“Calmness of mind is beyond the end of your exhalation,” writes Shunryu Suzuki in Not Always So. The great Zen teacher was describing how to practice sitting meditation (shikantaza), which involves calming our restless minds and coming into the present moment by watching the breath. Suzuki describes how far this simple practice can carry us: “Your breathing will gradually vanish. You will gradually vanish, fading into emptiness. Inhaling without effort you naturally come back to yourself with some color or form. Exhaling you gradually fade into emptiness….When you practice this in your last moment you will have nothing to be afraid of.”
In her article “Passed Away,” Joyce Kornblatt explores how the breath can serve as a guide to the mysteries of life and death. Check it out!
I’ve been reflecting lately on how forms change–inevitably and very unpredictably. Years ago, I visited the Maezumi Institute, the training center of the Zen Peacemakers Order, in rural Montague, Massachusetts. The center’s land was once a farm, bought in 1968 by a collective of anti-war journalists, the Liberation News Service. The group had split away from a harder-edged New York-based political faction to live together and find peace by turning inward. Their credo was “change your mind, not just the government.” The farm was also later the home of Sam Lovejoy, the leader of the anti-nuclear movement.
I thought there was beautifully fitting that this 60’s experiment in communal living, awakening, and environmentalism would become the home of an American Zen community dedicated to creating a global interfaith community, and to integrating spiritual practice with altruistic work in the outer world. It also seemed fitting because the namesake of the institute, the Japanese Soto Zen master Taizan Maezumi Roshi, had been surrounded by hippie seekers after he founded the Zen Center of Los Angeles in 1967.
But a little reading and reflection revealed that Zen had been associated in Japan with the samurai, the military nobility (aka, not hippies.) I also learned from Peter Gregory, a professor of Buddhism at nearby Smith College who happened to be at the Maezumi Institute that day, that the fortunes of Maezumi Roshi’s family (all connected to the Zen establishment) drastically declined after the war. The prestige of Zen itself was greatly damaged, since they had aligned themselves with the emperor and actively rooted for war. Zen had been anything but counter traditional Japanese culture. The outcome of the last world war made Maezumi counter cultural in the sense that the disastrous turn in his family’s fortunes forced him to leave a defeated and down-on-Zen Japan to teach Zen to those most open at the time–counter-culture types and peace activists in America! Being very pro war actually ended up making Zen in America a vehicle for peace and inclusion.
The moral of this story? Forms change. Forms turn into their opposites. Don’t cling to forms. Seek formlessness. Exhale into emptiness. In the words of Suzuki: “To take care of the exhalation is very important. To die is more important than to be alive.” In other words, think of what is to come. Don’t cling.
4 thoughts on “Breathing Out”
Yes, there is something both holy and sacramental about breathing in and out, and watching our breath. I love the quote from Suzuki, in describing the practice. How true this is.
I was in an advanced meditation class recently led by Lama Christie McNally, author of the Tibetan Book of Meditation. During the meditation Christie asked all us to imagine ourselves, our bodies really, as bodies of light and as angels of light. We started of course with the classic Tibetan “Perfect Ten” – watching and counting our breath meditation, focusing all our attention on ten perfect breaths. Always starting with an “out-breath” as the first half, and then the “in-breath” as the second half, a trick to help us focus our thoughts inward.
After several minutes of this, Christie then asked us each to imagine our arms, and legs, even our bones as being hollow and filled up with light, from the top of our head to soles of our feet, down into the bones of our fingers and toes. Even to the point where you feel your body becoming lighter and lighter, letting go of all sense of heaviness.
It can become a very powerful meditation, but certainly a very different one from say the Tibetan Heart Meditation, or the practice of giving and taking, where you take on the pain and suffering of another person, and then transform it instantly and completely with one “in breath” in an explosion of light and compassionate love as it touches your heart.
A few years ago I wrote the following poem on breath and breathing and meditation. The poem uses Christian imagery, but I like to think that it is universal in nature. That was certainly my intention when writing it to share with others. I’ve read it out loud from time to time in some of the interfaith meditation classes I’ve taught with my Buddhist friends.
To give you an idea of what it says, here is the first stanza of the poem.
“God’s Holy Spirit travels upon each breath we breathe,
Breathe deeply my friends, breathe deeply.
With each breath, let light spread inside yourself,
As morning spreads in luminous waves across the heavens at daybreak.
Or as light refracts through the prism that is ourselves,
Revealed in rainbow spectrums brilliant with primary colors.
Mirroring the mind and thought and vision of God
As that vision pierces the mystery found in a human heart,
To fully comprehend each isolated soul.
And where we, we who are born from a word
Spoken from a tongue flaming with divine desire,
Become the intention and the passion and the sparks of creation
Meant to maintain and give birth beyond all measure.”
You may read the whole poem here if you wish, it is called, A Trinity of Thoughts.
In the Christian spiritual practice of Kenosis (Greek for Emptiness); we empty ourselves so that God may fill us with divine love and compassion. It’s a process really, a process for Christians of becoming Christlike, also known as Theosis.
Forms do become their opposites. This is clearly described in Gurdjieff’s description of the law of octaves or the law of 7 as it is sometimes called. Vibrations begin from a source, all forms are clumps of energy and matter vibrating, and continue on their path until a certain point, between mi and fa and again between si and do. The octave, form, at these intervals need additional energy to continue on their course. No additional shock at these points and the octave begins to fall and eventually makes a circle.
For me this universal law is interesting because I can witness its’ action in a discussion amongst people. The exchange goes up or down or in circles. I can also witness this law within my body. Do I remain the same or are there moments of transformation when the forms within me change because the light of Attention has finally illuminated their darkness?
When Shunryu Suzuki says it is more important to die than to live he is speaking of the death of the denser forms in me. Lawfully they must die…but I do not know why. But this does not mean that death is more important than living. Quite the contrary. I, we, need to be aware of the vibrations of life within and around us. Because in this we approach oneness, wholeness. I become more of the universe, of the Great All.
When one says think of what is to come, that is already a mistake a deviation from allowing something from above, A Greater Attention to manifest within me. To attempt with my puny self to ‘not think of what is to come’ is just more of the same ordinary way of being. Man cannot do. This is a fact which is in fact a blessing but in our usual way of understanding it we take it as a negative but that is only because one or the other forms of the lower states of attention cannot see very far.
In other words yes, ‘don’t cling’ but again this comes from where? Certainly not from any of my ordinary selves. Their very nature is to cling.
I was teaching Kundalini Yoga and it was the end of class. I told my students that sometimes a funny thing happens, my body disappears when I do yoga. I asked if that happens to anyone else. A few said that sometimes happens to me. Through the breath the body becomes wavelike…and then it returns.
Yes. It can be like that.