Breathing & Happiness
Structural Integration specialist, Mary Bond, says of breathing, “There is no one correct way to breathe.” (I always listen very carefully to what Mary says; she speaks from deepest mastery, dispensing wisdom nuggets in manageable doggie bag size.) What I take from her remark is liberation from the urge to control. It seems that the minute we become aware of Autonomic Nervous System functions like heartbeat or breathing which normally chug along unnoticed, we launch into spasms of controlling-ness and self-criticism. Mary’s comment says, exactly, that we need not make one way right and another wrong yet does not infer stuffing awareness of our breathing back into the closet of unconsciousness. In Dancemeditation, our breathing instigates, inspires, and supports dancing. As well, breathing is its own kind of dancing as a variable as any other kind of movement with as many shapes, timbres, paces, and efforts. Mary Bond would call these ‘special breaths.’ I call them Breath Dances.
Vernacular Breathing and Meditation Breathing
Runners pant in concert with the slap, slap of their feet—an even, rhythmic in, out, in, out. With swimming, the breath cycle is disproportionate: the in-breath is a gulp and the out-breath elongated, spanning several strokes. It is the same for singing. Quick inhale and sing out and out and out. Some talkers chat nonstop and you wonder, ”When are they inhaling amidst all those exhaled words?” The other day I took a walk with a friend. We trudged up a long hill pushing our pulmonary limits, the huffing and puffing altering the cadence of our conversation. This sort of breathing—what I call vernacular breathing—supports activity. Then we come to meditation where breathing is the topic.
In meditation, breathing is neither random nor natural. Breathing practices are specific, variable, nuanced, honed. Breathing isn’t harnessed to make us better at an activity. From this foremost perspective, we unfold all other self-observation. In meditation, breathing is the fundamental ground.
The meditation breathing with which we are most familiar is zazen. Sit crosslegged, the spine upright, hands in a particular position, eyes closed or barely open with an unfocused gaze, and breathe. Sometimes the instruction is simply, “ Be aware of your breathing.” Sometimes the instruction is more detailed: “Focus on the in-breath” or “Concentrate on the in-breath passing through the gate of your nostrils.” There are many subtle variants. ‘Be aware’, ‘focus’, and ‘concentrate’ suggest varying shades of effort. For me, ‘be aware’ is wide and gentle while ‘concentrate’ feels dense and singular. The physical stillness of zazen makes breathing easier to locate and perceive. In my experience, sitting still and watching my breathing, or more particularly, watching the procession of in-breaths entering the nostril gates, encourages my respiration to unfurl its wide wings like an eagle rising into the sky, as if the watching has liberated breathing’s beauty. When I draw attention to my body’s relentless toil, I am awestruck by its magnificence.
Moving and Breathing
In Dancemeditation, we move with closed eyes on our blanket. What we see with our inner gaze is complex. Muscles, nerves, bones, joints, arteries, veins, capillaries, fluids, organs, fascia, and dermis shift everywhere simultaneously in every motion. What do we attend to? The mind skitters. The instruction of exactly what movement to focus on can range from the specific to the permissive. The verbal instruction might be, “ Be aware of what you are doing. Be aware of your breathing.” The breathing is always there as we move deeper into interiority. Breathing, both leitmotif and centrality, disassembles the mind’s choo-choo train obsessiveness. In a while, we find an integral attentiveness by way of sensation and fall into the middle of the whole motion. Thought swings in and out of the movement and breath, catching a sense of our embodied poetry. Thoughts become bits of gold thread in the fabric of breathing.
