Following the breath


I learned breathing from butterflies. One day I was sitting at Tassajara, and I felt in tune with the breath of everything. The trees were breathing. About twenty butterflies were sitting on hot rocks, very white hot rocks, with clean water cascading between them. The butterflies were all breathing at once, opening their wings, and I tuned them in. It was very fantastic to feel that.       
Kobun Chino Otogawa    


by Joseph Hall
We are students of meditation and so the question comes up - how do I breathe?  The answer in zen is that of course you already know how to breath so there is nothing that needs to be done. Although Dogen wrote voluminously, he had precious little to say about the breath beyond simply instructing us to let long breaths be long and short breaths be short.  

Zazen, being an open awareness meditation which takes in everything, takes great care to avoid mantras and objects of meditation, which makes us a little reticent to place too much attention to the breath lest it gain a distracting importance. The essential posture of zen is that we are facing the conscious self to observe the expansive unconscious mind.  In the same way that the best way to find the animals of the forest is to go to the waters edge, sit still and wait for creatures to emerge, zazen integrates the unconscious wisdom of the body into our everyday conscious life.  Our bodies already know how to breathe so it is our task to quit trying to do it better.  However when we first approach the mat, we quickly discover that one of the marks of this self of ours is that it seems to want to control everything it sees.  Watching the breath quickly becomes trying to breathe right and it doesn’t take a great deal of time for that to become discomforting.

Fortunately, Dogen was followed by a long line of teachers who, being a little less idealistic about the breath offered their students some help in getting to the gateless gate and Soto Zen has mostly evolved three stages in the study of the breath.  Breathing, being a very personal activity, has attracted a lot of attention and a great many ideas.  In Vipassana, it is very import to focus on sensation of the breath as it enters the body at the tip of the nose.  In Zen, we couldn’t disagree more.  For us, the energetic center of the breath is at a point called the Hara, about two inches below the navel - a place where, curiously, the air never goes.  Between these two points exists a plethora of ideas, techniques, beliefs, and practices.  All of these have a value and one thing you learn in the zendo is that as long as you’re quiet and still, you can do anything you like.  

The three classic stages of zazen are counting the breath, watching the breath and shikantaza.  While Dogen declined to talk about the breath for fear of infusing it with ideas, there is actually a special emphasis on it in zen.  Never forget that just because we don’t talk about something in Zen does not mean that it is not the most important thing in the room.  The breath is the water by which we sit and it is a gateway to the dharma.  While the process of breathing is not special, it is unique.  It is a place where both the conscious and the unconscious share and alternate regulation.  Because we speak in language, the ego has been granted the occasional ability to exert some control.  Thus, our breathing is gateway where the small mind and body mind are in frequent dialogue and sometimes in conflict.  When the mind is in accord with the body, we notice things going well.  When we are not so much in accord, it is often the place where the first sign of asynchrony appears.  So by developing an awareness of the breath we are able to learn balance.  Here, the masters of old have handed down three approaches for us to practice.  

While these methods have an order and a progression, feel free to keep in mind that since we never transcend our human existence and we are more enlightened on some days than others, our progression is not linear and all three approaches remain useful throughout a lifetime.


Counting the Breath

When we begin zazen, we are usually instructed to simply count each breath, usually on the exhalation. By the way,  when zen masters talk about ‘for awhile’, they often mean years.  As each cycle of the breath changes and the outflow begins, we can silently count the number one, allowing the idea of this one to fill our whole being and letting it fade into the silence of the inhalation.  There is no purpose to this counting.  Instead, we are giving this ego mind of ours a meaningless task to focus on. We are accepting that the self needs something seemingly important to do. Just like the many founders of startups that outgrew their initial vision, we are giving the ego a nice corner office and a ‘special’ project to keep it distracted from the rest of the team which is focused on the real work of growing.  When the ego has something else to do, it tends to produce a little less narrative.  All you need to do is tell it to count something.  So we count each breath from one to ten.  And when we are finished, we count to ten again.  From time to time we will notice that some thought or another has intruded and along the way the ego lost its count. Our response is simply to go back to one.  

