2021-01-05 Mindfulness of Breathing (2): Introduction
4:54PM Jan 5, 2021
Today I'd like to continue the introduction to the theme for this next period of time. So the theme is mindfulness of breathing. And specifically the, the teachings the Buddha gave, called ānāpānasati, the 16 stages or 16, steps to mindfulness of breathing. So to give a little further introduction to this.
The intimacy of breathing to the world, and to ourselves is quite phenomenal. And if we live kind of, in our thoughts the whole time, we might not really appreciate this great intimacy, cooperative nature, connected nature that we have with our world around us, and also to the world within us. And breathing is really a bridge to for us can be a bridge for us to kind of feel a deeper connection to the world, and a deeper connection to ourselves.
And to give you, you know, one example is that that a little bit more conceptual, but in a way that had a big impact on me when I was in college, I took a botany class. And I was sitting in this big amphitheater in Davis, California, when I went to college. And the professor was giving a drawing on the board, big diagrams with circular diagrams of the cycle of oxygen and carbon dioxide, and how this whole cycles have operated in nature and, and I was enthralled by this whole description. And I think I got maybe somewhat concentrated listening to it and involved in it. And then, and then, but then I, as I left and ended the class, walking out of this amphitheater, this big classroom, you come into this courtyard with some very big Valley Oaks, old, old big, large oak trees. And, and I just was stunned, I stood in the middle of the courtyard, and looked at these oak trees, having just heard about the cycles of oxygen and carbon dioxide and, and thought, "I could lose a kidney, I could lose an arm, I could lose an eye, I could lose all kinds of parts of my body. But I still depend on these plants, creating oxygen. They're in some ways more important to me than some of these parts of my own body."
So that was my thinking. And then I wondered, and this is kind of what kind of really kind of stopped my mind for a little bit, then a wonderful, delightful way. Then I thought, "In that case. Where do I stop? And where do the trees begin?" And I had this feeling that from this perspective I was doing, there was a continuity and there was no sharp line between me here and the trees there. Somehow we were in it together.
And the sense of intimacy, interconnectivity, mutuality, and mutual support was a very inspiring moment in my life - to feel that, to sense that. So feeling this connection, this intimacy, and some of that came became because I was somewhat concentrated. To be able to ride the breath and get concentrated clears the mind of the debris in the mind, the distractibility of the mind, so that we see with greater clarity. And there tends to be a feeling of intimacy and connection that comes from that.
And also turning the attention inward to the breathing is a way of also deeply connecting to ourselves. Because it turns out that the deeper we go into meditation, the more we can feel and see how the subtle adjustments and changes in the breathing have to do with our emotional and mental state. And our reactivity. It's possible, be very settled, and then see that when we start picking up a particular exciting thought, the breathing changes accordingly. And maybe the system thinks it needs more oxygen now in order to have more energy to kind of get engaged in this thing.
If it's just a certain emotions, even a little bit of anger, a little bit of fear, it affects the breathing. A little bit of clinging and attachment. And then we go through we realized that breathing is intimately connected to all these aspects of our psychology. And there's mutuality there, because one affects the other.
And if we can attend to the breathing, and really stay in the breathing, and let the breathing become easeful, relaxed, and natural - then that actually changes our psychology, our emotional states our mental states. And, and vice versa. But by really kind of getting into the breathing and seeing that connection, it's a way of settling in and harmonizing our inner mental life in a way that doesn't require understanding it in some deep way, or figuring it out, or analyzing it, or fixing it even. The breathing rectifies and harmonizes. To really trust and engage in the breathing.
So I say these two examples as a way of showing that the breathing is intimately connected to so much of human life, that it's well worth spending time really learning to connect to your breathing. Make it a habit. As you go through the day, just notice your breathing. It's been so beneficial for me to have this habit. Because I'll go into a store, I'll be talking in a conversation with someone, giving a Dharma talk, all kinds of things that I do. And the breathing will sometimes let me know that I've gotten caught, or getting involved, or a little bit roo attached to something, or a little bit over-involved somehow - because the breathing changes. And by having the breathing as a regular reference point, I sometimes catch myself, and see what I'm doing more quickly than if I was tracking all the complexity of my mind and what was going on there. So breathing is such a useful thing.
The Buddha - it seems the best records we have indicate that the primary meditation practice that Buddha himself did was mindfulness of breathing. There are stories or records of him going off and sitting from one to three months in the forest on a kind of self retreat. And when he came out, he would tell his followers, "During that retreat, I practiced mindfulness of breathing."
There's, for me, a very touching story of the Buddha, teaching mindfulness of breathing to his own son. His son was a teenager, and he looked a little bit like his father. The Buddha was certainly well respected in his time. So looking a bit like him, it may have been easy for a teenager to give birth to a little bit of vanity. And the Buddha seemed to pick this up. His son's name is Rāhula. And they were going for alms round together into the town. And as they were going there, the Buddha picked up on the vanity that his son had, and so, he turned around to his son and said this, "Rāhula, any kind of material form, whatsoever, whether past, future or present, internal or external - all material form should be seen as it actually is, with proper wisdom: "This is not mine. This I am not. This is not myself."" So anything that's physical, any physical shape, any physical characteristic that we have, not should not be seen as me, myself and mine. And, and so since it was this, how Rāhula thought he looked - his physical appearance - which he got caught by - Rāhula thought that he'd been outed, thought he'd been admonished a little bit by the Buddha's statement. So Rāhula went back to the monastery where they were staying in the forest, instead of going to get his daily meal. Then someone said to Rāhula, "You should really ask your dad to give you instructions in meditation." And so when the Buddha came back, Rāhula got instructions in meditation maybe for the first time. And after some preliminary instructions, the Buddha gave his son instructions in the 16 stages of breath meditation
And so, to me, it's very touching this closeness, this connectivity between the father and son. And the most important discourse on this mindfulness of breathing is called the Ānāpānasati Sutta - the sutta on breathing in and breathing out mindfully. And this also emphasizes this mutuality, this interconnectedness, this harmonious, unifying way that things can come together with breathing.
And, and so I guess I run out of time now, but tomorrow I'll, I'll do one more introductory talk on this topic, and discuss this very important discourse of the Buddho. This is usually the one we take as the instructions for these 16 stages. And, and, and then we'll start going getting into this topic more deeply.
So finally, I'll say that when I was studying Zen in Japan, where there's also was a big emphasis on mindfulness of breathing - one of my Zen teachers there said that all of Buddhism can be discovered through mindfulness of breathing, through attention to breathing. And, I more or less go along with that. To really care for, attend to, entrust yourself to, or be referenced to your breathing - all the things you need to know, all the things you need to discover to become really free and liberated will appear, will be part of that can come into play in its own time, its own way.
So intimacy with breathing, attending to breathing. And I hope that over time, that you'll come to really love the experience of breathing - that somehow there's love in attention to breathing - love in breathing and, and that you will be free.
So thank you so much, and I look forward to tomorrow.