Meditation and Breathing
You’re doing it right now.
You’re going to do it perhaps 30,000 times today, waking and sleeping, waiting and working, standing and sitting. You’ll do it deeply, or not; you’ll take your time, or not; it will indicate tiredness, or wakefulness, or boredom, or excitement. Everyone who has ever lived, or ever will, finds this essential. The great unifying activity of humanity is the simplest: breathing.
But ask yourself this: How many of those 30,000 individual breaths will have your undivided attention?
I was learning to Scuba dive a few years back and my instructor assured me that diving was the best form of exercise someone might ever do ‘without realizing that you’re doing it’. We breathe unconsciously, the steady expansion and contraction of our lungs based on a deeply ancient mammalian instinct to fill the body with nourishing air; we don’t even have to think about it, and my guess is that the majority of us give not a thought to the gusts of refreshing oxygen passing through our respiratory systems. We take each of these daily 30,000 breaths for granted.
Perhaps that’s just as well; to struggle for each breath would be a living nightmare – ask anyone with emphysema. The ease and facility with which we breathe, though, leads to a certain ‘respiratory arrogance’, the assumption can simply ignore our breath. Those who choose to devote attention to it, however, find that within each breath is not simply a ‘moment’ but a small universe, welcoming and eminently available, to be observed and enjoyed.
I like to think of a breath as a spacious park, resplendently verdant and sunlit. It is a place of relaxation and complete peace, offering both literal and spiritual sustenance. I depend existentially on the gas exchange provided by each inhale-exhale cycle, and I depend for my own cerebral wellbeing on access to the clear, open spaces a breath provides. To truly fill one’s lungs with fresh air, to inhabit that moment of drawing-in and letting-out as if one had chosen deliberately to dwell within it, these are representations of our true bodily selves. We may imagine ourselves elsewhere, doing something different, but in actual fact, the breath shows us – reminds us, insists to us – that we are simply here, doing this.
And that’s all we are ever going to have. This thing, right now. We might have chosen to focus on the sensations of warm water cleansing us in the morning shower, or on the taste of our lunch sandwich, or on the harmonies of the music we enjoy. Whatever we choose, it should make available the infinite expanse contained in each given moment. You’ll have found, or perhaps be in the process of finding, your own method of focus, but for millions of past and present meditators, including myself, the breath represents the tree of spiritual progress which offers the lowest-hanging fruit.
After all, taking a breath is easy. Well over two hundred trillion of them will happen on planet Earth today. Most will be entirely ignored as functional, simply fuel for the body, when each and every one contains a microcosmos available instantly to anyone, anywhere. The inherently rhythmic, repetitive nature of breathing offers a counterpoint to time itself; rather than seconds or minutes, we could measure human activity by how many breaths it lasts. Indeed, when doing so – and I urge you to try this – the dictatorship of the ticking clock is usurped in a peaceful revolution, after which the benevolent breath takes control. Time itself is obliged to observe the rate of activity, in this case breathing, and not the other way around. The given moment becomes not a second, but an endlessly spacious repose – our verdant, quiet park again – within which time has surrendered its dominance.
We’ve all struggled with that seemingly ultimate question, ‘why are we here’? I would state simply, ‘to pay attention’. The breath provides a structure within which that careful, moment-to-moment application of our mental focus can take place. It has an underlying beat, a corporeal rhythm which is absolutely unfailing; indeed, it will last very literally as long as we will. It’s not, I would submit, as morbid as it might first sound to dwell momentarily on that inevitable truth: one day, despite the millions of times it will happen, I will breathe for the very last time. It will be just like this breath, the one you just took, an ‘in-out’ movement, an exchange of gases, the latest in a life-long chain of breath events. It will just, as it happens, be the final one. But, you know, I’m such a fan of breathing that I’m happy to go out doing what I love most.
I’ve noticed recently, in my own practice, something rather wonderful about meditation and breathing. Far from being a sequence of ‘in-out’ movements, a chain of respiratory dualities, I’ve found that one breath leads with absolute certainty into the next. How could it not? An exhalation follows an inhalation in a chicken-and-egg continuum. I’m not taking a breath, or a series of breaths, or even 30,000 of them; I’m breathing, as a sustained and seamlessly connected activity. What better way, I would ask, to address the constant change and hurry of the 21st century, than with a spiritual practice which enjoyably connects myriad little moments into one wonderfully long, smooth, unhurried continuum?
You’re still doing it.
I hope you’ll do it for a long, long time to come. And if, like me and millions of others, you find yourself in need of some settled, peaceful constancy in a life of perpetual change and chaos, try simply sitting quietly and observing the timeless, ceaseless, ever-dependable certainty of your own breathing. It will never let you down, or judge you, or make demands you can’t meet. It’s so easy that you’ve already done it millions of times. It’s free and requires no further training.
And it’s available right now.
Yours in the Dharma,
Dr. Graham Dixon