In Breath Dances of Dancemeditation, we cleave the pace of our movement to the repetitions of breath cycles. This tempo ranges from rapid, to moderate, to slow and elongated. We sit or stand on our mat, eyes are closed. Strains of measured or unmeasured music fill our auditory field. We exhale, bending forward for four beats, then inhale and rise back up for four beats. The spine’s curl and uncurl slowly press air from the spongey lungs then let it rush back in. The symmetry of the breathing is determined by the symmetry of the motion, and both the tempo and the symmetry of the motion is determined by the tempo and symmetry of the music. As we observe our breathing with our inner gaze, it grows more elegant, less raggedy. Breathing slips its unruliness into this glove of restraint and if, at first, the chemical exchange in our blood makes this uncomfortable or even unattainable, at length we settle in. What we recognize as self—pulses, gushes, thoughts, spasms, impulses—loses its jive and jerk. In the less-apparent inside of our gradual deceleration, our brain waves’ vertiginous peaks and valleys subside, growing long and shallow. There we are—our brain in another state. The mind trails the body’s steady walk through the forest of time, the last to notice what has happened in the blood river touched by the lung bellows and the sway of the willow spine.
Of course it isn’t just our brain that has changed; our entire biochemistry has shifted. Attentive breath-woven motion navigates us from an unconsciousness fraught with cortisol and alpha waves into a lagoon of beta, theta, omega with its lush lapping of endorphin, seratonin, and dopamine. Such medical words. Mystics through the centuries have called these by other names—elixir, the jewel in the heart, the secret rose garden. The message, however, is the same: movement and breathing carry us from one world to another.
Breathing and Happiness
For a week it rained a cold rain. Gloom sat on me. My morning tea tasted flat. Over many years, I have refined my morning ritual which both caffeinates me and initiates my day. I place two spoonfuls of Red Label, a fine cut orange pekoe tea, and one heaping spoonful of Lapsang Souchong in a silver teapot. I boil water and pour it still burbling into the teapot, let it steep for five minutes under a tea cozy, then decant it into a bone china teacup, where I’ve already made a sweet mix of milk and stevia. I read and write over the course of 45 minutes consuming the entire 8-cup pot. How could my morning tea let me down? Nothing had tasted good for many days. I kept eating different things, seeking satisfaction. It was the betrayal by my morning nectar that shocked me. Was taste such an unreliable sense? I subscribe to the notion that ‘the body knows what it needs’. With food this means, if I eat food with the right nutritional component, I will feel satisfied. This is probably a myth, almost as shaky as the notion that the consumption of beautifully arranged luxury food designed to seduce our appetites will be a righteous route to satisfaction.
Then I conducted a Dancemeditation session at the local library. The next morning, I felt at ease and untangled, various bits of anxiety at bay. I was happy, and—this was a relief—my morning tea once again tasted delicious. There is a biochemistry in happiness. When I am happy every taste is satisfying, not the other way around. Topsy-turvy. Rather than ‘Eat to get Happy’—the mantra of our desire-inflamed society—try instead ‘Get happy and enjoy eating (and everything else)’.
How, then, do I come by my happiness? I looked back on the recent Dancemeditation session. What did we do? Rocking, some slow-ish Rhythmic Breathing with movement, Rest. The next day I am happy. What happened? My biochemistry changed. On the page that looks stupidly dry. And overly simplistic. Yet, honestly, that’s all that happened. All those special breaths really are very special. They aren’t special like a diamond ring, not a once-in-a-while special. They are every day, everywhere, always there special, and in noting them, paying attention to them, letting their wings open, I discerned and aligned with an infinitely available magic. It is a field of specialness, and so natural and abundant we could consider it ordinary except that it isn’t. It is miraculous. Breathing. Inhaling. Exhaling. So complex. So well-measured. So functional. So inherent. Special breaths are as special and ubiquitous as the beat of birds’ wings and the turns of the Earth. When we see them, feel them, and come into them they bring happiness. Within our ordinariness, the non-ordinary awaits.
I relax. I do a mini-reset, exit my inner rat race. Calm down, feel where I am, who I am, what I am. (Usually in that sequence.) I grow neutral and undefined. And now, conjured from the flatness of ordinariness, is the glisten of the non-ordinary. Non-ordinariness is littered with happiness.
This piece contains an excerpt from my new book, ‘Dancing into the Deep: When Dance is Your Meditation.’ Coming soon!
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