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For TCVC Newsletter 2010

Breathing is the flow of life. Much more, much deeper, much richer than mere exchange of gases, various muscles contractions and expansions, and membranous sensations, breathing involves energies that keep us alive and nurture us on multiple levels. It is no coincidence that the Buddha shaped his primary meditation teaching around it.

What a shame, then, that modern science sees it in the very limited terms of chemistry and mechanics, though even that is far richer than most folks conceive. What a shame, too, that certain "vipassana teachers" – though not the Buddha – speak of it as "just anapana." Nonetheless, such attitudes reveal an important aspect of Dhamma practice: if one's theories and beliefs don't acknowledge the value of something, there's little chance of seeing it clearly in line with reality (the original meaning of vipassana).

Fortunately, there is much about the breathing that inspires interest-curiosity (chanda) and inquiry-investigation (vimamsa). If we are curious about the breathing, we start to notice how malleable and vital it is, though at times it may appear to be just doing the same old thing. With open-mindedness and sensitivity, one further experiences its influence within the rest of the body. As mind-body settles and mindfulness sharpens, one experiences the energetics of the breath-body relationship. Just this much opens powerful opportunities for insight into the nature of the body and sentience.

Then there is "mind," so easy to name and so difficult to pin down. Though we can observe and name the many functions subsumed under "mind," we don't ever really know what mind is. A mystery if you like. Or zennish "No Mind." Thusness and emptiness.

When mind is experienced within the flow of breathing (step nine of anapanasati), one sees it as central to all experience and never a separate entity or self. What is "mind"? What sort of thing is it?

From there, the Buddha gives three other angles for contemplating mind. Each is a way to investigate the aspect of experience variously called mind, consciousness, and awareness. What sort of nature or reality is "it"?

When it is glad, delighted, and inspired in various ways, what sort of "thing" is it? What experiences gladness? What is inspired? (step ten)

When it is quiet, stable, and focused to various degrees, what is it? What experiences calmness and stability? What is concentrated? (step eleven)

When free of craving and clinging, what sort of thing is that? Whether having let go through effort, insight, or accident, or simply because nothing has stirred up clinging to me and mine, what is left? Forget the concepts and words, simply contemplate this being-knowing within that freedom. (step twelve)

While these contemplations might occur independent of the breathing, the Buddha's most systematic meditation instruction maps them within breathing in and out. This points to the depth of practice possible when working with the original teachings.

(Please see the Anapanasati Sutta, MN 118, for further details.)

6 September 2010