2021-01-12 Mindfulness of Breathing (7) Breathing and Mind
6:32PM Jan 12, 2021
So I think it's easy to spend much of your daily life not attending to breathing, not noticing it much. And it can seem like pretty inconsequential in some ways when we take it for granted. And, and not have that much importance compared to all the important things we're thinking about, imagining, and doing.
Maybe we can think of breathing as something that's very humble. It's just there to constantly support us, but maybe doesn't want to have a lot of attention. But even so, the more we're aware of breathing, and sensitive to breathing, the more we have access to all this information about ourselves.
One part of that information is how we hold the breath in check, where there's resistance in the breath. Or we're holding and not breathing in, or not exhaling properly, or breathing only partially, or parts of our body are held in tight. The belly is tight, and we're mostly doing chest breathing – all kinds of things that may be subtle – but subtle because they also indicate the state of our minds. Because they indicate the state of our minds, they're actually quite valuable to see and to know.
There's a reciprocal relationship that, as the mind gets tense, the breathing can get tense. As the body, the whole system, is tense – if we relax the breathing, and return to the breathing, then the rest of us can sometimes become less tense, for example. This wonderful intimacy with breathing is so beneficial in so many ways.
In the third step of ānāpānasati, the 16 steps that Buddha gave for breathing, the third step is to train oneself to become aware, or to experience the whole body as we breathe in, and the whole body as we breathe out. As I said yesterday, one of the meanings or interpretations of this is that it means the breath body – the full scope of how much the body participates in the experience of breathing.
What's interesting about the word for body – in Pali kāya – is that it seems to be used in a particular way. It can mean body, but there are other words for the physical body that are more related to the physical body than the word kāya. And, and the way that the word kāya is used – we can make a fun wordplay if you allow me – it's easy enough to say that our body is not what we think about. The body is not what we think it is. Because whatever we think the body is, is probably limited – not really the full scope of what the body is.
My interpretation of what the Buddha would say is similar to that – but going one step more, which makes it a bit of a paradox, irony, or mind-twisting statement. So the body is not what we think it is, because it is what we think it is. There are two levels here. It's not our surface thoughts, our ideas, our interpretation we live in, wherever the body is – the ideas we have. With kāya, the body is very much influenced by what we think, the attitudes we have, the mind, states we have. So kāya, the breath body that we're focusing on here, is that experience we have of the body. It is malleable, and is shaped by how our mind operates.
There are many levels in which that mutuality, that inter-relationship exists. If the mind gets tense, then the breathing gets held tight. If we have all kinds of attitudes, motivations, and activities that are generated from the mind – that will have an influence on how we breathe. As we meditate, as the mind gets calmer, so the breath body becomes calmer. As the mind gets stiller and less activated by a lot of thoughts and ideas, and it gets more subtle, the breathing becomes more subtle.
It's fascinating to sit and get calm and meditation, maybe very calm, very quiet. And then out of the blue – no choice on your part – the mind suddenly thinks about a conflict that you had with someone 25 years ago. And suddenly you feel a surge of anger about how you were treated or something. And now your breathing changes. Your breathing was soft, relaxed, at ease – and suddenly the breathing, the body, the chest, the diaphragm, the belly – everything gets tightened up. And the breathing now is limited, tight, and maybe speeded up.
So what happens in the mind, what we think, does have a big influence on our body, our breath, body. Part of what can make mindfulness of breathing so interesting, and so valuable, is because the breathing we experience – and the operating word is experience – what we perceive, we're experiencing it through the filter of the mind. And what we're experiencing is very much influenced by the state of the mind.
So the breathing is a doorway, a channel, to the mind. In a sense, as we're watching the breathing, we're also watching the mind with the breathing. It isn't that we're ignoring the mind, by focusing on the physical sensations of breathing. They're not just pure physical sensations. But the breathing is so intimately connected to the state of the mind, that we're actually having a window into the mind as we breathe. It doesn't have to be a window where we constantly think this and start imagining, "What am I seeing in the mind?" But it's almost like the mind and body in relationship to breathing are not that separate from each other.
So as we develop more mindfulness of breathing, more concentration with breathing, that very concentration and mindfulness is part of the mind that begins to shift and change. And so that shift and change then changes the breathing – which changes how we focus on the breathing, which changes the mind, which as the mind changes, it changes how we focus on breathing, how we're present for it.
So step by step, or spiral by spiral, there is a deeper and deeper connection to breathing. Part of what eventually makes mindfulness of breathing very engaging and absorbing can't be understood by someone who thinks that breathing is just a physical, mechanical thing. This intimacy between mind and body, and how connected they are – as we really get absorbed in breathing, something shifts and changes in the mind. And vice versa. To have this reciprocity go really deep – this intimacy, closeness, and actually a lot of goodness, a lot of beauty. A lot of wonderfulness arises from this because of this close connection between the two.
I'm hoping you don't hear this and now, strain or search or strive to see and expect it to be just this way. Mindfulness of breathing takes a tremendous amount of patience, willingness, allowance, humility, and openness. No hurry, not trying to strain, and not trying to experience what I'm saying automatically. I'm hoping that in what I teach today about this connection between mind and body will inspire you to be more patient, more accepting, more humble, more interested, and just okay: "Okay, I'm just here. I'm here for the ride. I'm here to ride the breaths coming and going. I'm here to let the breathing reveal itself to me. I'm here to allow the Dharma to show itself to me when the Dharma is ready. And I'm just here, doing my small piece – really trying to stay familiar, intimate, connected to the breathing – trusting the breathing.
What I did in the guided meditation about this whole breath body – some people might find that it's useful to ride the waves of expansion and contraction. And some people might find that it just helps them become more familiar with the territory of breathing. And they might still remain rooted in their home base, if they have one: the belly, the chest, the nostrils, or something.
And then as you go about your day, the next 24 hours, continue being a student of your breathing in daily life. Notice all the shifts and changes that happen to your breathing, depending on the activities you're doing, the conversations you're having, the emotions you have. Become more and more curious. Figure out some way to have a regular check-in with yourself through the day. Maybe have a timer go off regularly, "Oh, I'm breathing like this. No, it's like this." So more and more familiarity with breathing. Make it a habit.
Thank you for today, and happy breathing to all of you.