“The process of healing begins when we mindfully breathe in.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh
“Breathing is the connecting link between the conscious and the subconscious, between body and mind. In fact, the ability to control our body and mind, and to change our lives, our karma, depends upon this breathing. One must concentrate on the breathing, or more specifically upon the out-breath. All schools of Buddhism agree that anapanasati (mindfulness of our breathing) was the Buddha Shakyamuni’s first teaching.”
Zen teachers often compare the breath during meditation to an anchor. The breath is the force of life. When we force it or stifle it, it impacts our well-being. When we mindfully let ourselves breathe, we feel natural in our practice. We let the breath come in and out with grace and it serves as our anchor. It prevents us from getting lost in both meditation and daily life.
As we breathe in and out during meditation, thoughts also come in and out. Even the most seasoned meditators can be bombarded by countless thoughts as they sit. The human mind is always working; this is why it’s so important to take time each day to let it sort itself out in silence. The skill of our practice is letting go of intrusive thoughts without forcing them away or judging them. This is a nuanced process and it takes some time to settle into. Still, each time we sit we express our true selves by following the consistency of our natural breathing.
When you dwell on a thought, it’s like holding in the breath. When you hold your breath for a long time, you become more and more tense until the lack of fresh oxygen in your lungs takes you over. You become stifled and red in the face and have to exhale, otherwise you pass out. Thoughts are the same way. When we hold onto them and expand on them, they drown us and propel us into further delusion. We are suffocated by our own thoughts day after day. When we let our thoughts come and go with the breath during meditation, we learn how to let go in everyday life.
This is why meditation is the heart of Zen practice and why focusing on the breath is the heart of meditation. We are not trying to breathe in one specific way, to count the breaths or even to control them. We are simply becoming mindful of our natural breathing and letting it guide us into a state beyond thoughts. This is the choice we make during meditation: to resist or persist. When we persist, all things become clear and thoughts fade away. When we resist, we just experience more suffering and clinging to the thoughts that come about.
Sometimes the breath changes in accordance with our state while meditating. Sometimes we grab onto thoughts and can’t help but get caught up in them. This can cause stress and tension in the breathing. Sometimes we really get into a state of pure consciousness and thoughts cease bothering us. In Zen this is called shikantaza, or ‘just sitting’. When we just sit, the breath often slows down in accordance with our state of calm reflection. Meditation teaches us that mind and body are not separate; they are one in the same. All of your responses, mental and physical, stem from the same consciousness and the same breath.