When we first encounter breath meditation it’s a real challenge to stay with the practice. It really isn’t very exiting and may not seem like there is much to hold on to, to keep our attention on.
Breath practice isn’t kindergarten practice. Breath is the foundation of our way, the way of intimacy. Intimacy with the current; actuality as it is, arising complete and unsayable, this instant.
At times the object of meditation the breath is dealt with in very specific ways, with a count regime, feeling the swell and release of the belly, tracking the breath sequence of sensations. But this is all temporary, working toward building an attentive quality that can become intimate with the breath exactly as it is this moment, with no preconditions, even preconditions of attention. This may seem strange, but even attention disappears into intimacy. As practice evolves, its subtlety evolves. This usually occurs in such a way that people cannot witness this change for themselves.
A person working several years with the breath may not feel like there has been any ‘progress’ but may find they can respond to probing koan like questions, not about the breath at all, with some measure of confidence and assuredness.
One of the issues in working with the breath for many people is the tendency to experience or tie together being attentive to the breath with controlling the act of breathing itself. The very act of keeping attention on the breath creates a clear sense of deciding when to breathe in and when to breathe out. This creates a difficulty, as we want to avoid influencing the breath in any way. We are aiming to truly let breath be completely as it is, each moment.
So how to work with the sense of controlling the breathing? First of all briefly reflect that the body has been breathing ok all this time, since birth. It knows what to do. It lives by being able to simply continue breathing without need of our consciously maintaining control.
Following on from this we can be attentive to the body’s breathing cycle. Feel for a particular quality, the early tendency of the body to unforcedly begin to breathe in, the soft tendency to start the inhale; then the soft slide to easefully release to breathing out. Looking at the point of change noticing the soft changes, trusting and following the body and seeing the breath flow naturally.
This temporary approach isn’t manufacturing ideas about breath or picturing breath as a cycle, rather using the cyclic nature to be present for all the changes that make up the single breath, Each single breath is made up of changing sensations that are represented by the breath cycle, that we can rivet our attention to.
It’s helpful to be relaxed about the breath and definitely step back from overtly doing the breathing for the body. It’s not necessary. The body needs no controlling in order to do what it can do naturally.
In this same spirit once we’ve seen the softness of the changes and let that go to trusting the event of breath itself, we are also working toward not creating specialized or narrowed attention with imagining the breath, or creating a pattern with it, or picturing it.
We want to have as little do with the act of breathing as possible. This is about trusting letting things be. When we can truly let be, we encounter the current. There were actuality arises.
So we’ve established that it’s pretty usual that when we attend to the breath we have the experience of doing the breathing. This isn’t helpful as practice, but it does have a use. It doesn’t make our practice ‘better’ in fact it hinders the maturing of practice, but it’s helpful for us to experience getting past this point. It’s a point that comes up again and again in other and more subtle guises as our practice unfolds.
Getting past this tendency to control through the practice of intimac with what is shows us the path of trust, trust in the current. This is the path beyond the neuroses that circulate as intense self centricity.
When we control something we are clearly setting up ourselves in relation to that thing. ‘I’ am controlling. Even without such an idea as the imperative, it is the clear function of the situation of having a ‘me’.
When we control something we separate from that event, we become in relation to that thing. Oddly, we tend to control so that we sort of bind the thing to us, so that it comes under our auspicious, a part of our sphere of operations, but really we have at that point created separation rather than the unity we are aiming for and beguiled by.
It may not feel like something is generated that is me, when we ‘do’ the breathing, or feel ourselves in relation to the meditation object, there is a sort of warming familiarity that is comforting. Like a pleasing reassurance about ourselves.
Getting back to attention of the breath; Steady engaged breath attention may generate quite still space, even a sense of profound quiet, like a broad and deep pool of still calm. This is beautiful and deeply encouraging, as it should be.
However there is another step as we are still being in relation to the breath. As long as we watch the breath in that very stillness we are planted in the center of that still space that can arise.
We sit at the center of the stillness and as such sooner or later disturb the stillness with our entitled sense of self, thankfully.
There is a further refinement or direction for practice to take up. A refinement that requires nothing from us at all, or perhaps requires nothing of us – the practice of intimacy. Here there is solely the thing itself, this current breath. Here we completely combust any sense of being attentive or watching into the event itself, the breath, the body or the koan, or the cup of tea, depending on the practice. Here everything is left behind, consumed in the current actuality; completely combusted in the fire of the current.
This is the work of allowing the current as it is, not impinging ourselves upon it either grossly, “I hate it when she does that!” or subtly as in ‘witnessing’ what arises. No matter how fine and subtle the ‘witnessing’ it is the upholding of self, rather than clear apprehension of the current as it is.
Intimacy it the touchstone of Zen, its requirement and its joy. The utter irrevocable intimacy of the current. This is unbordered and without requirement or condition and we begin this journey with the breath.
Learning to trust the current breath as enough in itself is were we develop the skill and means for intimacy with the current. It’s the place were self falls away in the face of actuality itself, it is natural, and indeed already so.
It starts with a sort of reflection that for a moment ‘I’ simply was not and there was just the breath, just the cup, just the view out the window and there is the beautiful completeness of requiring nothing beyond this current actuality. In that moment we are not required, we have seemingly disappeared into the actual.
But we don’t find we’ve disappeared because at that point we are not in evidence in order to disappear. It’s functional, no one left to appear or disappear. There is just breath, just the cup, just the view.
This can sound wonderful and sort of heroic, and strangely or perhaps naturally, is a real allure for the sense of self. But it is just this unexciting current breath that airs the body, shows us our simple, live, environmental basis.
When we fully allow, there is no one arising. There is no one to be. This fully allowing is developed with becoming intimate with the breath. This is our path.
When no one arises to be, there is no one to be and, curiously we are then at our most free and engaged, embodied naturally as who we are without the encrusted calcifications of idea, even as we think about it.
It takes practice
Each moment is nothing less than your lifeblood, your birthright itself.
© Glenn Wallis July 2015