2022-01-11 Satipaṭṭhāna (6) Breathing Aware of the Whole Body
4:05PM Jan 11, 2022
Good day. We continue to help you explore your capacity for awareness, for attention, and how attention to breathing can be supportive and helpful. One of the ways it is helpful is that the more you can be connected to your breathing – following the rhythm of breathing in and breathing out – the less mental energy, attention, is available to feed thinking. If all our attention, mental energy, goes into thinking we reinforce it. If what we are thinking about is not helpful, debilitating even, then we are reinforcing unhelpful trains of thoughts.
But if we pour our attention into the simplicity of breathing, that is considered in Buddhism to be very wholesome and helpful. That leads to good states of mind.
Some people might feel their concerns are so important that they have to think them. Some people cannot help it because there is so much energy in thinking. Even if they do not want to, the mind is pulled into it strongly.
It may help to consider that sometimes we have to retreat from certain challenges – to get refreshed, or put ourselves in a good state of mind – so that we can come back and address them better. That is one of the functions of meditation. Not to withdraw from life and not be part of it. Rather to step away, in a sense, by closing your eyes, meditating, and not being involved in the usual thing. More importantly, to step away from the mind's preoccupation with things long enough to get refreshed. Then to return with better inner eyesight and wisdom to address our challenges.
The rhythm of breathing is a place that may help. There is something about rhythms of things that is easier to stay with and follow, like the rhythm of the waves washing across the shore. Some people could sit and watch this for a long time – just watching it, something about it. If it were a completely still lake, with the water not moving, this does not invite the same kind of absorption would water with movement.
A flowing river, for example – it is possible to watch that for a long time. Or watching a fire in the fireplace – watching all the patterns of moving, coming and going, appearing and disappearing. It is much more stressful, if you fixate your attention on a single point and not move it. There is something about the eyes moving gently. The mind moving gently, following something lightly without doing work – without stress, being very relaxed about it.
With the breathing, the idea is to find that place of relaxed attention, like you are watching a river flow by. To watch the movements in the rhythm of breathing in and breathing out. If you are too focused on being concentrated, bearing down on it, that is actually stressful. If you do not have enough attention on the breathing, the mind will wander off into thought.
The middle way – between not having enough attention and having too much tight attention – is an alertness of the mind that is relaxed. An engagement with breathing, that is more like play or love, than it is like work. It does involve some getting absorbed, getting involved in it, settling in.
That is one of the reasons why sometimes I give these images that go along with it. Like today I gave the image of a bird, soaring on the inbreath. Somehow you know the updraft as the inhale. As the movements of the body go up, expand, you imagine that is like your wings catching that updraft. Maybe it is more compelling to ride it up, and then gliding down again with the exhale. That might give a sense of how to do this without a lot of work, but stay closely connected to the breathing.
Another image I like a lot, and have also used, is of waves washing up across the sandy shore, back and forth. I do not know if that works for all of you, but it is something that helps me find the right balance between not being tight or forceful in the attention, but also not too lax with it. Just right there.
With time, this is self-reinforcing. With time, as more attention goes into breathing and less into thinking, the mind finds it more easy to become absorbed, to be present for the breathing. One of the things that can also help with the breathing is these current instructions. It is not just the breathing – but to ride the breath, be with the breath, and experience the whole body. Experience the whole breath body as all the different ways in which the movement of breathing comes into play in the body.
Both coarse, bigger movements of the chest, diaphragm or belly – and more subtle ones, like in the back ribcage. If you are very sensitive, you can feel little movements of the spine as you breathe. Maybe the upper spine can move. Sometimes I can feel it right down into my hip joint – I can feel ever so slightly an alternating sense of pressure and release as I breathe in and breathe out. The shoulders can move.
This expansion into that breath body experience, the sensations of breathing. As we are aware of that, sometimes that is also a place where you feel your emotions. Maybe you feel sadness in the area of the heart. That is in the area of the chest expanding as you breathe. Include that as part of experiencing the whole body – not as an emotion at this point in the practice, but as more physical sensations.
It is almost like, as the waves wash across the sand, maybe there is some seaweed there that washes around a sandcastle someone built. It mostly washes around it. It is untroubled by it – just comes and goes, washes around it, to the side of it, and slowly the sandcastle dissolves.
It may be that some of the difficult emotions dissolve, if we just let them rock, move, and be washed over. The more important thing than it dissolving is to have the experience of feeling the physicality, the sensations of emotions, without being troubled by them, without making a story about ithem.
When we feel emotions as emotions, many of us have ideas, beliefs, concerns, and identifications with them, sometimes making our emotions more complicated than they need to be. To just feel the emotions, in the physicality of the sensation – in this rhythm of breathing in and breathing out – moving through you, and just feeling back and forth, back and forth. No matter what happens, not being concerned with what happens with the emotions. Just be concerned with moving through them, back and forth.
You know I like the idea of petting a cat. Whatever is going on, sensations moving through the body, awareness is like stroking the cat, stroking the cat, whether the sensations are difficult or not. What we are learning here is how to stay involved with breathing, without getting pulled away into the world of the mind – thoughts, ideas and concerns.
As I have said before, this is not meant to be a denial, pushing away, or dismissing how we are feeling. It is very respectful to feel the physicality of it without adding all this stuff on top. Also it is a way of becoming refreshed or creating more clarity, so that we have a more useful way of being present for the challenges of our life. Unlike the usual way we may have, bringing so much baggage as we go along.
Learning to breathe through and with experiences is one of the great skills that can come from this practice. Whatever is happening, breathe with it, through it, stay grounded in your breathing. Learn how to breathe with it, breathe through it. You might find that you end up being more balanced that way. You might find that you become less reactive or tense. Just breathe with whatever is happening.
In this teaching of the Buddha, the Buddha begins by emphasizing taking a supportive meditation posture, and establishing awareness with the breathing. This is where we are anchored. This is where we are going to be rooted for the meditation and the breathing. Of course, it is not easy to be rooted there, but that is the understanding.
Then become aware of what breathing feels like – the sensations of breathing. Get more familiar with it. Hang out with breathing and stay with it, especially with the rhythm of the breathing. As you get settled into it, then as you breathe in, feel the whole breath body. Feel the whole influence that the movements of breathing have in the body. And as you exhale, feel the whole influence.
I use the word "influence" because there are a lot of different ways in which breathing can affect us. It affects not only the physical movements of the body, but it can include relaxation, opening, or softening. There are all kinds of emotional impacts that the motion of breathing can have. Have the sense of allowing yourself to be influenced by the breathing, being open. Rather than being the one who is directing the show, be the one who is receiving the full experience of breathing in throughout the body, the full experience of breathing out throughout the body.
I hope that this kind of encouragement around breathing – exploring and discovering it – encourages you to take your time to become more familiar with your breathing, and more familiar with the skill of breathing "with" things – what is happening, breathing through, breathing with the whole body, staying connected there. Even sometimes when you are talking, or engaged in work, what happens if you are breathing with that experience? Even if you have meditated for a long time, I think there is always room to discover more, and find greater value with breathing.
If this appeals to you, you might spend the next 24 hours with this experience of breathing in experiencing the whole body, breathing out experiencing the body. Really feeling that experience. Get familiar with it. Make it second nature to be connected to it. Discover all the things that open up when you are with your body, with your breathing, which maybe will not open up if you stay locked into your mental concerns and thoughts.