Questioning the Breath

We don’t need to go off picking everything apart or cultivating some kind of all-encompassing God-mind. If we can grok one thing, just one, then that’s enough.

For a lot of us, that one thing is gonna be breathing. I’ve also recommended the moon before. I don’t believe in digging around in our minds, not anymore.

More often than not, that ends up being a bottomless rabbit hole full of false insights and grasping at clouds. At least for me.

That said, since I practice Chan, inquiry is a vital part of the method. I’m not just concentrating on the breath, but doing it with an inquisitive mindset. When I breathe, I ask, “What was that? Who did that? Who’s breathing? What is breathing?” Not trying to come up with an answer, but to intuit it, to feel it.

Yaoshan once asked his student, Daowu, “Where have you been?”
“Walking on the mountain,” Daowu replied.
“Answer without leaving this room!”

That’s the mindset we need. Some of my favorite gong-ans are, “What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you do? Where are you going?” The same questions we’d ask if we were interviewing someone for a job, or engaging in small talk.

Without leaving this room, without letting our minds wander to the past, future, and other places, how do we answer? Without leaving this room, “Who am I?”

If you hesitate, you get a whack from the Zen stick. If you try to analyze it or be clever, you get a whack. This is the 21st Century West, so we can’t really go around hitting people with sticks anymore. I’ll settle for a bean bag or stress ball.

“Without leaving this room, where are you from?”
“Uhh-” BAM! Stress ball right on the fucking forehead. No stock replies or abstract reasoning around here. It’s the heart that answers, our true nature. Who we really are, and who we are is in this room, creating and being created by this room.

The breath is in this room as well, you won’t find it anywhere else. There’s only ever this breath, there’s no next breath or last breath outside of memory and imagination.

When we concentrate and inquire about the breath, it’s the whole breath we’re looking to for answers. How often are we aware of the whole breath? Aware of it from the moment it streams into our nostrils, to the moment of rest?

The mind doesn’t have to be an empty, thoughtless void. It’s the subject of our thoughts that’s important. We’re not thinking about our day at work, or how much we like strawberry preserves, or soccer practice tomorrow—we’re asking questions, we’re thinking Dharma.

It’s possible to switch off thought altogether. If you do it once, you can do it at the drop of a dime just by intending to not think. That’s great in a pinch when thoughts are exacerbating anxiety or depression, but it’s relatively useless outside of that.

The eyes recognize sights, the ears recognize sounds, the mind recognizes thoughts. While practicing, the point isn’t to intentionally nullify sense objects, but to not dwell on them, to question them.

So we start a dialogue with our experiences. In an anapanasati context, that experience is the breath. This is all about intimacy, that’s how wisdom is unearthed in practice. We’re intimate with the breath. Concentration, fascination, devotion, and curiosity are all part of intimacy.

If we can just unlock the mysteries of the breath, then there’s no mystery in general since the breath abides by the same nature that everything else does as well.

In short, we’re falling in love with the breath. An open love, devoid of greed. Because we can’t be greedy with the breath, can we? With each exhale, we’re giving it away to everything else in the room.

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