“So when we practice zazen, all that exists is the movement of the breathing, but we are aware of this movement. You should not be absent-minded. But to be aware of the movement does not mean to be aware of your small self, but rather of your universal nature, or Buddha nature.”
-D.T. Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
What is zazen?
In its practical sense, zazen is a sitting meditation where you focus on breathing. The instruction is simple: sit in the lotus position, keep your back straight, and maintain your focus on breathing for as long as you can.
Inevitably, your mind will wander, as it usually does. Feelings may arise. You might feel annoyed or you might feel bored. The instruction is not to fight these feelings but to notice them and focus on the action of breathing.
And breathing is an action, though we don’t generally think of it that way. Breathing is an ever-present metronome in our lives; we tune it out most of the time, because it is so automatic. We breathe through every moment of our lives, until we don’t. Breathing is the pulse of life.
So when we intentionally pay attention to the breath, we are paying attention to life. With every inhale, we draw the world in. With every exhale, we let it go.
And you may have heard that expression countless times. But the words are not the point. Set an alarm for 1 minute, and focus on what happens when you breathe. Notice how your belly expands when you inhale; how it contracts when you exhale. Notice your thoughts when you inhale – what does it bring up for you? I sometimes become self-conscious of my belly, and so my mind is more prone to wandering when I inhale. Still I breathe, whether I am aware of it or not. But, life is simpler when I am aware of my breath and its rhythms.
Suzuki says that the breath should connect you to your universal nature. I bring up Suzuki because I have begun re-reading his book, and also because, being a Zen master, he might know a thing or two about breathing. In any case, think about your breath, and how it connects you to other human beings. We all breathe.
Think about your breath, and how it connects you to other forms of life. Mary Oliver beautifully expressed: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body loves what it loves (…) Meanwhile, the world goes on.”
The breath can bring attention to the “soft animal of your body” – it reminds us of the interdependence between creatures and forms. The process of inhaling and exhaling will bring many things to the front — we have to love ourselves through the process. Focus on the act of breathing itself. Pema Chodron has talked about how exhaling can bring relief; we are letting go. Inhaling begins a new cycle of the breath, and so it too brings life and wholeness. Life moves in a similar way. Sometimes we “hold our breath” while waiting for a response or an outcome. On a greater plane, we are in the inhale of our life. When we are done with a situation, we have exhaled. We have let it go. We have exerted a cosmic out-breath.
These terms might sound esoteric in a way, but they aren’t – not really. Think about it. The breath is the basic pattern for life. Our life moves based on the breath. The next time that you feel anxious or stressed, notice the flow of your breathing. You might notice that it is shallow; a lung breath is not the same as a belly breath, nor will it make you feel the same way. A lung breath is somewhat disconnected. Belly breathing – also called diaphragmatic breathing – is full. It is the breath as it is intended to be. If you have a cat, notice how it breathes. A cat’s belly expands and contracts with the breath. A cat is ever-present in the moment; ever-curious and awake. We can learn much about zen from noticing their animal nature.
Suzuki regards breathing as a revolving door. With every inhale and exhale, entire worlds enter and exit at their will — each thought autonomous, each moment fleeting. Focusing on the breath is not absent-mindedness. It is being fully grounded in your essential nature – breathing.
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