carry on breathing…

Following on from my previous post about the breath, I would like to suggest that the breath meditation in Buddhist practice can take on a far greater significance than if we restrict ourselves to just a contemplation of simply its effects upon mindfulness. We can go on to contemplate the ways in which the breath illustrates in a very sensuous, immediate form, our utter dependence upon, and interdependence with, all other living beings and with the very landscape within which we breathe. Our breath is the living interaction we have with all of life, the literal connecting of ‘outer’ with ‘inner’ in a continuous two-way process that constitutes the most basic and essential rhythm of not only life but our awareness, our mindfulness, and our speech and language, and all the other forms of communication that comes from speech. David Abrams, in his book, The Spell of the Sensuous: perception and language in a more-than-human world, talking about the air we breathe, says that it is:

…this unseen enigma is the very mystery that enables life to live. It unites our breathing bodies not only with the under-the-ground (with the rich microbial life of the soil, with fossil and mineral deposits deep in the bedrock), and not only with the beyond-the-horizon (with distant forests and oceans), but also with the interior life of all that we perceive in the open field of the living present – the grasses and the aspen leaves, the ravens, the buzzing insects and the drifting clouds. What the plants are quietly breathing out, we animals are breathing in; what we breathe out, the plants are breathing in. The air, we might say, is the soul of the visible landscape, the secret realm from whence all beings draw their nourishment. As the very mystery of the living present, it is that most intimate absence from whence the present presences, and thus a key to the forgotten presence of the earth.

This is just wonderful! The key to reconnecting ourselves in a deep way with nature and therefore to developing a respect for the natural limits we must work within for a sustainable future, which is the key to solving the greatest challenge mankind has ever had to face – namely, the threat of catastrophic climate change due to runaway global warming – is literally right under our noses! By perceiving our breath as our sacred reminder of our embodiment within all of nature and with all living beings, we are therefore empowered to recognise that we are, all of us, nature itself, that all of nature breathes through us and that to care for nature is to care for ourselves and all other living beings at the same time. As Abrams says:

For it is the air that most directly envelops us; the air, in other words, is that element that we are most intimately in. As long as we experience the invisible depths that surround us as empty space, we will be able to deny, or repress, our thorough interdependence with the other animals, the plants, and the living land that sustains us. We may acknowledge, intellectually, our body’s reliance upon those plants and animals that we consume as nourishment, yet the civilized mind still feels itself somehow separate, autonomous, independent of the body and of bodily nature in general. Only as we begin to notice and experience, one again, our immersion in the invisible air do we start to recall what it is to be fully a part of this world.

After having read this, my breathing meditation will never be the same again. It will take on a depth and meaning even greater than it already does, and it will hopefully not only increase my mindfulness but also help to deepen and strengthen that compassionate wish to help all living beings that is at the basis of any bodhisattva path.

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breathing life into meditation…

Yesterday I started to resume a daily meditation routine after several months of not being able to do so for various reasons, and one of my New Year resolutions was to do so assuming that I would have to start all over again, from the beginning, asasuming I was completely lacking in any real Dharma knowledge or skill (probably true anyway!). I tried to adopt a ‘beginner’s mind’. But where to begin? With what is most obvious, for me anyway: resting in the simple awareness of my breath. Afterwards, this led to the following contemplation:

We humans are, like all other phenomena, dependent-related phenomena, and the most important phenomena, both in terms of number and degree of dependency, are all those phenomena in the natural world, in our immediate eco-system, that we are interacting with, that we are inextricably linked with. An immediate example is the air itself, containing the vital oxygen that we breathe in continuously in order to fuel the chemical and physiological transformations within our bodies that sustain our life moment by moment. Even if one has no scientific knowledge at all, a phenomenological appreciation of the mere fact of breathing reveals one’s dependence upon the whole atmosphere around oneself, an atmosphere that appears to fill the whole of space, to be limitless, inexhaustible, and to have no boundaries, and that merely to hold one’s breath for long  enough is to immediately create increasing physical distress which can only be alleviated by resuming breathing.

It is no coincidence that one of the most basic meditations in Buddhism is focussing and sustaining attention upon the breathing process, which is at the core of our embodiment within the natural world that is our life-support system’. Our breathing breathes life both into our meditation and generates awareness of our dependence upon ecological phenomena for our very awareness itself. By becoming more aware of the actual process of breathing we automatically become aware of awareness itself, which co-originates with the intake of air itself. Perhaps this union of in-breathed air with awareness is behind the long association of breath with spirit,  pneuma,  prana. But for me, the breath is proof of the embodiment of awareness within the ‘material’ or ‘physical’ world. even though awareness feels, especially in its reflexive mode, as being ‘non-material’, as transcending the material world, or as an emergent property of the material world, as somehow a phenomenon separate from the material world. The Buddha appears to have known that the breath is such a potent gateway to a deepening of mindfulness precisely because it is such an obvious and easy gateway towards a greater awareness of the myriad of ways in which the many mutually interacting, and mutually dependent, mental and physical sensations and processes that make up the human consciousness of the world. Just by following the breath deeper into its constituent and supportive physical processes and then going further into following all the subtle mental and emotional processes that are concomitant, or associated,  with the breath, one can actually traverse the entire route to enlightenment, as outlined in the sattipattana sutta.

At no stage in the development of the breathing meditation could this dependence of the breath, and hence of our entire existence as a living being, upon the wider natural world, ever be forgotten, as the breath responds in every way to the condition of our environment. fresh air invigorates, stale air debilitates. breathing air in a room filled with fragrant incense and/or flowers can have a dramatic effect on the quality of meditation. Prehaps holy sites where much meditation, contemplation and prayer has gone on has air add qualities to the air that makes breathing the air there particularly powerful; not for nothing do we talk about the ‘atmosphere’ of a place or building. And, of course, we all breathe within the same atmosphere, we share the same air, so we are all connected to each other and all living beings through the air itself. By polluting the air in any way, we are harming all loving beings to some degree. And we are as humans, polluting the atmosphere in a colossal way through our collective carbon emissions with consequent colossal consequences for all living beings. A very natural way, therefore, to become more environmentally aware is simply to be more aware of our breath and its key role in all of our own life, both physical and mental, and in the life of all beings.