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Tag Archives: breathing

Joanna Macy writes:

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As the rug is progressively pulled out from under us, it is easy to panic, and even easier to simply shut down. These two instinctive reactions — panic and paralysis — are the roadside ditches that border our pathway to a livable future. To fall into either one is the greatest of all the dangers we face, for they deaden the heart and derail the mind. If ever we needed spiritual practices and disciplines for staying alert and connected, it is now. The greatest gift we can give our world is our presence, awake and attentive. What can help us do that? Here, drawn from ancient religions and Earth wisdom traditions, are a handful of practices I have learned to count on.

1. Breathe

Our friend the breath is always with us. When we pay attention to its flow, it merges mind with body, and connects inner world with outer world. Mindfulness of breathing in and breathing out can center and steady you. “Feel how your breathing makes more space around you,” writes the poet Rilke. “Pure, continuous exchange with all that is, flow and counterflow where rhythmically we come to be.” Notice that you are not deciding each time to exhale or inhale; it’s rather that you’re being breathed. Breathed by life. And so are all the other animals, and plants too, in vast rhythms of reciprocity. Feel that web enlivening you and holding you. The felt flow-through of matter/energy brings a measure of ease, and opens us to the flow-through of information as well. This lowers our usual defenses against distressing information, and begins to unblock the feedback loops, so we can more clearly perceive what we’ve caused to happen.



the ‘me’ is extra

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The late Shunryo Suzuki 鈴木 俊隆, founder of the Zen Center of San Francisco, offers these instructions on breath meditation:

When we practice [meditation] our mind always follows our breathing. When we inhale, the air comes into the inner world. When we exhale, the air goes out to the outer world. The inner world is limitless, and the outer world is also limitless. We say ‘inner world’ or ‘outer world’, but actually there is just one whole world. In this limitless world, our throat is like a swinging door. The air comes in and goes out like someone passing through a swinging door.

If you think, ‘I breathe’, the ‘I’ is extra. There is no you to say ‘I’. What we call ‘I’ is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale. It just moves; that is all. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no ‘I’, no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door.

source: Suzuki, S. (1973). Zen mind, beginner’s mind: informal talks on Zen meditation and practice. Weatherhill. This quote is actually from the 2011 edition, p. 11.

look no further (sunday poem)

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Are you looking for me? I am in the next seat.
My shoulder is against yours.

You will not find me in stupas, not Indian shrine rooms,
nor in synagogues, nor in cathedrals;

not in masses, nor kirtans, not in legs winding around your own neck,
nor in eating nothing but vegetables.

When you really look for me, you will see me instantly —
you will find me in the tiniest house of time.
Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath within the breath. 

Bly, R. (1977). (trans). The Kabir book. Boston: Beacon Books, p. 33.

be here now

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There were eight of us in last night’s mindfulness class, including five nurses: active, retired, students. We practiced following our in-breaths, then our out-breaths, noting the gap in between. We walked in the garden, bringing attention to the bottom of our feet. We did standing stretches, extending arms and hands to feel our full reach. We lay flat on the floor, sensing our weight and scanning our bodies from bottom to top, bringing oxygen and awareness to parts taken for granted.

Saki Santorelli, director of the stress reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School calls mindfulness “an act of hospitality.

A way of learning to treat ourselves with kindness and care that slowly begins to percolate into the deepest recess of our being while gradually offering us the possibility of relating to others in the same manner.”

No wonder that professional caregivers gather to learn in this way. They give and give to others everyday. Many get burned out, experience ‘compassion fatigue,’ become discouraged, even bitter. So they (we) return to the beginning: noting one in-breath at a time, all the way till it reaches the still point, then noting the exhale, just as attentively. 

