Thursday, February 18, 2010

Anapanasati and Trampolines


We really must fix or replace our camera. So many beautiful or memorable pictures I have not been able to show you, dear reader; so it goes.

On Saturday, the Mrs. and I were headed up to the town of Truth or Consequences to pick up my car, and somewhere off the road I spied a trampoline that had been set to rest on a hillside, and I remarked on the bravery and coordination it would take to leap on a trampoline set at such an angle. It was a striking image and a tempting symbol of the difficult balancing acts with which life presents us.

One of the Buddha's basic prescriptions for us was mindful breathing, a conscious technique to bring awareness to the process of breathing in and out. In Pali, this was anapanasati. The techniques were expropriated from yoga. The technique was this simple: a silent repetition with the in-breath ("Now I am breathing in, a long breath") and on the exhale ("Now I am breathing out, a long breath"). At Providence Zen Center, I was originally taught to meditate this way, repeating "Clear mind, clear mind, clear mind" while breathing in, and "Don't know" while breathing out.

In the Sattipatthana Sutta this is elaborated in great detail, into a detailed and lengthy course of training. There is a danger that one's mind can objectify technique and start obsessing over it -- Am I doing this right? What about now? What about now? This is not mindfulness; this is losing one's mind in constant checking.

Technique should work like a vitamin; we should swallow it and let it do its thing. Practicing some technique until we can forget about it, but it's still working. I think of the way Zen Master Seung Sahn always returned to repeating his dharani when he wasn't speaking.

Returning to awareness requires a willingness to feel whatever we are feeling, to face whatever our situation is presenting to us. The breath is a powerful ally, and it's always sitting there, repeating itself until the day it stops. When irritation arises in my classroom, I can fall back on my breath and it catches me. When physical discomfort arises, I can fall back on the breath. When I feel sad, as I so often do, I fall back on the breath and it is there when nothing else seems stable.

It's the great trampoline, often sitting there at a peculiar angle owing to whatever situation I've got myself into; but it is there. I don't follow scripted repetitions for the in-breath and out-breath anymore (although I do repeat a dharani during the day); tasting the breath, feeling it in my nose, chest, and belly, even my toes, this is enough.

Coming home, falling down, falling back up.

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