Technology of Breathing In & Out

originally published in the Fall 2002 issue of Inquiring Mind

With mind spinning “got to finish this,” worrying about that, irritated with something or another, hurrying to meet a deadline — yes, monks & nuns fall into this stuff, after all we are human, too — the bell for evening meditation rings. It’s a loud bell, loud enough to penetrate postmodern Samsâric mind. Struggling with the temptation to blow off the sitting, I manage to turn off the computer, finish the cup of tea, and get out the door. Fortunately, it’s a bit of a walk to the meditation hall. Blessed with the trees of a small forest on what was once a sandbar beneath the Gulf of Siam, the short walk to the open-air hall fosters a shift, slowing down a bit, even if I have to hurry to be on time.

So ended many an evening work session during the later part of my fifteen years as a monk in Thailand. I’d often begin the meditation with walking, enjoying the soft crunch of the sand beneath bare feet and the gentle movements of arboreal friends next to the hall. Pacing back and forth rather quickly, at first, to contain the left over energy — though it revs up quick, it seldom goes away so fast — mind following the breath in and out, in and out … in … out … with frequent lapses back to the unfinished article, email debate, or monastic problem to solve. These lapses were easy, I learned, because the stirred-up breath didn’t foster quiet and stability, it perpetuated agitation. The breathing reflected and had been provoked by what had been going on in mind.

Such breathing jarred body which perturbed mind which messed with breathing —a nasty circle of causality. Shallow, quick breath pushing the ch’i up and cerebral. Tight, stressed breath denying the relaxation and joy of a nice walk. Hot, irritated breath radiating throughout mind-body. Tired, sluggish breath weighing me down. Loopy breath making it easy to space out. Erratic breath from sleep deprivation and caffeine stimulation. Many times, many breaths. All mirroring what mind has been up to and caught up in. Unhealthy breath patterns built up by mind-body imbalance and reactivity. Distorted breath sustaining whatever imbalance, agitation, weariness, or stuckness. It goes on for years.

Now living in America, I use the internet a lot and sometimes wish I had DSL or cable instead of pokey 56K. Yet, something about mindfulness has sunk in over the years of practice so that when a web page comes up slow or email downloads in trickles, I can take a few relaxing breaths. Slow connections become a slowing in order to connect body and mind through breath. When really slow, I can stretch or get off the chair for a shoulder stand. Maybe slow is beautiful. This paragraph came to mind while downloading a big upgrade and walking my breathing on a veranda overlooking Missouri hills and fields.

Speed seems relative. Wanting something fast makes for slow. Reacting to slow, speeds up mind. To chat online with a friend on the other side of the globe through the slowest web connection is still a lot faster than pony express or clipper ship, let alone walking over there on foot.

1 Actually, “Thailand” means the same thing, so I’ve returned from one “Land of the Free” to another. I wonder if they are the same kinds of “free”?

As a recent returnee to the land of the free, [1] I continue to stumble upon and stagger past things that amaze. In airports, obese white folks line up for fast food while people of color serve from the other sides of counters. Layers of stunning amazement! Consumerism, foodism, racism, classism ... I feel sadness, disgust, anger. Not too strong, but enough to buzz around in the mind and tighten up body with breathing indignantly extra-strong. Still, mindfulness comes home to breathing and follows it in and down. Relaxing down into belly, lightening up the breathing; relaxing down into legs, regaining balance. Then, breathing up through the heart, softening and remembering that these folks munching on tacos and rubbery pizza are my pals in birth, aging, illness, and death. I can smile a bit, they aren’t my enemies, yet remain concerned by the blatant racial inequality and unhealthiness of what I see. Mindful, too, that I am not outside the mess looking in; I am participating in it, willingly when I drink Starbucks and unwillingly just by being alive in the globalization era. How to make that participation beneficial?

In many Suttas, the Buddha taught ânâpânasati, a systematic training of heart and wisdom through mindfulness with breathing in and out. This comprehensive practice contains sixteen “lessons” that cover and perfect the four foundations of mindfulness. Usually, he started with “getting to know long (deep, healthy) breathing,” followed by “getting to know short (shallow, unhealthy) breathing.” Through experience, one learns whether they are long or short, relaxed or tight, natural or unnatural. Then comes “experiencing all bodies,” that is, the relationship between the quality of the breathing and the quality of the body. These three preliminary steps culminate in “calming the body-conditioner,” which means cultivating naturally deep and subtle breathing that fosters inner peace, stability, and joy. From there, the feelings of satisfaction and joy arising from this practice are investigated and released. Then mind is explored and trained in various ways. Finally, the whole hog of breathing, body, feelings, and mind are revisited from the vipassanâ angles of impermanence, dukkha-ness, and not-self. If it’s real vipassanâ, profound letting go takes place and liberation occurs.[2]

2 The Anapanasati Sutta (M. 118) and Satipatthana Sutta (M. 10) are primary examples of this teaching. See also various suttas in the Anapanasati-samyutta of the Samyutta-nikaya and Buddhadasa Bhikkhu’s Mindfulness with Breathing (Wisdom, 1988; tr. Santikaro Bhikkhu).

Though simple, the early steps ought not to be taken for granted, after all, there isn’t any vipassana when the mind isn’t calm and clear. Fortunately, Ajahn Buddhadasa, under whom I studied for a decade and continue to serve as translator, stressed the importance of long breathing and wasn’t namby-pamby about it. “Dhamma is Nature” was a central theme for him, but his understanding of “natural” didn’t follow our Western assumptions. Recognizing what is natural requires a fair bit of unlearning. Being a loyal student, I explored long breathing seriously for many years, unlearning as I went.

