On Breathing
by Jakuko Mo Ferrell

In Zen Mind Beginners Mind, Suzuki Roshi said, "When we practice zazen, all that exists is the movement of breathing, but we are aware of this movement. To be aware of this movement is to be aware not of your small self, but your universal nature or Buddha nature."

Sometimes when I try to be aware of my breath in zazen, I feel like I'm adding a little control to the process. For me it's difficult not to interfere with the quality of the breath in any way when watching it closely. Even so, I stay with the breath with as minimal effort, as I can. I notice how my breath is moving around and where it is obstructed. If I don't make some effort to bring awareness to my breath, I'm just sitting, thinking. I try to be careful not to change the breath, but to feel it lightly. It's tricky not to interfere, but I have experienced times when my mind and body are very calm. The breath is there on it's own just as it is. There's awareness and maybe curiosity, I'm just enjoying breathing. So I've experienced the difference between control and no control, but I can't make myself drop all control. It has to happen naturally when I'm not interfering.

Bringing your full attention to the breath can create gaps in the stream of thought. In A New Earth, Ekhert Tolle wrote, "As you focus on your breathing, gaps will occur in the stream of thinking... Don't worry about the duration of the gaps. Gradually they lengthen by themselves. Being aware of your breathing takes attention from thoughts and creates inner space. It is one way of generating consciousness. Be aware of your breath... Our conscious breath is enough to make some space where before, there was the succession of one thought after the other... Breathing isn't something you do, it is something you witness as it happens."

Larry Rosenberg, in Breath by Breath connects our breathing to our life. He said, "When we focus on the breath, we are focusing on our life force. Life begins with our first breath and will end with our last one. It makes sense that it would have a profound influence on all the moments in between. To contemplate breathing is to contemplate life itself."

When I give zazen instruction, I point out that in the Fukanzazengi, Dogen wrote, "Breathe naturally through your nose." That's all he says there. I let people know it is important not to try to make their breath a certain way, deep, long or calm, but to just notice how it is. My teacher, Josho has suggested that it can be helpful to find one place in your body to rest your awareness on the breath &emdash; your chest, or your upper or lower abdomen.

When I am becoming more sensitive to my breath, I notice that my breath is very sensitive to my state of mind. If it is entering and exiting easily or if it is short and tight, my breath reflects my state of being. When I'm worried, my body tightens and my breath is constricted. You can use awareness of the breath to see how the breath can show you your body and mind, how it becomes a bridge to the body and mind. During zazen instruction I suggest with each exhalation to try to fully let go. Let go of thoughts and feelings. Let go of any tightness you notice in the body as you exhale. As you breathe in, feel your knees, hips, back, shoulders, chest, abdomen, and with the exhalation, release anything you are holding.

When sitting for longer periods with awareness of your breathing, your breath may become deeper and finer and you may find the body becomes more relaxed. You can sit longer with more ease. One thing I have noticed happening after I have been sitting a while is, if I have gotten really lost in thought, sometimes I am pulled back to present by the pain in my right hip. My thoughts and feelings seem to cause my abdomen to tighten. The breath isn't moving freely and suddenly I notice my back or hip hurts. Then I come back to breath, letting go of tightness. As I exhale, focusing on the breath and body, I feel movement caused by breath, from the lungs, to diaphragm, to abdomen, to legs. Opening up and letting go will change the sensation in my hips and back.

Ed Brown, a disciple of Suzuki Roshi said, "You might notice when you sit, that the places that are hurting, you are not breathing into. When a place in your body feels pain, check to see if you're breathing there. Our tendency is to ignore and avoid places with pain. And literally the breath doesn't go there, it stops short. Can you allow the breath into the area of pain? It's very subtle. Like your legs experiencing pain. The lungs are not in the legs, but your legs will move on the inhalation and exhalation. You have to let go of the struggle between the way it is, and the way you want it to be."

Ed Brown talked about the breath another time, saying, "In practice when we follow the breath continuously, we are developing another kind of mind, a mind not concerned with how the breath should be. Just be with the breath exactly, precisely. It is not a mind different from the breath, it is the mind of the breath. So we practice letting go of the mind, of accomplishing, attaining, achieving. We practice entering the mind of the breath... This is opening, unfolding, blossoming, ... but we can't rush it. It's the work of a lifetime. Our breath is not just in the front of our body, but in the back, the stomach, the shoulders, We can touch the pain in our body with the breath softening around the pain. Breath inside breath, breath welcoming home the breath."

During a sesshin here in 2007, Ed Brown talked about realizing through the body and breath. He said, "Help your breath realize itself. We are usually directing our bodies, giving it instructions, 'Do this, do that,' rather than noticing how is my body and breath. For realizing the breath when you inhale, Don't say, 'Oh an inhalation, just as I expected it to be.' Your inhalation varies from your expectation of it. It is not like your conception of it. You don't have to think, Is this the right breath? A good one? The one I want? Set aside your ideas about the breath to have, should it feel like this? Is it where it should be?Just allow the breath to realize itself moment after moment. You are not training your breath, you are training your awareness to be subtle and soft enough to follow your breath where it goes. We want to be in charge, but allow your breath to be however it is. This is our compassion."

In The New Earth, Ekhart Tolle said, "The breath has no form. This is one of the reasons why breath awareness is an extremely effective way to bring space into your life, generating consciousness. The breath awareness forces you into the present moment, which is the key to all inner transformation. You may notice you cannot think and be 'aware' of your breathing."

While we are alive, we are breathing. You can't get closer to a transformational tool. And it's free. Out of a 24-hour day, if you want the breath to be transformative, you have to do more than follow your breath in zazen 40 minutes a day. Finding ways to practice breath awareness during the day is essential. We can't ignore the breath all day and sit down to meditate and expect our habitual thinking to just stop.

We don't live in forests or monasteries. Our lives include work, driving, surviving, etc. Many of our activities can include awareness of the breath, sweeping, doing dishes, driving, walking, brushing your teeth. I have a very fortunate line of work, sewing. I work by myself, which makes it easier to remember to return to breath and presence. I've also found breath and presence practice to support me as Tenzo when I have cooked for sesshin. To me the job is daunting –cooking for the sangha and the pressure of getting everything ready on time, making enough and not too much. The first days I worry a lot, and rush around. But as time and the days pass, and I am bringing my breathing and awareness to what's just at hand, just slicing the lemon, stirring the cereal, washing the lettuce, open to possibilities, I relax. I begin to enjoy just cooking, smelling, stirring, the heat, the fans, the expanding grains, the freshness of the moment.

© Copyright 2018 Jakuko Mo Ferrell

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