Rediscovering the Breath
by Ruben Habito
Excerpted from Healing Breath (Orbis Books)
It seems that most of us living in this fast-paced contemporary society have actually forgotten how to breathe. Not that we have ceased to perform the biological function whereby we inhale this invisible mixture of gases, including oxygen, that we need for sustaining life, and exhale what we don’t need, including carbon dioxide, which plants in turn need for their biological life. We do this largely unconsciously, and so we maintain ourselves in our physiological existence without having to be aware that it is happening most of the time. What we would like to note here is that breathing, for most of us, has come to be nothing but that – a mere biological function that our lungs take care of for us as we wake and go to sleep, day in and day out. We have come to take breathing for granted.
One of my earliest memories as a child was when my mother took me to a funeral service held at a house a few blocks walking distance from ours, in my hometown in the Philippines. My mother held me by the hand as we lined up in the living room parlor to pay our last respects to the deceased, whom I gathered was a distant uncle that I did not recall too well in life. As we approached the coffin, I recall being lifted up and made to look very closely at the face of the deceased lying in state. That early face-to-face encounter with death left a deep impression upon me. As we were walking home, I remember asking my mother, as I held her by the hand,
“Inay (mother in Tagalog, my native tongue), why do people die?”
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As always, Mother had a way of dealing with my troublesome questions, and I clearly recall how she answered me then, without batting an eye, “That’s because they forget to breathe!” This answer left a mark on me and left me worried, and I took a deep breath or two right then, to make sure I too didn’t forget. I remember how I almost couldn’t sleep that night, anxious that I might forget to breathe in my sleep.
This early childhood memory serves as a landmark in my journey toward the awareness of the significance of the breath and its transformative and healing power. It was not until years later, as I came to Japan in my early twenties and began Zen practice under an authentic Zen master in Kamakura, that this awareness took on a new level.
With the three-pointed practice of zazen involving posture, breathing, and mind quieting, one is naturally led to a deeper familiarity with the workings of the breath in one’s life. One notices, for example, that as one goes about one’s normal activities from day to day, one’s breathing varies as the pace of these activities heightens or decreases. One tends to breathe in a shallow and hurried way, for example, as one becomes flustered with the way things are going. As one finishes a task or overcomes some difficulty, one heaves a sigh of relief. Different states of mind occasion different kinds of breathing. Also, as one goes through daily life without paying attention to one’s breathing, it is easy to get dispersed into many different directions and feel a lack of a sense of unity or cohesion in one’s life.
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In seated meditation, with one’s back straight, one is enjoined to breathe naturally but deeply, intentionally and slowly, so that the breathing is centered on the lower diaphragm. One thus becomes aware that it is the whole body, not just the lungs, that participates, or rather, partakes, in the breathing. And as one becomes more and more familiarized with this way of breathing while doing zazen, this way of real-izing one’s connectedness with the breath flows into what one does after zazen. One finds oneself breathing more easily and with a greater sense of relaxation and satisfaction.
This process of familiarization with the breath is what we experience as we go on in our practice: the connection between our zazen and the rest of our daily life, taking the fourfold posture given above, gyo-zen, or Zen in action, ju-zen, or Zen in passivity or relaxation, and ga-zen, or Zen in horizontal position, that is, even while one is asleep, in addition to zazen, comes to be realized more and more.
One helpful way of enhancing this awareness of the connection is by taking advantage of those odd or idle moments in our day, such as while waiting for a red light to turn green at an intersection, while waiting for an appointment, or in the interval that naturally takes place as one goes from one task to another, and during those moments, intentionally taking a deep breath or two, placing oneself in the here and now where one is. As one is able to catch those moments and bring them back to the here and now with the help of the breath, one actually notices the qualitative difference in the way one lives one’s day. Instead of losing those moments fidgeting or getting impatient or anxious, one finds that those moments become connectors that tie one’s life together, back to the living center where it originates — the here and now.