Let’s consider the breath for a bit. Nothing is as vital to life as breath, yet we take it for granted and breathe unconsciously. This is probably for the best, for when breath is regulated or made the object of concentration; it tends to become rough and uneven. A self-conscious breath is never natural.
Do not confuse breath with Chi or Prana; they are not the same, though they do interact. Later, we will examine Chi in detail, but right now we are concerned with the staff of life, breath. Breath, blood and spirit are a mystic trio that the metaphysically minded might want to meditate on.
Breath and thought are connected. When, in deepest meditation, breath seems to cease, there is no thought. Conversely, worried thoughts will bring on a harshness of breathing. So we can affect our state of mind by working with the breath. Pranayama is one of the five preliminary steps of Raja Yoga, the kingly all-inclusive Yoga. It is the Science of Breath. Drastic alterations of the breath, including forced retention, will help bring about a quieting of the mind, along with the other four preliminaries – Yama (conduct, the don’ts), Niyama (attitude, the do’s), Asana (postures and mudras), and Pratyahara (withdrawing the senses from the fields of the senses). When one is disturbed, counting breaths or clicking the teeth slowly will restore equanimity.
Observing the breath is a good way to note the thought process. Carried to an extreme, one will note that thoughts seem to have a life of their own and can be observed dispassionately without disturbing them. In deep concentration on a problem, or when the mind becomes one-pointed in meditation, we tend to hold the breath, making it easier to keep the concentration. Before entering into important work, or before creative endeavor, one might be wise to regulate the breath a bit.
The first thing we are going to do is to sit quietly, in any position as long as the back is straight, and count our out-breaths to 50 – not the in-breaths, only the out-breaths. Be sure to keep the eyes open. Such breath counting with the eyes closed can lead to a state of meditative immersion, and such is not our goal at this time.
After finishing this counting of the breaths (do not alter the natural breath in any way), we will sit back and click our teeth together slowly and evenly ten times. Then we will repeat the clicking ten more times.
By now the breath is probably smooth and even. We will now just observe the breath for a period of time, noting whether each breath is short or long, and whether it is rough or smooth. Remember, we try to keep the breathing process as natural as possible.
The above takes quite a bit of concentration, so it would be good at this point to quietly relax without talking. Talking will stir up the thought process. This is why I could never understand why those who take a vow of silence then proceed to communicate with pencil and paper. This is not silence; the thought processes are just as active as they would be from speech.
After a brief respite, we do the following: after every three or four breaths we will hold our breath at the bottom of the cycle (out breath) and just rest there. Next time we will hold our breath after the in-breath and just rest there. We do not introspect, examine or think in any way; we just hold the breath as long as comfortable.
∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞
Great secrets lie in the space between breaths. Perhaps we will intuit them from this exercise. It is too much to expect one to notice the spaces at the top and bottom, between in-breaths and out-breaths, on every inhalation and exhalation – though this would be a marvelous discipline. Only a seasoned Yogi could do that.
During the periods of breath retention we may become aware of the body currents. Remember, blood is flowing through the arteries and the veins, the heart is beating in and out, and the Chi (Vital Force) is either coursing through the meridian channels or is blocked in doing so. To highly aware individuals there is life coursing through every inch of the cosmos. Watching the breath is the gateway – the first step toward such realization. We also watch the breath to become conscious of the body. Strangely, it is the best means to achieve body consciousness.
Just as we will later become aware of our mental life, so do we first want to know we have a body that is alive and functioning. It is our vehicle for experiencing. Those beliefs that degrade the body would seem to be completely wrong, and this includes the myriads that mortify the body in India. To reach higher levels, we must use the body and keep it healthy and alert. There is nothing ignoble about body consciousness; any more than there is about spiritual consciousness.
Please do not think of awareness as merely sensory awareness. When one comes out of really deep meditation and consciously reconstructs the world (perhaps incredible to those who have not had the experience), there is no desire to move or talk, just to rest and feel the heightened livingness flowing through us.
One of the writer’s strongest experiences came when he sat silent, cross-legged, in a farmhouse in Gujarat, India, about a foot from and opposite a Yogi who had just emerged from several days of Samadhi, the so-called super conscious state. There was no need for talk (we didn’t speak a common language anyhow) as this tremendous flow of high vibrational life energy flowed from the Yogi to this writer. It was overpowering, the kind of thing that brings tears to the eyes.
An incident that happened to the writer some years ago gave him a chance to test his spiritual practice in a delicate situation, and it became an excellent vehicle for practicing the Satipatthana meditation, which will appear later in this book. I was visiting a former animal trainer who now kept an animal farm where circuses and other groups and individuals could leave large animals and have them treated with consideration.
A companion went with me to the animal farm. He was a rather gruff man and one, I was to find, whom the animals didn’t trust or readily take to. Perhaps he had hidden violence in his makeup. As we entered the grounds, we passed a fence with chicken wire over it, making an enlarged cage within. There rested a pet puma (mountain lion) that the trainer had raised almost from birth. (The mother had eaten its twin, and the trainer had sneaked the day-old baby out of the cage before it had a similar fate.) He had seen the man I was with before and evidently had a violent aversion to him. As we walked by, he sprang at the chicken wire, coming directly at us. The experience was exactly like that of a large wild animal pouncing on us in the wilderness, and it all seemed to happen in slow motion. I was amazed at the beauty and grace of the pouncing animal, and also noticed my own reaction in detail. My breath remained calm and natural, and there was no fear (obviously we were safe), only admiration for the magnificent spectacle, though I was totally unprepared for such a happening.
Later the trainer brought the mountain lion inside, without any restraint, and sat him down in the kitchen with his dinner, two dead chickens. I was sitting on a couch in the living room and, before eating, the animal looked squarely at me for about half a minute. Then, having determined that I was no threat to him, he looked down and began to eat. He never paid any attention to me again.
After the mountain lion had finished eating, the trainer, whom the animal loved as a mother, directed him into the bedroom. As he walked through the living room, this 190-pound mountain lion, which could kill a horse, brushed against my leg but never looked up. After many years of spiritual practice I watched my own reactions with interest, my breath and state of mind particularly. Physically and mentally, the animal did not inspire fear in me; it was obvious he was sensitive to vibration and mine gave him no trouble. This was a mini Satipatthana exercise.
To return to our practice and sum up, we will do the following:
1. Count our out-breaths to 50;
2. Click our teeth, slowly and evenly, ten times and then ten times again;
3. Just observe the breaths, to see whether they are short or long and rough or smooth;
4. Take a brief respite;
5. After several breaths, hold the bottom of the cycle (after out breath) for a comfortable length of time; then, after several more breaths, hold the top of the cycle (after in-breath) for a short time.
During all this, we may sit in meditative pose, on a chair or in any way we like as long as the backbone is straight. This whole routine would not be a bad one to practice before any difficult or creative task.