Class notes, April 22 2012
Doubt, fear, and wondering how to live our best life are essential parts of being human. So, too, are experiences of deep love and reverence such as we feel in the face of beauty, a loved one, a stunning human achievement or a breathtaking moment of raw nature. Those experiences, as well as all of our internal drives and longings, form what have been known throughout time as ‘spiritual paths’.
So often we experience this path as one of confusion or loneliness. So often we find the very places we go for answers confusing or alienating because they may not answer the questions for us. This is painful. But in pain, just as in physical illness, there is an element of healing and wisdom: we feel pain because we also know something that is not pain, even if it’s shadowy and hard to define.
One of the difficulties of spiritual paths is that we can’t take the paths of others. There is a paradox, here: it is difficult, but also the root of its most endearing promise: there is a spiritual path and a way that is very much ‘for us’, a way of answering our longings that is absolutely personal and unshakeable. We do best on the spiritual path, weather in a traditional religious setting or as we try to pick ourselves up off the couch, not by becoming a worshipful devotee of any particular teacher, but by seeking our own inner center and thus tapping perennial, universal wisdom directly. Ourselves. Wisdom is not a thing that can be taught. It is a thing we must discover and understand on our own.
One of the funniest things about human beings is that each of us possesses a vast potential for expanding our awareness in ways that bring great insight, joy, peace, and fulfillment to our lives – yet we habitually maintain our consciousness in tightly woven grooves. We stay distanced from our deeper spiritual nature and potential. We live in a strange kind of exile from our own true self.
The first and most obvious way to see this is by looking at our relationship to our own breathing. It’s been known for thousands of years – known to every human culture in history – that the simple act of being aware of our breathing transforms our lives for the better.
Furthermore, there is nothing inherent in our bodies or our circumstances that stops us from devoting a part of our awareness, however small, to our breathing experience moment by moment. We would feel better, function at higher levels, and be more efficient and healthy if we gave our breathing some attention. But even so, most of us go around with our minds entirely oblivious to our body’s root source of pleasure and inspiration.
The word inspiration means “to be breathed” or “to be breathed into”: to have the flood of insight, intuition, god, beauty, or art, fill us up.
We are meant to be filled up. We are meant to experience joy. We are meant to feel a whole range of emotions and to experience ourselves as alive and inspired.
Think, for a moment, of the way your brain and your body feels after an intense period of laughter. Or after singing your heart out while driving your car. Or after an orgasm. Think of the physical sensations of breathing after an intense, grief struck crying jag. Remember the feelings that wash over you after panic or fear has passed. It feels good to breathe then. It may not be conscious. It might not be something we’d think about or name. But our breath has changed. We feel it.
The primary psychological insight into the power of meditation is that spiritual awakening, the flow state, and moments of feeling ‘on’ or entirely ‘with it’ only happen in the immediacy of the present moment. In fact, all human feelings and experiences happen only here, and right now. Even memories are a way of re-experiencing something that happened, in the present. Fear, worry, daydreaming or planning are all ways of experiencing the future, in the present, not an actual or reliable prediction of what will actually occur. The present moment is the only place where we encounter both the inner world and the outside world immediately and together.
And nothing grounds us so deeply and immediately in the present moment as an ongoing awareness of our breath.
The following brief exercises sum up and borrow from classic breath work (pranayama – the next essay will explore what prana and yama mean) or breathing meditations proven by science and thousands of years of spiritual seeking. Every single one aims to bring you back to your own path, back to your own breath.
The primary culprit that makes ‘meditating’ so hard and us so stressful is the tendency of the thinking mind to drift away from the here and now into memories, imaginings, plannings, judgements, or thoughts about thoughts. We judge our own thoughts even as we are thinking them. And we judge the input coming to us from our senses – both inner and outer experience – constantly. Driven by our flustered ego’s attempts to navigate and control these storms, we spend most of our days and most of our lives lost in often conflicting, self-defeating, or just plain unreasonable ways of thinking. We problem solve our way toward success, worry about the future, plan our next move, daydream about being somewhere else.
The initial challenge in meditating, then, is to learn ways to shift some of our attention away from past-future fixation and regain precious breathing space in the here and now. To be less thrown about by the tantrums of ego, so that we can touch a bit of the ‘something more’ indicated by our questions and longings and true self.
This is not to say we should judge our minds for being minds. Minds are brilliant. They have tremendous power. Mind has beauty and subtleties the most advanced computers and neuroscience are at a complete loss to understand. The trouble is not that we have minds, but that we ask our minds to do things that are not its job.