Along the way back, it is helpful to notice the dissatisfaction that arises, the way ego attaches some strange importance to the count and the irritation that arises when things don’t go as planned.  This is exactly what the Buddha was talking about when he told us about the causes of suffering.  So we get to observe the process by which suffering arises in this small way that we can handle - and we also get some practicing in letting go.  This is the part that matters. You can keep in mind that each loss of the count is an opportunity to let go of attachment and the count doesn’t matter.  In the entire Blue Cliff Record, there is not one record of anyone being asked how the counting is going. 

Instead, we sit still by the water, silently counting the breath until the steady wavering sound of it fades quietly into the background


Following the Breath


So the counting goes until it completely blends into the sounds of birds or traffic, the sensation of the cushion, and the inflow and outflow of the breath.  Then, there might come a time to practice watching the breath.  By now, most of this practice will have come in under the radar while you were counting the breath, but there might be a few things worth noting.

Knowing that we are practicing Dogen’s Zen, we want to take care not to make the breath into an object, this watching of the breath takes place in harmony with our observation of the myriad things of the world which arise with it.  The breath should not be special.  (Well, maybe a little special)

In following the breath, we become intimately aware that what we are watching is the rhythm of the functioning of the body mind.  Noticing that it is the nature of the ego to try to refine the breath, we open ourselves and let the impulse go.  To refine the breathe would mean that we lose the mysteries which are revealed in the subtleties of the air flowing through us. We don’t need to interfere with the movement of the breath but instead we can allow ourselves to breathe naturally and observe.  As we sit, we notice that when negative thoughts arise, we first notice their effects in the shifting of the breath. While the whole idea of wholesome and unwholesome can be the source of some real distraction, sitting with our thoughts and noticing the flow of the breath, perhaps erratic and shallow, or flowing in almost circular sensation, we can get beneath the stigma of words and see the wisdom of the body moving through the world.

Notice that, while zen loves gerunds and is prone to attach -ing to almost any word to give it a feeling of suchness, this is not called a ‘breathing’ practice.  Instead we are invited to follow and not to do anything at all with the breath.  But sitting on a cushion - where can one go?  As we observe the breath we may notice that it appears to come and go somewhere.  Staying with it further, we begin to notice how it is shaped by the thoughts that arise, the mosquitos that buzz, and the sleep we have had.  Eventually we notice that each breath seems to arise from everything around us.  And then we might wonder if the breath is even separate from the things which create it.  

As Kobun tells us, “When you breathe, it feels like you are doing it, but, actually, the whole universe is breathing each breath with you.  So when you do not make a special effort, but let the breath be, let it breathe as your body responds, you feel perfect. I especially feel the mystery of the in-breath, and the letting go of personal concerns with each out-breath. That’s what I’m very much interested in these days. What comes in is absolutely new life, recovery of your new life, new chance, new thoughts.”

So, in journey of stillness, the act of travel is letting go. Kobun isn’t sharing a metaphor - he’s asking us to completely accept each moment that we are given, this new life and these new possibilities.  To follow the breath means to be fully aware of the flow of life flowing into us in the midst of the world where we all share the same air.  It is to feel the detail of it’s sensation and surrender our selves completely to the wisdom it offers.

Not having a way to breathe, we may notice that, nevertheless, it might occasionally be helpful to work with the breath more directly.  As we watch the breath, we may notice that as long as the ego is around it is going to step in from time to time and try to breath ‘right.’  And we learn that planned breathing feels a little constricting.  A different approach might be more useful.  Knowing that we are following means that directing is just going to get in our way.  So does this mean that we can do nothing?  Mostly, the answer is yes but we are about to learn something about this ‘non-doing’ that the Zen masters keep talking about. 

