Well, that’s not entirely true, but I couldn’t resist parodying a Beatles song.
I’ve had a lot of moments of clarity throughout my practice, times when all the convoluted BS I was into kinda fell away and I found myself amidst much simpler views and methods.
One insight was that, “The breath teaches you everything you need to know about life. If you can just see for yourself what’s at work in the breath, you’ll see what’s at work in everything, since the same laws apply.”
On top of that, focusing on the breath has a whole slew of health-benefits, both physical and mental. Breath focus helps with blood pressure, pain management, sleep, metabolism, stress, depression, and obsessions. It allows us to regulate our emotions, control our impulses, and it increases our attentiveness overall.
But, none of that matters much to me. What I’m interested in is seeing things as they really are and alleviating grief.
The fundamental teachings Buddhism are: All things are impermanent and dependently arisen. When we’re ignorant of this, we cling onto and crave things as if they weren’t impermanent and dependently arisen, as if there was some other way that things could be.
The breath teaches all of that. It’s impermanent, inhale and exhale always give way to each other and to the space between them. It’s dependently arisen. We breathe because there’s air to breathe, we breathe because we’re made up of bodies that evolved to convert air into energy. We’re aware that we’re breathing because of the mind that arose with the body.
Dependent arising isn’t linear—body, mind, and breath all depend on each other. If you take even one of those things out of the process, the process collapses. The body breathes, the mind tells the body how to breathe, and breathing keeps the mind and body alive.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Once you get to Vipassana, you can go through the entire chain of dependent arising by investigating the breath and the mind/body that breathes.
We can do whatever we want with the breath. We can control it, stretching out each inhale and exhale to help us relax. We can observe it as it is, as it comes and goes without willful interference. We can count it, we can inhale positive feelings and exhale negative ones or vice-versa. We can visualize it filling the body and then encompassing the body. We can focus on it at the nostrils, the abdomen, or the whole body.
No matter what we do with it, the point of tranquil abiding meditation is to attend to it as if it’s the center of the universe, as if it’s something precious that we can’t live without—because it is. We’re letting go of everything so that we can totally embrace, and be embraced by, the breath as if it’s our only child.
So many of the rules and regulations the Buddha handed down to monks were designed to help them focus on the breath. It’s easy to lose the breath when we’re drunk, rocking out a concert, super comfortable in a luxurious bed, filled with hatred, lust, envy, or trying to jump through hoops to cover up a lie we’ve told.
Buddhist ethics were designed to help us keep the breath, to keep mindfulness and concentration healthy. They also protect us from the backlashes we might face in response to the stupid shit we do. It’s tough to watch the breath when you’re being chased by the cops for stealing someone’s Rolex.
To meditate well means we have to craft a life that’s hospitable to meditation, we have to make room to breathe. Without that, it’s an uphill battle.