After the rather intellectual topic of the Sandokai, Tesshin wanted to ground us this week in a fundamental part of our practice – namely Zazen and the simple act of breathing. The first thing Zen students are taught is to follow the breath during seated meditation. (Zazen) Why is this? First, every sentient being has the breath! Being mindful of this simple action ties us to every other living being and reminds us that we are not separated from the totality of life. Second, the breath is an accurate reflection of your state of mind. For instance, if you are agitated, the breath will be shallow and rapid. On the other hand, if you are mentally focused, it will be deep and strong. Lastly, the breath is something we have partial conscious control of. We can choose control it, observe it directly, or let go and allow it to take its own path. There is a lot of wisdom contained in the breath – which is why it is so critical to practice!
So what does Zen mean by “following the breath” if there is no-self? Whose breath is being observed and by whom? Tesshin normally states that in breath practice, one must join with the breath! We cannot force ourselves to control the breath like a drill sergeant barking orders at a “raw meditation recruit.” You are observing the breath from inside the breath! It is one thing – you and the breath. So by following the breath, Tesshin means nothing more than following yourself – your mind, body, and soul. The breath is central to everything.
So how should we breathe when in Zazen? First, one needs to understand where the breath comes from. In our normal hectic world, we breathe from the top of our chest. This causes rapid and shallow breathing. How can we have a settled mind when our breathing is rushed and shallow? Instead we must breathe from our core or “Hara” in Japanese. This is the region a few inches below your navel. The idea is to take slow deep breaths from the hara and then slowly release them. When doing this correctly, you should feel your lower stomach fill on the inhale and flatten on the exhale. At this point, one of the female students made an observation that women are always taught to pull in the stomach to appear thinner. Tesshin agreed about this “peer pressure” and emphasized that “sucking in the gut” is not useful in Zazen. In essence, we need to “let it all hang out.” In other words, we need to be real and authentic and not be concerned with what others are thinking. Tesshin likened proper Zazen breathing to how a dog breathes while sleeping. Sleeping dogs take large, slow, deep breaths – they really do not care who is looking at them or how they appear.
So where to begin? In your next sitting session, try taking a few deep breaths at the beginning. This may allow you to enter a slower and deeper pattern. Another suggestion would be to place your hands on your abdomen and check to see if it is rising and falling as you breathe? In Zen practice, we hold our hands in a mudra which naturally brings awareness to the hara. One can hold the mudra by placing the right hand on the right thigh and then place the left hand within the right hand with the thumbs touching.
Tesshin wrapped up the talk by reminding us that deep breathing clears the mind and allows us to start releasing all of the garbage in our subconscious mind. He encouraged us to be patient but persistent in our practice.
A review a Zazen and breathing can be found on the Home Practice guide of the website.