day two : morning

Issues with the Breath

April 23, 2017

This morning I’d like to make a few remarks on problems that can sometimes come up as we’re trying to focus on the breath.

One of the problems is that, when we focus on the breath, we tend to tighten up at the beginning or the end of a breath to make a sharp line between the in-breath and the out-breath. That makes the breathing uncomfortable. So, allow the in-breath and the out-breath to flow smoothly into each other.

Another problem is that sometimes you feel difficulty in breathing. This is a problem of perception. If you think of the breath wanting to come into the body and that it can come in from any direction at all, then you’ll find that the breathing goes much easier. Also, the breathing feels easier when you think of yourself as being in the middle of the breath, being bathed by the breath, rather than off to one side or behind it. You can also change your mental image as to where the breath enters the body. If you find after a while that your shoulders or your chest are getting tired, think of the breath coming in someplace else besides the nose: for example, from the back.

Years back when I was in Thailand, I had malaria. One of the problems with malaria is that your muscles start getting deprived of oxygen, because the malaria parasites are eating your red blood cells. After several days, I found that the muscles doing the breathing were getting very tired. Then I remembered Ajaan Lee’s instructions: The breath can come in the middle of the forehead or down from the top of the head. So I changed my perception, thinking of the breath coming in, not through the nose, but through other spots in the head. As a result, the muscles that had been overworked had a chance to rest. So if, after a day of conscious breathing, you find that certain parts of the body get tired, change the image.

That’s one set of problems that can come up.

The other set of problems has to do with your image of the breath energy in the body. For many people, this is a very strange or exotic notion, but actually it’s something very directly present to your awareness: your sense of the body as you feel it from within. It’s simply a matter of interpreting what you already feel in a different way. If you were to hold out your arm, the sensations that tell you that you have an arm there could be interpreted as perceptions of solidity or as perceptions of breath energy. The choice is yours. The sensations are the same, but the perceptions—and what you can do with the sensations based on the perception—will be different. The advantage of seeing the sensations as energy is that you can do things with energy that you cannot do with solidity. For example, if there’s a spot in your back that you think of as solid, you will simply leave it as solid. However, if you perceive it as energy and you realize that the energy is blocked, then you can do something about it. You can relax it or open it up to release it, and this allows the breath to become more comfortable. Your posture can improve and you can sit comfortably for longer periods of time.

It’s like those old magic eye pictures that were popular 25 years ago. If you look at them one way, they’re two-dimensional patterns. If you change your brain and look at them another way, you’ll see them as a different pattern entirely. What was two-dimensional now becomes three-dimensional. Now with those images, it was simply a perceptual trick with no practical consequences. But with the body, you can actually give yourself an advantage, depending on how you perceive the sensations. Once you become sensitive to these sensations as energy, then the breathing will become easier. Instead of thinking that you have to force the energy through a solid, you simply think of one energy flowing into and mingling with another, and in that way, good energy can penetrate deeper into the body. That makes it easier to be aware of the whole body breathing in, the whole body breathing out, with a sense of well-being.

Once you gain a sense of the body as being energy, then the next problem becomes your tendency to push the energy in one direction or another. Energy is not something you can put pressure on. If it responds to pressure, then it’s actually the liquid in the body, such as the blood or the lymph. You may find yourself pushing the blood into different parts of the body and then it gets stuck. Two main areas where it tends to get stuck are in the head and in the chest. If you find that the pressure is building up in your head, it’s a sign that you’re pulling the energy and the blood up in the body as you breathe in. To counteract that tendency, you can think of the energy going down the back of the neck when you breathe in, all the way down the back to the tailbone and then down into the ground. Or you can think of the energy going down the front of the neck, down into the heart, and then out into the air. If the energy is building up in the chest, think of the energy flowing out the arms through the palms of the hands or the spaces between the fingers.

There was a famous Zen master, Hakuin, who suffered from what he called Zen sickness, which was simply the energy building up too much in the head. His way of dealing with it was to imagine a large ball of butter placed on top of his head, with the butter melting down his head, down the back, down the front of the body—both while he was breathing in and while he was breathing out. If you find that perception helpful, go ahead and use it. Ajaan Fuang suffered from headaches when he was a young monk. He found that a good way to deal with them was to think of the energy going down the spine, out the tailbone, and penetrating deep down into the earth. That relieved the pressure in his head.

So when dealing with energy, there’s a lot to play with. If you have a chronic pain in some part of the body, think of the energy flowing through the area of the pain and then flowing out either the palms of the hands or the soles of the feet. That will feel healing and relaxing around the area of the pain. When I was a young monk, I found that I had a very strong sense of blockage in my right foot. So for several days running, I would think of the energy flowing through that spot. Then one day, the blockage opened up, and a sudden memory came up of something that had happened when I was a child. We lived on a farm. I was up on the second story of a barn. I jumped into a pile of straw, and I landed on a nail hidden in the straw right at that spot in the foot. Without realizing it, I had been carrying the tension around ever since then. It was through working with the breath that I was able to let that tension go.

What this means is that how you perceive the body can either prevent you from dealing with problems of tension in the body or can help you resolve them. So try to use perceptions that are helpful. In this way, you both make it easier for the mind to find a comfortable place to be concentrated, and you also gain insight into the power of perception.

This is one of the main issues in meditation. We believe our perceptions to be real, but actually they’re often quite arbitrary. So if you find a perception is useful for one purpose, use it for that purpose, but be wary about its actually creating a problem in another area. Learn how to vary your perceptions both for the purpose of gaining concentration and for the purpose of gaining insight into the workings of the mind. It’s in this way that concentration practice develops both calm and insight, both of which are qualities needed for gaining awakening.

We’ll now have a brief period of walking meditation. Try to find a walking path that’s at least 20 paces long. Walk at a normal rate. Be aware of the breath even as you’re walking. If you find it too difficult to stay with the breath, you can focus on the movement of your feet as a preliminary exercise, but the purpose of walking meditation is to get used to being with the breath even as you’re moving around, so that you can carry the meditation into your daily life.

When you get to the end of the path, stop for a second to make sure that your awareness is with the body, then turn around and go back in the other direction. The image that the Buddha gives is of a man with a bowl of oil on his head with another man standing behind him with a raised sword. If a drop of oil spills, the second man is going to cut off the first man’s head. So, try to be fully aware of your body. I want you all to come back here with your heads on.