Beliefnet
Soon after I turned 54, I took up scuba diving and began to understand the true nature of what it means to breathe. I had been a less-than-impeccable student of Buddhism ever since I found a copy of D.T. Suzuki's "Introduction to Zen Buddhism" in a used bookstore when I was 15. Over the years, I had practiced various forms of meditation, Buddhist and other, eventually settling down to a vipassana practice that I would periodically strengthen with a silent 10-day retreat.

At the time I began diving, however, my life was becoming more complex, my work more demanding, and my practice was unraveling. I was ruled by task lists that grew like kudzu. As a temporary solution, I escaped to Hawaii for a vacation. I love the ocean and am fascinated by the coral reef environment, so after a few days of snorkeling, learning to scuba dive seemed a natural move. It would also be another notch on the belt of my rapidly aging male ego.

The Brooklyn-bred dive instructor drilled the central rule of diving into us: "Nevuh hold your breath." On land, unconsciously holding your breath is, at worst, a stress-inducing, unhealthy habit. But holding your breath while making an underwater ascent of as little as 20 feet (if you've been breathing compressed air) can rupture your lungs and kill you.

My diving was full of effort and compulsiveness. Why was I still having trouble achieving neutral buoyancy--that perfect balance of breath, weight, and motion that allows you to hang suspended at any depth?

We were also told, over and over, to practice slow, deep, even breathing. Not only would this lead to a more economical use of our limited air supply, but it would promote a state of calm alertness necessary 60 feet down. All this counsel seemed like old news to me. After all, I had spent hundreds of hours sitting on cushions watching my breath.

Before I knew it, I was a veteran of eighteen dives and the vacation was over. I carried home images of brilliant turquoise and yellow parrotfish, exquisitely formed coral canyons and the songs of dolphins. But at the same time, I knew I had missed something essential. I was always the first in my group to run out of air. My diving was full of effort and compulsiveness. Did I see as many fish as the others? Why wasn't I learning to use less air? Why was I still having trouble achieving neutral buoyancy--that perfect balance of breath, weight, and motion that allows you to hang suspended at any depth?

The longing to find some heart of stillness in the deep roiled through my thoughts and dreams in the months that followed. I decided to give myself the diver's equivalent of a sesshin, a meditation retreat, and made plans to spend three weeks on Bonaire, a tiny island 50 miles north of Venezuela where I would dive every day.

After one of my first dives there, a rather gruff Dutch divemaster growled at me: "You move too fast. You must do nothing fast underwater. Slow. Everything slow."

All the minute fibers of fear, worry, disappointment, and expectation loosened their grip as I floated. In this moment, there was no difference between the ocean and my breath.

On one of my next dives, I found myself slowly turning away from the reef toward the deep blue of the open. I finned myself into a vertical position and hovered over the void. I began to sink slightly. Instead of immediately adding air to my BCD (Buoyancy Compensation Device, a vest that can be inflated or deflated to change a diver's buoyancy), I took a long, slow breath and felt myself begin to rise. I exhaled and stopped rising, but before I started to sink again, I took a smaller breath. I stayed where I was. I discovered a still point in which I could dwell as long as my breathing stayed slow and regular.

I felt the surrounding presence of ocean holding me, holding all of me. The muscles in my neck and shoulders, back and abdomen, began to relax. Then something deeper than muscle and viscera relaxed. All the minute fibers of fear, worry, disappointment, and expectation loosened their grip as I floated. I felt suspended in my own breathing. In this moment, there was no difference between the ocean and my breath. Each contained the other. This was the timeless dream of flying made real at last.

Slowly, a six-foot-long tarpon with skin like moonlight glided out of the deep. Surprised, I inhaled sharply and before I knew it rose out of the embrace of stillness. I was back to my normal, agitated mind. I noticed that the other divers in my group were heading back to the boat. I still had plenty of air left. I'd been down for close to an hour, almost twice as long as ever before.

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