In zazen, breath is an important teacher. One of the first things you learn in zazen is to concentrate on your breath in a steady way. Learning to concentrate on anything in a steady way isn’t easy. Most people who try meditating for the first time figure that out in about four minutes. I chuckle when someone says, “I can’t meditate. I tried it once and my mind just wouldn’t stop spinning.” I chuckle because it’s like saying, “I can’t run a marathon. I tried it once, but I ran out of breath and my legs gave out.” It’s possible that some people have strong meditative concentration naturally, but for everyone else, it’s just training. Like running. You have to be shown how and then work at it.
But if you really do pay attention to your breath, you learn a lot. Speaking practically, there is an actual payoff in meditation. In Zen, we say we just sit, not with any gaining idea in mind. That’s right, because any active gaining idea will intrude on your meditation. You’ll keep asking yourself, “How am I doing? Is this going well?” etc. But nobody sits without some notion that it’s going to be helpful, wholesome, useful, in some way. And it is.
First, you develop concentration. Usually, the ability to concentrate is dependent on the object of concentration. If the object is compelling – a playoff World Series tied-up in the 9th inning, news about a loved one in an ICU– then concentration is intense naturally. It’s a kind of reactive concentration, in that the intensity of the object dials up the intensity of concentration. But the concentration that develops in meditation is proactive concentration. It doesn’t depend on a particular or special object. It depends on your intention and effort.
One aspect of this kind of concentration is the ability to focus steadily on one thing for a stretch of time – on any one thing, like your breath for example – without being distracted by thoughts or sensations or external stimuli. That’s good. A companion aspect of this concentration is the ability to notice when you are distracted from your breath and to return to it. The important part here is noticing that you’ve been distracted, then returning. The distraction isn’t a problem or a mistake. This is hard for many people to get. You tend to think, “Oh, I’m distracted again. I suck at this!”
But both aspects of concentration are part of meditation. If you think uninterrupted concentration – essentially getting lost in breath – is good meditation and being interrupted by thoughts and sensations and returning to breath is less good, it’s not like that. In Zen, both are part of meditation and both are important. The uninterrupted kind of concentration can have a timeless, restful, blissful quality. It’s nice. But developing the noticing aspect of meditation – a more self-conscious engagement with your awareness – where all kinds of material arises and your attention is spacious enough to notice it without getting caught by it, is how meditation permeates and nourishes your daily life of work and relationships. If every bit of your awareness is concentrated on your breath all the time, you can’t do anything.
So the initial role of breath is to help with a convergence of attention. All your attention converges on your breath. But that’s not all that’s going on. Because as you’re doing this, you’re also stepping into a domain of consciousness flavored in part by the attributes of breath, and this is a domain that’s different from your usual mental state. For example, breath has no past or future in the way your thoughts and feelings do. Thoughts and feelings are stitched to past experiences and to future thoughts and feelings, to memories, fears, anxieties, wishes, fantasies, and so forth. Breath is really not. Any given breath is really just right now.
Of course each breath follows the breath before and precedes the breath that comes next, but when you’re attending to this breath, the breath before and the next breath really don’t enter into it, even at the edges of your attention. You’re not wondering, “What will the next breath be like?” Or, “That last breath was fascinating.” This breath didn’t come from some other time and isn’t headed anywhere next. So each breath by its nature has a quality of both immediacy and timelessness.
Likewise, this breath is happening right here. You can have a thought about somewhere else, but not a breath about somewhere else. What’s more, this breath is entirely your breath. It’s not someone else’s and even though we’re all breathing together, your breath is entirely and thoroughly you and yours. It’s the breath of your life. And unless you have difficulty breathing, breath itself is essentially free from suffering and uncolored by emotion. And it’s both involving and effortless at the very same time. It’s also something you do perfectly. In our Zen way of meditating, you don’t need to breathe better. You’re great at it right from the start.
These are some of the qualities of breath that contribute to a climate of consciousness and attention in meditation that’s different from what’s usually going on in your head. It’s a climate marked by presence, neutrality, ease, timelessness, and quiet. You enter this space through the door of breath and these qualities are subtly nourishing to you in the same way vitamins provide subtle and essential nourishment.
But please remember that attention to breath is just one aspect of meditation. Please remember that the practice of Zen meditation is not a quest to find objects of meditation that make for the most enjoyable or the most peaceful zazen. Then, meditation becomes something more like a drug and you’re on a quest for the best cocktail – just a pinch of cocaine sprinkled on my hashish is perfect!
The nature and effects of the various contents of awareness in meditation are part of what you get to know, understand, and appreciate. Some of what you pay attention to is pleasurable and some is not. But as you continue to practice zazen, the convergent attention that you develop with breath will shift, enlarge, and become more divergent, expansive, inclusive, and panoramic. The contents of awareness, breath included, will recede and you will make the acquaintance of awareness itself. But that’s another topic.