The Koan of Breathing

Breathing with your whole body is a lesson in letting go

BY: Will Johnson


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The Buddha tells us that, before we begin focusing on the activity of the breath, we want to make sure that the spine is erect and upright. Don’t, however, do yourself the disservice of believing there’s a goal of some kind of perfected condition of balance and upright alignment that you need to attain and then maintain. Your goal isn’t to mold your body into some idealized shape like pressing dough into a cookie cutter; your goal is simply to play with balance in the body you bring to the cushion, to feel how the sensations and energies in the body keep lightening up as the segments of the body keep lining up, one above the other. Playing with balance in meditation is always about remembering to let go into the next least effortful place.

Tensions in the body always function as a concealing blanket that covers over the felt life of the body’s sensations, so as you begin to relax and let go, dropping the weight of the body through the upright spine, the feeling presence of the body emerges more and more. The more of your body you feel, the more opportunities you have to let go through the breath. Breath can only breathe through a body in touch with itself.

Just as sensation is everywhere, so is movement everywhere. Motions of breath and presence of body are inextricably linked. You can’t have one without the other. A breath that breathes through the whole body will be a breath of constant, tidal motion.

Playing with balance, relaxing the body by surrendering its weight to gravity, opening to the possibility of feeling sensation in every cell of the body, letting go of tension in the body and contraction in the mind, opening to the subtle motions that want to occur in the body even as you sit silently on your cushion: these are the rules of thumb, the guiding principles that you want to keep circling back to over and over and over again as you explore the koan to breathe through the whole body. Each on its own implies or leads directly to the others. Explored in concert, they can have a powerfully catalyzing effect on the process of meditation.

Remember: breathing through the whole body is not some kind of calisthenic exercise; it is a koan to guide you as you sit down to meditate, a seed possibility that gradually takes root, grows, and matures over time.

Will Johnson is the author of Rumi's Four Essential Practices, The Sailfish and the Sacred Mountain, Yoga of the Mahamudra, and the award-winning The Spiritual Practices of Rumi.  He is also co-author, with translator Nevit Ergin, of The Forbidden Rumi and The Rubais of Rumi.  He lives in British Columbia.

Breathing through the Whole BodyBreathing through the Whole Body: The Buddha's Instructions on Integrating Mind, Body, and Breath

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