“Breathing is the connecting link between the conscious and the subconscious, between body and mind. In fact, the ability to control our body and mind, and to change our lives, our karma, depends upon this breathing. One must concentrate on the breathing, or more specifically upon the out-breath. All schools of Buddhism agree that anapanasati (mindfulness of our breathing) was the Buddha Shakyamuni’s first teaching.”
This spoken passage comes from a collection of Deshimaru’s talks during various retreats. He’s unique in that he’s a Japanese master who taught almost exclusively Europeans and Americans, having spent most of his life teaching and sitting at a Zen center he established in France. For those interested, the book is called Sit. I’ve never seen it suggested anywhere but it’s hands-down the most helpful accompaniment to meditation practice I’ve found. Deshimaru was trained by my other favorite master, Kodo Sawaki, who also trained the famous Uchiyama, who catered similarly to Western students and readers. They are all followers of Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen.
The 20th-century Soto masters are understandably modern and focus on the essence of Zen: breathing and sitting. That’s it. Everything else they say is related to these two essential parts of the practice. Reading and study are mere accessories to meditation and are not truly necessary. Direct experience is the key: practicing daily and engaging with worldly life, each activity intimately informing the other.
Let’s first focus on the breath. In daily life, when you’re stressed, your breath is arrhythmic and stifled, mirroring your inner-state with its own disharmony. When you’re relaxed or engaged, your breath is steady and natural, keeping strong rhythm behind your activities. Once people learn to let go of trying to control the breath in meditation, they experience peaceful practice more often. In this respect the breath is representative of meditation practice at large: the more you try to control it, the more chaotic it becomes. Letting go means letting nature take hold, and your breath stabilizes to its natural rhythm. You don’t have to actively think about breathing to breathe. It’s a physiological process, more fundamental than any thought or idea. This is obvious but it helps to think about it directly.
Letting go in this way takes practice, but it carries over into everyday life, which is why people report meditation having “stress-reduction” properties. Some teachers even try to sell people on this idea, to lure them into meditation with the promise of results. But here’s the secret: there isn’t anything active happening. You’re just realizing a skill you already have: steady organic breath. Meditation is both the rehearsal and the real thing. Then when you’re at work and someone’s being a shithead, your breath doesn’t change. You’ve trained yourself to stay calm. When your significant other is pushing your buttons, your breath doesn’t change. You can stay calm. When you have to focus to explain yourself or accomplish a high-concentration task, your breath is there with you, steady as ever.
The funny thing is that the breath is calm and steady whenever we don’t need it. When we’re watching TV or sleeping it’s perfectly placid. Meditation helps the breath remain steady regardless of what situation we’re in, since we’re teaching our minds not to overreact to thoughts. When you stop grabbing at this thought and that, the breath remains natural, and your stress is non-existent. This reflects the larger paradox of effort through non-effort, a Taoist idea that was hugely influential in Zen.
In meditation, when we “let thoughts come and go but don’t serve them tea”, we’re practicing pure-mind, which is really just no-mind. In brief moments of insight, we experience the reality of Being directly, with no conceptualization. Then we conceptualize the lack of conceptualization, and poof, pure-mind is gone. The more we try to chase it, the more difficult it becomes to catch. This is the fundamental paradox of practice.
“But what the hell does this have to do with living a better life?” you might be asking. Step back for a second and consider the larger-scale problems we have as humans, especially today: we have safety, security and survival covered, and yet we seem eternally dissatisfied. Even the most privileged among us want more and more. Outside of material wealth, no amount of progress is enough. People always want more, more more. Drug abuse is skyrocketing. Suicide is skyrocketing. Sexual confusion is skyrocketing, causing young people to become sad and detached. The more productive and progressive modern society gets, it seems, the more statistically likely people are to be miserable and thirsty for the next fix.
In the Pali canon, the earliest collection of Buddhist texts, we find a summation of human nature on which all future lineages of Buddhism are at least somewhat based— the Four Noble Truths. The first two:
“Now this is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.
Now this is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to re-becoming, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for becoming, craving for disbecoming.“
Sound familiar? Modern scholars on the left, right and everywhere in between like to blame our discontent on countless boogeymen: capitalism, communism, immigration, tradition, sexual morality, Christianity, Athesism, Judaism, Islam, and whatever else. But, like most things modern, we fundamentally miss the point entirely, and to our own detriment. The spiritual illnesses we suffer from today have never changed. They are not relevant to any time period or ideology. They are what it means to be human. Until we accept this fact, we will continue to suffer needlessly hacking at the branches of a massive tree. The more we cling to the questions, the harder it is to find the answers.
And now, the final two noble truths:
“Now this is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, non-reliance on it.
Now this is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is this noble eightfold path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.”
There are hundreds of Buddhist lineages with a million different interpretations of what the Noble Eightfold Path means, so that’s a discussion for another time. But in the final two Noble Truths we see the three prescriptions most relevant to our meditation practice: right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. This is meditation. As the breath comes and goes, thoughts come and go, too— thoughts about aging, illness, death, union, separation, craving, lust, becoming, disbecoming— and everything in-between.
We focus on the breath because it’s primordial, natural, the rhythm beneath everything else we experience. When it stops, life stops too. Thoughts occur as a new layer on top of this pure experience of being. Everything that causes us to suffer, and everything that plagues society and humanity, exists as a layer on top of this pure experience of being. When you meditate, you are reconnecting with this deepest part of yourself. Over time, the steady consistency of the breath teaches you that the solution to every problem exists within the self. You just have to let the dust settle enough before you can see it.
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