“With every breath I take, I am at home,” Master Dogen (1200-1253) tells us. A healthy person breathes between 15 and 20 times per minute, 900 to 1200 per hour. How many of those have I spent away from “home,” distracted and unaware?

sources: Santorelli, S. (2011). Letting ourselves heal. Mindfulness (magazine). Boston: Shambhala, p. 19. The “be here now” in the heading comes from the bestselling book by Ram Dass (1971, Random House).

breathing as one

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Yesterday afternoon a patient who’d been at hospice for almost ten weeks—well beyond the more common length of time averaging less than a week—took his last breath. We’d sat together two days earlier, before my days-off. By now he’d finally found sleep through a combination of end-of-life exhaustion and pain-controlling medication. I remember sitting close to him in his non-responsive state, holding one of his gnarled hands and stroking his unkempt hair … whispering to assure him of my love in that moment and thanking him for a life bravely lived.

His brother sat across from us, sipping from a mug of tea, taking advantage of a break to walk around, stretch, and view the tableau from a small distance. Tears rolled from my eyes onto the patient’s mechanics of breathhands: not of sadness exactly, simply tears. My heart felt light and, as best as I can articulate, non-existent (or not separate from his). Those where not my tears, they were his also, and his mother’s and brother’s who had taken turns at the bedside for weeks. As my breathing naturally aligned to his, boundaries dissolved and we were breathing as one. That one of us might die before the other did not occur to me; besides, it was not a certainty.

Many meditative practices are grounded in observing breath—how could they not as it serves as a constant reminder of living and being born (inhale) and dying and letting go (exhale). As one Sufi master puts it:

With each cycle of the breath we make a conscious connection with the inner world. … As we breathe out, the energy of life (prana in Sanskrit) flows from the inner plane into manifestation. With each in-breath this energy returns to its place of origin. The work of the wayfarer is to bridge the two worlds, to connect the inner and the outer planes. … With each cycle of the breath we consciously participate with the flow of creation, with the primal dynamic of all life as it comes from the source into the outer world of form, and then returns to its origin. (Vaughan-Lee, 2000)

In copying these lines a new view of breathing opens before me. Till now I’d thought that everything starts with the in-breath (from outside to the inside), but the mystics put it the other way ‘round. Don’t we say that at time of death someone “takes a last breath”? Perhaps they do so to return to their origin.

source: Vaughan-Lee, L. (2000). Love is a fire: the sufi’s mystical journey home. Inverness, CA: The Golden Sufi Center, p. 172.

our monday poem (david whyte)

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For the last two mornings I’ve sat with a group of yoga students on retreat. We meditated mostly in silence … embracing great-dane1the chatter of three male ducks, the bark of a puppy named Gunnar, and my incantations to guide us. Rising and falling, notice your breath. Expanding contracting, breathe with your heart. This moment, and this …

I have only this breath
and this presence
for my wings
and they carry me
in my body
whatever I do
from one hushed moment
to another

Excerpt from “What I must tell myself.” © 2004 David Whyte. In: The house of belonging. Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press, p. 15.

rising and falling

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The basic tool in meditation is to count breaths: 1=inhale, 2=exhale, 3=and-so-on-till-you-reach-10 and start again. Whenever your mind wonders off, start again from one. I don’t do all that well with this method: my mind wanders all over the place and I rarely make it past three.

A monk in Thailand taught me to place the palm of one hand on my belly, about a hand’s width above the navel. And, as the belly expands and contracts, to silently say the words “rising” and “falling.” I find this very helpful. It gives my chattering mind something to do, provides my body with a tactile reminder, and generally helps me stay focused. Monkey mind wonders off less frequently and when it does, I escort the mind’s attention to the hand on my belly. Again and again.

I host a twice-weekly meditation group at work. It’s a joy to see a volunteer, a physician, a patient in a wheelchair, a nurse, and someone from the office sitting together for half-an-hour. We typically end a session by expanding our awareness to people who aren’t sitting with us: patients in their beds, loved-ones at the bedside, and fellow-workers. This opens our heart of compassion as we meditate for the benefit of all beings.