Meditation will not take your mind or brilliant thoughts away. It is not a disparagement of creativity or intelligence. In fact, it will hone your powers of concentration, intuition, memory, and creativity; so that when you want to think you can think more clearly. Meditation doesn’t belittle the mind. It just gives it a rightful role to play.
Many of us think of meditation as something we need time to do, or need a quiet mind and peaceful body to accomplish. So we put it off. We think of ‘meditatation’ as something Buddhist monks do, or starry eyed hippies, just as we tend to think of ‘spirituality’ as something handed down by special people or found in sacred spaces, written down in ancient books. We don’t think of ourselves as saints or mystics. That view, an unfortunate correlate of religion, culture, and self doubt, forgets that all spiritual insight and every vision of truth, every single yoga pose, was discovered by a human being. You are a human being; you have this same capacity.
It might be better to think of meditation as a kind of awareness or consciousness that is a constant; it is there every moment of our lives. It is an inborn part of us that has been forgotten, dismissed, or willfully silenced. Meditation is simply learning to letting ourselves become a little more conscious, wheneve
whenever we want to. While washing dishes, while practicing yoga, while walking.
Think of it as of being aware of your breathing at any time, in any situation. Like right now, for example.
At this very moment, you are only one effortless expansion of awareness away from being on your way to the infinite. As you continue reading, simply allow your awareness to expand. Without any effort at all your attention can spill wider to also include the actual physical sensations you’re feeling in your nose and your mouth, as the current of air you’re breathing rushes in…and rushes out…and rushes in again…
As you continue breathing and reading at the same time, notice that you don’t need to change what you’re doing in order to experience consciousness expansion. Nor must you make any effort to expand your consciousness a little further to include more and more of the present moment. You can continue reading, become aware of your breath, and then become aware of your body in a particular position, a particular place, any sounds or absence of sounds around you, any movements in your body or around you. Your breath just keeps rushing in….and rushing out…and rushing in again…
Consciousness wants to expand. That is it’s nature.
As you read these words and at the same time experience your breathing rushing in and rushing back out again, you are meditating. You can deepen that meditation at any time. Indeed, for the rest of your life, no matter what you’re doing, you can develop this primal and human capacity to be aware of your breathing; you can merge breath meditation and the rest of your life into one seamless whole.
Pause and reflect
You might want to pause a few moments after reading this paragraph, to put these words aside….let go of words for a bit…stretch perhaps to bring your awareness to your whole body…and gently become a witness to your own breathing…tune in to the actual sensations at the tip of your nose…at the upper lip…on the inner lining of the nose and into the mouth…as the air rushes in…and leaves your body completely…and then rushes in one more time…notice how each breath is slightly different….there is no one breath repeated over and over, but small shifts in fluidity, in texture, in sound, in depth…every breath you ever breathe will be unique as a snowflake…rushing in…and rushing back out of you…before it rushes in…again…and again…you may expand your awareness to include the movements in your chest, your ribcage, your belly as you breathe…give yourself permission to enjoy yourself…for the next 10 seconds…or 10 minutes…or any time you want…be open to a new experience as you are open to a new breath…not something you do…but something you simply allow and accept as a gift…
Yoga and breath
Imagine a spiritually focused culture. Because we are a materially based culture, this is nearly incomprehensible and impossible to take seriously. Try. In this culture, the most brilliant minds of each new generation, for hundreds of generations, accepted as their primary occupation the challenge of observing, from the inside out, the workings of the human mind and body, spirit and soul.
When we explore the ancient meditative tradition, we’re accessing the accumulated discoveries and reflections of hundreds of thousands of brilliant human beings. Human beings who devoted their entire lives to looking inward, employing the tool of consciousness itself, to explore how it is and why it is and how different things affect it.
One of the first things the yoga tradition discovered was that most human beings do not come anywhere near living to their fullest potential.
The second thing they discovered was that virtually all human beings can. It doesn’t require genius or wealth or physical giftedness.
Yoga is the practice of waking your soul – your very own soul – in this lifetime.
In yogic teachings, the wisdom runs from the most obvious to the most sublime and difficult to understand. Indeed, some of the Vedic texts or the yoga sutras venture into some of the most revolutionary mystic teachings in human history. Some of the yogic accomplishments – twisting into pretzels, walking on coals, living in the winter mountains without anything but one’s internal heat to survive – are baffling to science and yet proven by that science. But over and over again, the teaching of yoga is that it begins at the beginning, at the most basic. The wisdom is present at all times. It rides on the breath.
