The Koan of Breathing

Breathing with your whole body is a lesson in letting go

BY: Will Johnson


Book Excerpt from Breathing through the Whole Body: The Buddha's Instructions on Integrating Mind, Body, and Breath by Will Johnson, Inner Traditions, Rochester, VT Copyright © 2012 by Will Johnson

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as you breathe in, breathe in through the whole body
as you breathe out, breathe out through the whole body

The Buddha often spoke in simple, pithy statements that are less like step-by-step instructions than they are like koans, or riddles, that we need to figure out for ourselves from the scantest of clues. In the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism, meditators spend long hours focusing their mind on essentially alogical statements or stories called koans that make no sense whatsoever but are nonetheless presented as a kind of puzzle, to which the meditator has to come up with an answer or, at least, a response. *

The above quoted sentences from the Satipatthana Sutta are very much like a koan, except that you need to figure out this puzzle not with your mind but through the feeling awareness of your body.

Just as no one can provide you with the answer to a Zen koan, no one can show you definitively how to breathe through your whole body. You have to figure out on your own, by yourself, what you have to do (and mostly undo) and how you can best go about doing that. Breathing through your whole body is not in any way an expertise to attain or a skill set to perfect. It is not some far-off goal to achieve, but the possibility in the very breath you’re taking, a constant reminder simply to let go as best you can, to relax into your body, to yield to the primal impulse to breathe. From one stepping-stone of breath to the next, it leads you along a path whose only goal is to be as present as possible to the possibilities of the stepping-stone you’re on.

Focusing awareness on the breath at the front of the body is an instruction that’s relatively easy to understand and follow. So are the implications of the suggestion to observe whether the breath is long or short. But breathing through the whole body is an entirely different kind of instruction. It is more like the answer to the riddle of breath than the instructions on how to solve it.

Breathing through the whole body hints at a condition in which body, breath, and mind--ordinarily so disconnected from one another--can be felt to come together into a single, coterminous phenomenon. While you have to discover for yourself how the integration of these three aspects of experience might occur, the following principles, and the exercises that follow, can help guide you in your efforts.

For starters, the practice is not about making any efforts, but about letting go. You can’t artificially manufacture a breath that breathes through the whole body; nor would you want to. You can only surrender to the impulse to breathe and keep letting go, as best you can, of whatever tension and stillness you encounter in your body as you do. Letting go of whatever binds your body and contracts your mind is meditation’s constant opportunity (as well as its challenge). Exploring the possibility of breathing through your whole body, you have no choice but to keep letting go.

Continued on page 2: Breath and Presence of Body »

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Related Topics: Breath, Breathe, Breathing, Zen, Buddhism