2021-01-14 Mindfulness of Breathing (9) Breathing with the Body
4:33PM Jan 14, 2021
So we're continuing with the third step of this 16 steps of breathing that the Buddha taught. And these 16 steps are divided into what's called tetrads – groups of four. And there are four steps in this first tetrad. And we're now in the third one. This step says that one trains oneself to experience the whole body when breathing in, and while breathing out experiencing the whole body.
One of the ways to interpret this is, in fact, to have a global awareness of the body. And the body, kāya, is very important in Buddhism. The body that we 'have' is not quite the right language in Buddhism, but rather the body we experience. The kāya is the body we experience. And it's a little bit distinct from our physical body. In ordinary life, the two are completely connected, of course. But the body that we are experiencing is dependence on how the mind operates – on the selection process of the mind, the concerns of the mind, the states states of mind, the level of concentration level or of mindfulness we have.
It's possible to have some kind of concern about one's body. Once my attention keeps going to that part of the body, just focused on that, is a selection process. Some of that might be that part of the body ails us. Or it might have to do with our physical appearance – that somehow our forehead is too high, our nose is too big or too small, or all kinds of things we do. And so we experience our body through the filter of our concerns about appearance. And so there's a kind of body consciousness.
If we get afraid of our body, and have anxiety about it – the very fear that the mind has the projections, the fantasies about the future – the body ever so slightly shifts and changes in response to that. It tightens up. If we're full of desires, or want something, or there are moods, emotions, desires, or motivations – it's like all have tentacles, threads that reach out into our muscles. And the muscles respond and react in all kinds of ways, depending on what's going on in the mind.
So, we start becoming aware of this. When we sit and meditate, we're working with this – the interface between the mind and the body. So as we start settling into meditation, we start encountering the body more and more fully. But it's not, as I said, the physical body. It's this interface between the physical body and the mind. Or it's how the mind influences the body – the effect the mind has on the body.
I used to have very high shoulders when I was quite young, I had anxiety and fear. And, and so I held it in my shoulders. And that tension in the shoulders is a mind source. The fear in the mind and the heart impacts the body. And as I sat and meditated, I became acutely aware of these shoulders of mine. There were times I would sit in meditation with a lot of pain in my shoulders. Not because anything was wrong, but because I was encountering the chronic tension there. And it was beginning to work itself out, and relax, and let go. It took a while to do that.
Same thing with my belly. I held my belly in for a long time – tight and contracted – and that was born from what was going on my mind, my emotional life, my inner life. And as I started feeling more trust, more ease in life, that belly started to relax. Or as I started to relax the belly, that affected my mind, and my mind started to relax more as well. So this interface between the two. And so what we're encountering in meditation is the mind's impact on the body.
That's a little bit what's being worked on. That's why it's so interesting and so fascinating when deepening to begin including the body in meditation. Because while initially it might just feel like we're just encountering the physical body and physical pain and all that, really, we're also encountering this meeting place of mind and body. And then fascinatingly, one of the ways that Buddha refers to this body of ours, another word that he uses the word loka. This word is a common word in Pali, the Buddhist language, and is also used for the 'world.' The world is loka.
Kāma loka is the sensory world in which we live. But the Buddha also used the word loka to refer to this fathom-long body – this psychophysical body we have. He said that you experience everything here. The experience of liberation, the experience of practice, are all occurring within this loka – this physical loka here within this body – loka.
The fact that the same word is used for world and for our body also points to this interface between the world around us and our physical body. This is the interface between the mind and the body. And so there's interrelatedness there as well. So if we really just sit in the body, it puts us in this wonderful bridge – to the mind and to the world around us. Exactly what the relationship between this physical world of ours and the world around us – that's maybe best to be discovered.
But certainly the physical body picks up a lot that goes on in the world. And then we learn to be present for it in mindfulness. You find a lot of emphasis on mindfulness of the body in Buddhism, and becoming embodied. The body is not a physical lump of stuff. It's intimately connected to the depths of who we are, and how we live our lives. And it can open to that depth as well.
And it's a fantastic partner for us on the path to liberation, freedom from suffering. The body is really a way to tune in. The more we tune in to our body, the more we pick up on the subtlety. And subtlety doesn't mean inconsequential. But some of the deepest stuff, the subtle stuff is easier to access through the body than only through the mind.
One way we see this emphasis on the importance of the body is here in this first tetrad, with the third exercise being: breathing in experiencing the whole body, breathing out experiencing the whole body. And we'll see when we get to the fourth one that it also includes the body.
And this first tetrad – the first four steps – all appear in the three major teachings the Buddha gave on mindfulness: the "Four Foundations of Mindfulness," the discourse on breathing mindfully in and out – the "Ānāpānasati Sutta," and the "Discourse on Mindfulness Directed to the Body." These contain the most complete instructions the Buddha gave on mindfulness of the body. And all of them begin with this first tetrad, where the third and fourth part of it has to do with the body. So this is a big plug for the value of staying with a body.
And then this wonderful art skill of breathing with, accompanying. One of the skills in hospice, when people are dying, they sometimes teach is that when a person is dying – and you maybe you can't communicate too much with them – is to breathe with them. Tune into their rhythm of breathing, and breathe with them. Sometimes there's a sense that there is a kind of communion that goes on that way. Exactly the nature of that communion is open for question. But it can be a quite a profound thing to be breathing with someone – accompanying someone in their breathing.
It's also a very profound thing to accompany ourselves with our breathing. And it's very valuable to use our breathing to accompany ourselves in other ways as well. And so to breathe with our body, to breathe with the whole body, to breathe with the challenges of our body, or if there's physical pain. I've done that many times – to stay with my breathing, but also have a careful attention to the place where there's pain in my body. And by doing so, I'm both doing the important work of mindfulness of the pain and the discomfort, of not denying it, resisting it, or pushing away from it. And I'm also not getting stuck or frozen around it – or reactive to it as easily, because the rhythm, the massage of breathing in and breathing out keeps the mind more fluid, more relaxed. It keeps it from tightening up, getting stuck. This art to breathing with experience.
And sometimes I have the sense, partly maybe imagination, that I'm breathing through different parts of my body. And that's quite nice for me, that imagination. But sometimes just breathing with. So you might try this, to breathe with your life, to breathe with the different things going on. As you go about activities in daily life – maybe some simple ones that are not that complicated. See what happens if you breathe with the activity. So you're really aware of your breathing as you're doing whatever activity you do.
One of the fascinating places to do this is if you're on the computer – to really track your breathing as you're on the computer. Maybe sit and meditate for two minutes before you start using your computer. Tune into your breath. Have a relaxed breath. And then stay with that relaxed breath. Stay attuned to your breathing, as you're with your computer, and see if you can keep it – accompanying the computer work with mindfulness of breathing. And probably if you do that, you'll start learning all kinds of things about yourself. All kinds of ways in which you hold your breath, or speed up your breath.
And you'll see this interface. You'll begin understanding how much mindfulness of breathing, and accompanying our life with breathing, can inform and teach us about life. Maybe more importantly, it can help us stay more relaxed, at ease, not caught up in things.
So mindfulness of breathing, breathing in experiencing the whole body, breathing out experiencing the whole body. Great. Thank you very much.