Patanjali, said to be the author of the Yoga Sutras, suggested that at the beginning a student observe the breath experience by noticing specifically:
When you are inhaling
When you are exhaling
And when you are temporarily paused in breathing (suspension)
Pranayama as taught in traditional yoga involves concentrating on each of these three phases of the breathing experience in turn. By observing more closely, you discover a universe of experiential subtly in each. The art, or energy, or process of attention reveals the incredible nature of what is already there and already real in each moment.
In pranayama training, you also develop the ability to control each of the three breath phrases. As you consciously vary the ratios (remember that you are literally intaking oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide, influencing the biomechanics of every cell and tissue in your body, starting with the brain), you learn to quickly change your energetic state. That means you can change the levels of energy, ability to focus or concentrate, ability to relax, ability to enjoy, ability to sleep or feel or experience a piece of music…
Patanjali, following the ancient yogic formula for breath control, called the inhalation by the Sanskrit term puraka, the suspended or paused breath kumbhaka, and the exhalation rechaka. Let’s take a moment to explore each in turn.
As you go on with your reading, for your next few breaths notice especially your inhales…notice how the air flows in through your nose and the channel of your throat. Notice how your stomach relaxes and moves outward, your chest expands, and your upper back and ribcage move outward…
The inhale is primarily a process of expansion. Your diaphragm muscle under your lungs contracts downward, and your rib cage muscles expand to create a relative vacuum inside your two lungs, thus making air from the outside come rushing into your lungs. Therefore, many traditions and have likened the inhale to the expansive nature of the universe. As you develop the ability to feel more and more subtle sensations in your body, you may notice that every bone in your body externally rotates on and inhale…the whole of your skeleton is expanding…
Scientifically speaking, it is not our muscles nor our self that is breathing: it is a process of atmospheric pressure that our body participates and responds to. It is more accurate to say that the air – the universe – is breathing us than to say “I am breathing”. Meditations on the breath reveal us to be a part of the universal symphony, a response to the ebb and flow of cosmic shifts. This is both humbling and, at times, beautifully empowering.
Pause and experience:
For the next few breaths, inhale strongly and deeply through the nose….feel your nostrils flare out and expand to take in more air…feel your chest expand rapidly…perhaps sit or stand more upright…notice how your physical body might change…your thoughts might shift…the physical sensation of being alive (aka your mood) changes when you breathe deeply, strongly, and fully.
The held breath: kumbhaka
The held breath occurs after the inhale or exhale is complete, and sometimes midbreath.
At the top of your inhale, a short held breath allows your lungs to absorb much more oxygen. With that extra oxygen, your whole biochemical system becomes more energized and alert. Holding the breath after the exhale leads to a deeper and deeper experience of emptiness. In the Zen Buddhist tradition, the held breath after the exhale is of vital importance in letting go of ‘everything’ and being empty on a regular basis. In our culture we tend to focus on being full and having a lot, not empty. A regular meditation upon emptiness is of greatly liberating value.
Pause and experience:
After reading this paragraph, put the book aside and experiment with the Kumbhaka or suspended breath. Hold your breath at the top of the inhale, simply for the count of one or two….then gently let the breath go. Don’t feel you need to do this at the top of every breath. Simply inhale and exhale without control or judgment for a few cycles…when you are ready, take an inhale…and allow yourself to pause just slightly, like a swing on the playground pausing at the top of its ascent before it comes down again…exhaling…so subtly there may not seem to be a ‘pause’ at all. Experiment with repeating the hold for three inhales in a row…and then allow yourself to relax all control of your breath again…just noticing the difference. Perhaps play with extending the pause…to the count of three or four…no more really than five…
Give yourself a minute or two to notice the effects of this and then consider exploring the pause at the bottom of the exhale…perhaps even the next time you practice, rather than now…any of these experiments can happen whenever you want them to…
Let yourself be fully empty for a slightly deeper count than you normally do…for a count of two or four…
Perhaps you want to explore holding the breath slightly at both the top and the bottom…
Whenever you feel complete or need to move on, allow yourself to let the inhales and the exhales go completely…coming and going at whatever speed they naturally want to…simply observing the breathing process for eight or ten or twelve breaths…and then letting all of it go…
The Exhale: Rechaka
The third stage of the breath, exhalation, is similar to the inhale in that it likes to be continuous and fluid. The exhale is extremely important physiologically because it is active detoxification and connected to the parasympathetic (calming, rest and digest) nervous system. Meditatively and philosophically, it is important because it reflects an emptying not only of the lungs but also of the mind.
