“When I am very much on the surface of myself, I have no freedom of action over letting go,” taught Madame de Salzmann. To experience the freedom of letting go, we must learn to sink down into the experience of just being here in a body, breathing. At certain moments, the simple act of breathing can seem like the essential act of living itself. I can feel as if I am breathing with life, with the earth as it rolls on, with time as it unfolds, as if my breathing links me with other beings in all times, with a greater unknown Whole.
“In becoming conscious of the act of breathing, we will understand better the laws governing life and how serving them brings meaning to our existence,” taught de Salzmann. One of the simplest and greatest laws to understand is that life passes. All the while we dream and think and thrash about in the net of tensions and emotional reactivity that traps us on the surface of our lives, our real life is rolling on below us, unnoticed. We plot and plan our escape from the surface of our lives but it can’t happen from there. To be free we must learn to sink deeply into what is.
“I find that I look for God by going down, by descending, and that another way of naming ‘going down’ would be to say, ‘going into the body,’” writes Joshua Boettiger in an essay for Parabola’s wonderful upcoming “Spirit in the World” issue. The rabbi relates a powerful story from Genesis about Isaac digging anew the wells of his father Abraham. “Rather than going up to God, this story says that we can find the right spot and dig in, and with commitment, with time, with faith, we break through into water—nourishment, sustenance, source.” Being with the experience of breathing, with the extraordinary ordinary experience of being alive in a breathing body, is a way to dig down into the source.
In every tradition and way there is digging to be done. At the end of the steps of the Buddha’s eightfold path, comes wisdom. After we have followed the map, after we have trod in the footsteps of the masters and learned skills, we are left to glimpse the larger laws of life in the unmapped territory of our own experience. Think of it as being alone in nature, left to make your own fire, left to read the signs.
Few people in the modern times know the steps of the noble eightfold path as well as Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi. In 1972, as his fellow young Americans protested the Viet Nam War and sought a way out of the confining materialism of the age, he left Western culture entirely, entering the Theravada Buddhist monastic order in Sri Lanka. Believing the best way to help the world was to work on himself, he lived in a monastery in Asia for decades. A master of Pali, the ancient Indo-Aryan language in which the earliest Buddhist texts are preserved, he translated, taught, and lived the way the Buddha called, “the way to the cessation of suffering.”
Yet, as he relates in a galvanizing an essay written for “Spirit in the World,” his understanding of the Buddhist path—and the spiritual path as a whole—led to a mindful yet momentous change in perspective: “Our task today, in my understanding, is to complement the ascending spiritual movement with a descending movement, a gesture of love and grace flowing down from the heights of realization into the valleys of our ordinary lives.”
Returning to the United States after decades in Asia, the accomplished monk learned more about global issues and observed how Buddhism was being assimilated in the West. It seemed to him Buddhism itself was being taken up as a path to personal fulfillment rather than a means of tackling the deepest roots of suffering both for oneself and others.”
The fruit of his concern was the founding of Buddhist Global Relief, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eradicating hunger, developing sustainable food production, and the education and livelihood of women and girls. Allowing that such activities may not square perfectly with the Buddhist orthodoxy that nurtured him, Ven. Bodhi writes “that sometimes one must give priority to one’s deep intuitions over officially sanctioned norms.”
We find our deep intuition by going down into the body, by going back to the very beginning of the path (any path), to the beginning of life itself, to the primordial experience of breathing.
*Please watch for “Spirit in the World.” investigates and celebrates many inner and outer journeys off the established map of higher truth, into wild territory of our own experience. May it inspire you. http://www.parabola.org/