Thursday, February 01, 2007

Deciding to Breathe Out

The first (possibly the only?) true decision I make every day is to breathe out.

The process of getting out of bed, drinking a glass of water, stumbling to the bathroom, putting on the robe, and sitting on the zafu, seems to operate more or less on automatic pilot.

At the beginning of my sitting on the zafu I am invariably worrying about some problem -- for example, some aspect of Buddhist philosophy, or money, or my relationship with Gudo Nishijima, or who the hell is getting the royalties from my Shobogenzo translation now that Gudo and and some of his students have made my translation available, independently of me, through a new publisher, not Windbell. (The worries in this particular set of worries are not entirely independent of each other.)

Worrying, it seems to me, is a combination of feeling and thinking -- in both cases, of the wrong kind. The feeling associated with worry is not unbiased sensory input but rather emotional like and dislike. The thinking associated with worry is not constructive conscious wishing but rather intellectual worrying, thinking about.

Notwithstanding the fact that worrying is such an evil habit, I am prone to devote long periods to it. Marjory Barlow once said to me: “Mike, you are an inveterate worrier, aren’t you?” Then she added: “I know, because I am too.”

The next stage in my sitting practice -- which in truth is not a clearly defined next stage but tends to alternate and intermingle with the worry mode -- is to be open to sensory feedback regarding how I am. How are the feet and legs in relation to the pelvis? How are the hands and arms? How is my sitting posture? How is the relation between my ears and shoulders, nose and navel? How is the tongue, including its deeper connections inside me, and its connection to my palate? How are the lips, teeth, and eyes? I observe the breath passing through the nostrils.

The great difficulty in this phase, the phase of conscious feeling or sensory awareness, is just to notice, just to pay attention, not to react to what is felt by doing something to try and change it directly. Because such trying is also a kind of worrying. As Alexander said, “When you think you’re feeling you’re doing.”

So I sit there noticing what a terrible mess I am in and resisting the temptation to do anything about it -- “non-interfering” if you like. The decision not to do, not to interfere, is a kind of decision. A negative decision.

Still, it is half past seven already, and I have not yet acted upon any positive decision.

In Fukan-zazen-gi Shinpitsu-bon, which he wrote in his twenties, Master Dogen instructs us, having regulated or stabilized the physical form, also to regulate the breathing. He doesn’t indicate how to regulate the breathing.

In Fukan-zazengi Rufu-bon, the edition which he revised later, and also in Shobogenzo chap. 48, Zazengi, which he wrote in 1243, aged 43, Master Dogen’s instruction is more specific, represented by four Chinese characters: KAN KI ICHI SOKU. KAN means lack. KI means breath or oxygen. ISSOKU (=ICHI + SOKU) means one breath. So literally “lack oxygen for one breath.” In other words, breathe out fully.

FM Alexander, in his early teaching career, was known as “the breathing man.” He was the bloke that actors and reciters went to see if they ran into difficulties with their breathing. Later FM came to regard respiration as a secondary matter -- secondary to the primary matter which he saw as the dynamic interrelation between the head and the rest of the body (his famous “primary control”). But Alexander did strongly advocate one particular procedure to re-train the breathing, which he called the whispered ah. Apparently he said that, if you do it well, there is nothing you can do that does you more good than a whispered ah.

In order to do a whispered ah well (or not quite so badly as the last time you did it), a whole series of preparatory directions are necessary to wake up the respiratory organ. I won’t go into those directions here. Suffice to say two things:

(1) The respiratory organ, now when we investigate it, might include the whole of me and more besides.

(2) The essence of the procedure is to make a definite decision to perform a long, slow, controlled exhalation, and then, subsequently, having observed a time gap (i.e. of milli-seconds, seconds, or minutes) between stimulus and response... to allow the response and deliberately breathe out fully.

If you practice this every day you will find that, even before the long exhalation takes place, just the decision itself makes a difference to the breathing. The breathing is regulated not only by the action of breathing out fully, but also by the prior decision to breathe out fully.

What I am writing now is not, as Gudo seems to fear, “Alexander theory.” This is what I have observed, investigated and experienced in my own daily efforts to get to the bottom of Fukan-zazen-gi.

FM Alexander was never a theorist first; he was a practitioner first. When Gudo perceives a threat to Gautama Buddha's true teaching from so-called “Alexander theory,” I think that Gudo may just be looking into a mirror and manifesting Gudo’s own fear of an overly-theoretical tendency within Gudo himself.

FM Alexander understood 100 years ago, as Zen Master Dogen had understood 650 years before him, not a theory but a very salient and universal human fact: Breathing out is important. And the instruction to breathe out fully once, to make one full exhalation, gives us a concrete opportunity to practice making a decision.

Acting upon this decision, sometimes, seems to act as a bridge from reliance on feeling to reliance on what is different from feeling.

It seems to me that this decision to breathe out, followed by a considered, non-habitual response to this decision, followed by the action of breathing out, can sometimes help to initiate the act of just sitting as a spontaneous process -- like the priming of a pump initiating the flow of water as a spontaneous process, as described by the second law of thermodynamics.

This procedure, it seems to me, offers a concrete way, a compassionate means, whereby sitting-meditation may truly become sitting-meditation.

The wish for freedom in sitting, in this way, may become the act of sitting in freedom.

This kind of wishing is not something that has to be learned. The whole body is thoroughly familiar with it already, and has been so since ancient times. But if you want to study it, study it for example in a two-year old girl asking, from the core of her being, for apple juice.

4 Comments:

Blogger Pete, an ordinary bloke. said...

What about a smile? Is there a place for smiling in zazen? As part of the preparation I was told to think of something that made me smile before whispering “ah”. If I think of something funny that my two year old grand daughter has said I can’t help chuckling. The image of an old geezer chuckling away on a zafu, pretending not to be trying to achieve, brings a smile to my face. Ah!
When my granddaughter catches me with a troubled look on my face she says ”Grandpa, don’t you worry you sweet little thing.”
So Mike, don’t you worry you sweet little thing.
Easier said than done, don’t you think?
Pete

Thursday, February 01, 2007  
Blogger Jordan & The Tortoise said...

I was too limited.
Two-year old girl asking, from the core of her being, for apple juice, without the five aggregates.

Boo. Just words.

The five aggregates make it easier to explain, easier to understand.

What is not dependant?

Thursday, February 01, 2007  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, Pete.

Yes, smiling is a topic worthy of investigating -- in, for example:

A grandpa’s smile of true compassion.

The smiley face of fake compassion (-:

An enlightened smile spontaneously breaking a face.

The twinkling eyes and grim face of a player of 3-card brag who is holding three aces.

Master Dogen doesn’t specifically mention smiling in Fukan-zazen-gi. But (yes, you spotted the relevant bit) he tells us to revere a person who is beyond study and spontaneous. I think that being spontaneous includes the meaning of not doing any of the above kinds of smile.

In short, yes, I agree absolutely, spontaneity is an easy word to write but an utterly impossible thing to do.

Friday, February 02, 2007  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, Jordan.

Thinking about the five aggregates is the kind of thinking about, or worrying, that Master Dogen recommended us in Fukan-zazen-gi to stop. The thinking he recommended us to practice, in his instruction, “Think that state beyond thinking,” is another kind of thinking altogether.

Whatever it is that you think the five aggregates make easier to explain and easier to understand, is not it.

Shit on the five aggregates, Jordan, and learn from your daughter. Her wisdom these days is evidently brighter than your own.

Friday, February 02, 2007  

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