As you become empty of air, and also of your usual thoughts and tendencies and self-senses, you will often experience your ego letting go its control of the mind. This allows the wider consciousness room to breathe. This allows more reality to enter your awareness. It is often experienced as a unique awakening-rebirth experience that comes on the next inhale. You can also use a focus on the exhale to breathe out (detoxify) emotional tensions, fears, doubts, or hang ups as you empty yourself of negative feelings…and experience the refreshment, the sustenance, the power of the next inhale.
Pause and experience:
After reading this paragraph, put away the book for a few moments and experiment for a few breaths as you focus on long, relaxed, exhales…and also hold the breath at the bottom of exhales, as you feel comfortable…see what it’s like to move toward emptiness…and then be empty of air…empty of thought…empty of need…empty of should and oughts…empty of your self….before the next inhale comes.
Yoga and Breathing Patterns
From that spiritually grounded Vedic culture, we have literally thousands of different breathing exercises and experiments connected with yogic practice. Our modern science and medicine are providing their own thousands of different studies to show how breathing influences health and mood. The practice of watching and exploring the breath is literally one that takes a lifetime. For our purposes, here and now, it isn’t important to know all those details. It is simply important to know that the way you breath affects you deeply, and that you can at any given moment in your life bring some awareness to how you breath and what you are experiencing.
In particular, it may help you to know that we each have a breathing ‘signature’ that is as unique to us as our handwritten signature. While each breath is unique, we tend to have patterns. For example, some people tend to inhale more quickly and fully than they exhale. Others tend to breath through their mouth. Most of us tend to breath with only the upper third of our lungs – which directly contributes to physical stress and emotional imbalance.
Generally speaking, inhales are energizing, uplifting, revitalizing; exhales are nourishing, grounding, calming, soothing. This is not to say one is better than the other, but may help if you spend five minutes getting to know your own breathing pattern. For example, I have lived with major depression most of my life: once I began studying my breath I realized my exhales are more than twice as long as my inhales. Hence: grounding and calming are well and good, unless you become so grounded you are stuck in the mud and feel you can’t move, think, or speak.
One of the reasons yoga works – without you having to do or understand the science behind it – is because it balances the inhales and the exhales to a steady and equal count.
The simple (but not really so simple) act of balancing the breath will quickly generate deep reverberations throughout your being. The most common way to balance the breathing is to inhale for a count of 4, then exhale for a count of 4, and repeat. See if you can do this for 12 breath – so that you fully calm and balance both the inhale and the exhale.
Some find it helpful to say “puraka…rechaka….puraka…rechaka…” rather than count. Or even “inhaling…exhaling…inhaling…exhaling…” or even more simply “in….out….in…out.” It’s up to you to find your best speed for counting, and the best way to count. If you practice a few times, you may notice that it is a different count on different days…or easier to say inhale exhale…or to count to 12 breaths only…
You’re always in charge of pacing your own practice.
Pause and experience:
Give this a try, for eight breath cycles: inhale for 4 counts….exhale for 4 counts…and repeat.
At some point over the next week or two, invite yourself to get to know your own breath. Ironically, even though it is perhaps the most important aspect of being alive, most of us have never stopped to inquire into our own breathing…or what it means to be one who breathes…
Give yourself a period of at least five minutes to simply count the way you breath, without trying to change or manipulate it in anyway. Each of us breathes differently. Count as you inhale…notice if you pause or not…and then count again as you exhale. If you lose track or find your mind wandering, just notice that you’ve been distracted and start again (a kitchen timer or cell phone timer might help).
There is no right or wrong to this exercise. It’s simply one more way of knowing the parts of who you are…and knowledge is always power. How do you inhale…and how do you exhale….
This is your resting breath; the way you typically breath when you are sitting or standing still. You may want to experiment with noticing how the counts change while you are walking or exercising.
You may want to check in with yourself in moments of anxiety, or sadness, or anger. How do you breath, then?
There is no right, no wrong. There is no amount of knowledge or one trick secret or breathing pattern that will suddenly make it all make sense, either. There is only an effort to return, over and over again, to feeling the breath in your body. Each time you do so will take your practice, and your life, to a new level. It will flash backwards and give you insight into what has already happened in you and your practice, your moods and your energy. It will flash forward and make the things we do in a yoga practice more profound and more interesting, a thousand new ways to grow deeper.
You will never know everything. You will always know a little bit more. That is your path. To grow ever and ever more alive, more and more yourself.
Yoga will do nothing but help you.