life—and it starts here. It starts wherever you are.

I’m still in the deep end, you know. We’re all in the deep end. But this much I know: I’m breathing.

Leave a comment on this post and I’ll draw a winner for a free, brand-new copy of Mindfulness Starts Here next Sunday, Oct. 6.

And in case you think you still don’t have the time, place, or teacher to begin your practice, look right here. There is water, water, everywhere.

The Plunge One-Day Retreat in Boise Sat., Oct. 5
Yoga & Meditation Retreat, Washington DC, Sat. & Sun., Oct. 19-20
Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat, LA, Sun., Nov. 10

If money is what’s stopping you from starting at these or any of my programs anywhere in the country, please contact me privately for help. Even a little help can help enough. Money never gets in the way of the Dharma, and that’s how you can tell what’s true.

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breath is fearless

October 23rd, 2012    -    3 Comments

Just this one little thing, the breath, delivers all the wisdom in the world. Each inhalation powers your strength, endurance, and concentration; each exhalation releases your resistance and fears. Life gives continuous testament to the miracle of the breath, and yet, do we really know what the breath is?

 

When we bring our agitated minds into focus by following the movement of the breath in and out of the body, we experience the reality of the present moment, clear from confusion and anxiety. The breath is fearlessness personified. That can matter a great deal to you in times of pain and panic. How wonderful that all the sages and wise ones, the birth educators and coaches, the doulas and midwives, tell you to breathe! Focusing on the breath is the safest, surest way to overcome fear and let the immediacy of any experience move forward.

When all other schemes and devices fall away, the breath is all we have to use. It never fails us. Now is a good time to get to know your breath, through simple awareness practices such as meditation and yoga. While sitting, lying down, walking, or moving, bringing your attention to your belly and the natural movement of the breath will strengthen your connection to your own life force, the awareness that is everpresent and unafraid. The breath will not only transport you beyond fear, it will deliver you to joy. In the flow of the breath, mother and child come into being, and joy springs to life.

Excerpted from my essay, “Preparing for Childbirth,” in the book, The Mindful Way Through Pregnancy.

###

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deep sanity

October 8th, 2012    -    3 Comments

Sometimes the room is so still that the only thing you can babble about is gratitude. I am forever grateful to my teacher, and my teacher’s teacher, for showing me the deep sanity of practice.

A sky that never darkens.
An ocean that never empties.
Beyond patience and surrender,
the dignity of having no choice.
Sitting quietly, doing nothing
giving birth to a whole wide world.

Sharing my practice is the only thing that matters, because practice takes care of every single thing. Come sit by me two weeks from now in a world of your own creation.

Deeper Still: a Breath & Meditation Workshop, Washington DC, Oct. 21.

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shoes are the first to go

August 21st, 2012    -    6 Comments

Shoes are the first to go, left at the door.
What if someone takes them—you’re afraid to say more.
No perfumes or unguents, no shorts or short sleeves
Be mindful of others, but I’d rather leave.
The wardrobe, the makeup, the image, the pose
like pimples concealed on the tip of your nose.
Baggage and crap hauled two flights up the stairs
A room with four walls and the walls are just bare.
Sit, someone tells you, sit and be still.
That’s all there is to it. I’m gonna be ill.
But you do it, you try it, you do it some more.
The guy next to you wobbles. Did I hear a snore?
Years pass. Was it minutes?
Time stops. Shadows cast.
Was that one breath or two?  The first or the last?
You don’t know. You don’t care.
One day you consider the weight of your hair.
Like grass it’s too long, like straw it’s all dead.
Take it off, you beseech,
and what you mean is your head.
Take the nightmare, the fairytale, the Hollywood end
the someday, the one day, the hard luck, the win.
Take my mask and my shield, excuses and lies
my what-ifs and rathers, ifs, ands and whys.
Where’s your fear? Where’s your dread?
I can’t find it. It’s shed.
Now plain faced and simple, empty-handed and bare
Go put on your shoes. They’re still there.

If you want to learn how to meditate, come to the Beginner’s Mind One-Day Meditation Retreat on Nov. 10, 2013  in LA.

 

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sit there

July 10th, 2012    -    9 Comments

Conventional wisdom has it that Los Angeles is sinking into the Pacific. One more quake, they say, and this silly sandcastle will be swept offshore. But they have it upside down. We’re already on the bottom of the sea. Five million years ago, seismic storms pushed the Pacific crust to the surface of the Earth. We are the children of a risen ocean. We scuff our shoes on its billowy floor.

Conventional wisdom says this ancient practice of mine no longer reaches. It does not translate. Westerners don’t get it. It’s too hard and long and fruitless (although science, medicine and common sense affirm it at every turn.) I once studied with another teacher who prodded me. Faster, faster! He wanted to see flying colors, coach a champion, build a team. I quit that place. Later, he trademarked a new way to sell enlightenment, a method sped up for the restless and distractible. We’re competing with many other pastimes, the reasoning goes. Better give people what they want when they want it, or they will . . . do what? Scatter, like so much dust.

Thinking like that is a sure way to lose ground. Where wisdom is the agenda, there is no wisdom.

“I was afraid Maezumi was just going to let you sit there,” he said. I didn’t know better at the time, but now I can answer.

My teacher was unafraid to just let me sit there.

This is my inexhaustible desire: that you will find a guide who is both patient and daring, unafraid to watch you struggle, drift, and finally settle in the tempest of your own pot. One who will keep you quiet company as you go deep and dig, until you look up and see that you are not sinking, you are not hopeless, your cause is not lost. There is no war and no enemy, no hurry and no wait. You are sitting upside up in the echoless calm of a deep, clear ocean, no wind or waves, and you are breathing, breathing, breathing.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Meditation Retreat, Sunday, Nov. 10, 2013, Los Angeles

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