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