Of course, there were times when clinging and obsessiveness forced the breath this way and that, including forcedly deep. That, however, wasn’t what the Buddha meant and I found ways to avoid that particular habit. So what breathing was “natural”? Were all the shallow, tight, tired, hot, erratic, stressed breaths “natural”? In the sense that everything is ultimately Dhamma, sure, they are natural. In the sense of healthy, useful, skilful — no way! Shifting from busy-minded breathing to gentle-walking breathing has taught me that they aren’t the kind of “natural” I need (like being bit by a rattlesnake isn’t the kind of natural I need). In fact, they were examples of the short breathing mentioned by the Buddha.

Off and on over the years, I'd stumbled upon genuine long breathing — deep, full, slow, relaxed, joyful. It usually happened when mind would drop some obsession or irritation to simply settle in and ride with the breathing. Yoga, massage, and soaks in the hot springs helped, too. Ajahn Buddhadâsa didn’t mind “controlling” the breathing if it brought healthy results, so I also found creative ways to foster — not force — long breathing and through it internally massage tightness and tension in chest, solar plexus, back, and abdomen. The easing and lightening could then spread throughout the body. Increasingly, these developed without conscious effort. However they might arrive, the results were delightful. Body more relaxed and light, whether walking or sitting. Mind much more settled and clear. Pleasant feelings. Happiness. Maybe that’s why the Buddha talked about these things specifically and not just the watered down “watch your breathing.” He even taught us to experience satisfaction and joy as we breathe in and out.

3. Published in a ReVision issue on “Spiritual Responses to Technology” (Spring 2002, Vol. 24, No. 4).

So what does all this have to do with the “technology” of the title, except perhaps as an escape from or antidote to it? For a recent article on technology,[3] I looked up the word in a favorite dictionary. The root meaning concerns art and craft. Who would have thought it? I’ve been lead to think it was only about computers, machines, fancy tools, and other complex products of our advanced scientific culture. Hi-tech ... what about low-tech? Or the natural technology of life?

How wonderful! All that I’ve learned about the art of breathing mindfully — ânâpânasati — is also “technology.” I’m not so out-of-date after all. This practice is an art, a systematic craft, and a science of immense practical value. Healthy breathing reduces stress, calms, and relaxes. It replenishes energy and rejuvenates. It softens me physically and emotionally, fostering more openness and receptivity. It keeps me in the present where I feel more alive and happy. It teaches countless lessons about this body-mind, such as control without domination. It makes for more sensitivity and kindness. It heals and makes me into a healer. It supports intuition and wisdom. It is a path of freedom.

Such artful breathing only happens through the training and development of mindfulness. To fully plumb the subtleties of the breathing, a refined awareness is needed. Not just counting ins and outs, the breathing artist-technician explores all kinds of breathing and how they interrelate with various conditions of body and mind. As the mutual conditioning becomes clearer, possibilities for deeper calmness, centeredness, silence, and concentration open up. This is not Wal-Mart stuff, nor will it show up in Espresso joints or on TV. It’s the realm of mind that has taken its inner life seriously cum playfully, softened up toughly, and jumped in carefully. Paying attention through deepening levels of refining awareness, the foundations of mindfulness grow into factors of awakening (as described in the Ânâpânasati Sutta).

Mindful breathing while sitting, walking, and living life is central to how I cope with the challenges of our speedy, greedy postmodern world. Take our supposedly democratic political system. Social control through consumerism is more like it. Consumerism equals eating for eating’s sake, which tends to get out of control. That equals greed and greed is hunger for pleasure. America is a cornucopia of pleasures tastelessly marketed through malls, drive thrus, the Net. Pleasures that run all over Samsâra from simple delights like greasy pizza and sugar frosted flakes to tasty wraps to video games and Hollywood action to casual sex to imaginary sex to professional wrestling and politics to tourism to the latest hit novel to whatever music turns you on, yet all boiling down into coagulant nuggets of pride in possession and self-image through “I am my Lexus” or “I use an iMac,” thus rebirthing ME-ME-ME.

How do we cope with the onslaught? Remembering breathing helps me. Breathing is something I genuinely need. It’s free and has no packaging to fill up landfills. I can enjoy it right now and won’t get emails to upgrade. My RAM was sufficient at birth to follow it in-down and up-out. It connects me to inner strength that no electoral charades can disempower. When my appetite is stimulated, I can calm around the belly to see if that’s where the hunger is coming from or is it concocted by sensual reactivity? Again, slowing down, relaxing, softening, and centering give me space to ask the questions: Do I need this? Do I really want it? Who will it benefit? Awareness gets a toe-hold and wisdom gets a chance. Can we discern between technology that feeds greed and technology that frees from greed?

I wonder how many in our culture ask these questions. During my two decades in Thailand, I saw both speed and greed revved up and Buddhism downsized in many people’s lives. They went along with the flow pushed by the elites, governments, and global institutions. Here, having lived with speed and greed more intensely, and for much longer, I suspect many intuit the questions but are afraid to face them straight on. Good questions challenge too many assumptions about the good life and our purpose as Americans — all those familiar habits, desires, and identities. So how will we pop the question to ourselves and our culture?

Learning how to breathe deeply, peacefully, wisely, and healthily is a good start. Cultivating the mindfulness, natural intelligence, and kindness needed to breathe this way takes us further. These open up frames of reference that show Samsâra in another light. May that light grow wisdom.

Technology of mindful breathing not only has all these wonderful benefits, it is cheap and simple. Breathing and mindfulness can be applied anywhere. They’re free. This technology is fun and playful. Everybody can do it. That makes it “real tech” in my book, beyond mere hi- and low-tech.

It wasn’t for nothing that the Buddha hung out in “the dwelling of ânâpânasati” and taught it in more depth than any other meditation practice.

Introduction to the Anapanasati Sutta

Getting Started with Anapanasati