There will come a time when, while sitting with awareness of the flow of the energy of the breathe through your hara, that the body will appear to be in the midst of an arrhythmic breathing pattern.  A quick scan of the room and the thoughts in your head might provide no obvious cause. Perhaps some anxiety is present, but honestly, it appears that the breath is caught up with some kind of self fulfilling cycle and reshaping the breath might bring a little calm.  Slowing the breath might help, but Dogen has our hands tied behind our back here.  Fortunately, there is another option.  Instead of forcing a change in the breath, we can understand it.  And in understanding it’s current wonkiness we can also bring into our awareness the natural flow of our calm breath.  We can become aware of the places that are blocked and what a different kind of breath would be.  We can simply create a compassionate intention to help the body and allow ourselves to release the places of constriction.  We notice what is natural and we can follow the breath there.

Instead of trying to impose your will on the breath, we can ask it what happens next.  The most natural thing for the breath to do is to return its center.

This, as it turns out will have a greater impact that just on the way you breath.  The ability to see the most natural way through and to give rise to an intention will allow us to move to through the world in a different way.  I’ve spent enough time around animals to know that they generally understand people who are in accord with the natural world and so feel confident there will be more tail wagging in your life.

This may sound a little esoteric, but in this watching of the breathe you are honing one of the fundamental aspects of skillfulness and it is a skill from which we can draw from in ways large and small.  


On a more practical level, I am learning to touch-type this year because I think it is good to always be learning new things.  At first, it took a lot of will to simply not look at the keys and to try to force the to remain on the screen and tap at the right key with the right finger until the right character appeared.  There was a lot going on.  As you can imagine, the realm of complete control is unpleasant and frustrating.  Fortunately, time passes and now I practice each day on a website that tracks my WPM.  Here, it has gradually become apparent that I can now type faster than my conscious mind can control the process.  While I have this ego that wants to up the score every week, every time I feel it step in start jabbing at keys, everything falls apart.  Much like watching the breath, I need to step back follow the activity of the body mind.  Placing a value on the score only creates an interfering judgement.  Instead, I can bring the body to the keyboard and understand that it knows where the keys are, look at the words on the screen and wonder what happens next.  When I am caught up in the curious sensation of fingers moving from one destination to another, the words appear on the screen one after the other.  Often, errors occur and the ego leaps in less time than it takes to hit the delete key insisting that this is evidence that it needs to step in.  Of course, my score drops in the ensuing quiet pandemonium on my keyboard.  So I have learned that when the pressure of the ego arises that the thing to do is actually slow down, to know that the fingers are intimate with the location of every key and to get out of the way.  Then, when the sensation of self fades, I notice the words, unfettered, start flowing across the screen again.   Always a stream, never a torrent. 

This time spent with the breath reveals itself in everything we do.

So we return to the breath.  Noticing the quiet joy that arises with the in-breath, we may also notice the tension that arises in acquiring vital life force.  In the pause at the top with full lungs, we might notice a small gratitude or greed, a reluctant release or a smooth arching flow into the out-breath.  There are deep and subtle qualities to every breath if we are attentive to the event. An out-breath may carry with it a release of energies fading into the pause of emptiness.  It is here that we exist for a moment in the deepest place of stillness.  We are never more quiet than in this moment.



Eventually the specialness of the breath wears off but our intention remains.  We discover that every myriad thing around us is equally as mysterious as the breath.  We’re still following the breath but  a deep sense arises that it never was the breath we were following.  Thus, left with nothing to be said, we are left in a special kind of silence which might be called silent illumination. 

So we sit in this realization of silence, aware that it is like an an ocean and even what we once called noise it made up of this silence.  It is perhaps nothing more than a state of wonder.  This is a place called shikantaza - just sitting.

There’s not a great deal that can be said about this, and it is a better topic for Dokusan than a blog, but I like what Suzuki said once when trying to explain it…

Sometimes it may be all right to practice zazen as a kind of exercise or training, to make your practice stronger or to make your breathing smooth and natural. That is perhaps included in practice, but when we say shikantaza, that is not what we mean. When we receive a letter from the world of emptiness, then the practice of shikantaza is working.
Shunryu Suzuki